Ever since I started my new teaching job in the fall, it’s been hard for me to take a whole Saturday or Sunday to visit my mom, so I steal time away when I can to sit with her for an hour or so. My school in the Bronx isn’t that far from the Hebrew Home, so I will sometimes get into a Lyft at the end of a day and go over.
So much happens between our visits — in my own crowded brain, if not in her life — that when I arrive I sometimes don’t recognize her. She is aging, like all of us, and changing, becoming smaller in stature and more hunched over, receding into the background as the disease takes over her brain.
It was eight years ago this month that she began to show major symptoms, eight years since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I’ve watched it steal little bits of her brain, throwing her into moments of terror and hours of desolation as she lost track of what she was trying to do, or of what her life meant. I’ve also watched it wipe away worry and anger and resentment, freeing her from the prison that her brain could sometimes be. Alzheimer’s is all-consuming. But it isn’t all bad.
Today, she is sleeping in a chair when I arrive, in a line of women sitting in front of a window, the sun streaming in. It’s such a basic pleasure, napping in the sun, and she is totally into it. The woman sitting next to her gets up to give me her chair, and as I look down, I see that my mom is wearing a dress. My mom never wears a dress. Not in the almost 50 years that I’ve been alive.
But as change goes, my mom in a dress is not that big a deal.
I take her hand and stroke it, give her a kiss on the cheek. She doesn’t stir. I smooth out her hair, whisper into her ear, lightly squeeze her arm, rest my hand on her neck, touch her shoulder, and give her a slight shake. She doesn’t move.
“You know,” says a lady sitting close by, “I never noticed until just now how much you look like her.” I nod. It’s true. The lady who says this doesn’t really know us, has no history with us, but it’s still true.
“Your mom is a trooper,” she says.
I agree with her as I look down at my mom, who is intent on staying asleep, impervious to my attempts to wake her.
“I don’t know how old she is,” the lady says, “but she’s good.”
“She’s 90,” I say.
“Well, good for her. We should all be so good when we’re that age.”
“Yes,” I say.
My mother still doesn’t move.
“Let her rest,” says the lady, and I nod, having given up trying to rouse her. I put my head on her chest to make sure she’s breathing. She is.
“You know,” says the lady, “I never noticed until just now how much you look like her.”
“I don’t know how old she is,” the lady says, “but she’s doing good.”
“She’s 90,” I say.
“Wow. We should all be so good at that age.”
I haven’t forgotten that I’m on an Alzheimer’s unit.
I have not been sleeping well myself lately, with all of my worries about work and school and changing careers, not to mention my hot flashes, a new experience for me. My mom is doing the sleeping for me, it seems. I am happy for her.
She stays asleep for a long time, and when she wakes, she acts as if she is crawling out of a deep cave. Her voice is muffled, and only some of her words can be heard.
“Uh so I don’t ghhh mmm try that,” she says. I put my head close to hers and try to hear her, and it becomes clear that only some of her sounds are actually words.
But the sounds gradually get louder and clearer. And a few more words come out.
We sit there for a little while, and she holds my hand and kisses it. She doesn’t really know who I am — I know because I ask — and she can’t tell me what she’s thinking, not in a way I can understand. And she’s long past asking me about my life.
But still, some things pass between us. Love, for sure, and some kind of knowing. But I can’t put it into words.