Losing My Mother
How do you tell your mother she’s sick—really sick—when you don’t want to believe it yourself?
It’s 1974. I’m thirty-three, married to Henry, with two children—Laurie (five) and Mike (two). My mother-in-law is visiting from Miami, and my mother has driven over from Rock Hill. The three of us are eating turkey sandwiches at my kitchen table in Charlotte. I live in a brick split-level on a street of brick split-levels, all with the same floor plan. The whole neighborhood, in fact, is a looping string of brick split-levels with identical floor plans. Like a toy neighborhood. The front yards are bare except for newly planted willow oak saplings, some straight, some tilting. The day we moved in, I started reading the classifieds again, looking for a house with surprises, a little history and soul. Why did we buy this one? Maybe because the attic fan makes the air smell like the house I grew up in, on Eden Terrace. Maybe because this house was affordable. Maybe because it’s only one neighborhood away from—and looks just like—Brenda’s.
My mother-in-law, a widow for three years and still so weepy she wears sunglasses indoors, is talking about buying a condominium. When her husband was alive, they lived in an apartment. She still rents but suspects she’s throwing her money away. Mother joins her in weighing renting vs. owning.
When Mother comes to the word condominium, she stumbles.
“If you buy a con-do-nim-i-um…,” she says, not able to unroll the syllables.
I take a big bite of my sandwich. The bread sticks to the roof of my mouth.
Mother is determined. She lights a cigarette, takes a puff. “I mean, con-do-nim-i-um…”
She stops and starts again. “A condo… ,” she says. “Condo…Uh, a condo…”
Now she’s silent, staring out the window at a bush in the backyard as if she’s rummaging around in its leaves for the word.
I swallow. “Condominium, Mother.”
Why is this bright, articulate woman who was the only female studying to be a C.P.A. at the University of South Carolina in the 1920s, who kept the books for my father’s stores for years, who finishes a crossword puzzle every morning, who loves books, loves writing letters—why is she having such difficulty connecting the vowels and consonants of this ordinary noun?
There are other troubling signs. When we stop by the grocery store, she manages to pay with the right number of dollar bills. But then she dumps all the change from her wallet into her hand—dimes, quarters, pennies loose as copper fish—and holds out her palm for the checkout girl to take what she needs.
I blame everything on her age: she’s sixty-five. Of course, our parents are always old to us, even when they’re not. How else to explain her confusion, withdrawal, what seems to be depression, the way her feelings get hurt way too easily? My older sister Brenda says the problem is that Mother can’t cope with losing her beauty. Brenda’s assessment irritates me. It makes Mother sound so shallow. As though Brenda is saying, That sweet person, Peggy Kurtz, whom everyone adores? She’s not really so sweet. All she cares about are her looks. I know the real her.
Brenda’s theory denies the most central part of our mother. She was beautiful. In fact, she’s still beautiful. But if she weren’t, it would not matter one bit to her. Her concern has never been herself.
I want to tell Brenda how wrong she is.
I want to tell Brenda her judgment of Mother feels like a judgment of me. That’s how gauzy the border is between Mother and me. As though Brenda could also be saying, That sweet person, Judy? She’s not really so sweet. I know the real her.
The next time I’m with my father, I report that Brenda is being impatient with Mother, and will he have a talk with her? (I know. I’m being a tattletale.) But he takes Brenda’s side, says that he, too, feels impatient at times, which surprises me, considering his legendary devotion to Mother. “Peggy can’t unlock the door leading from the garage into the house,” he tells me. “She just gives up. She doesn’t even try.” The first time it happened, she tried to fit the key in the lock, turned it this way and that, kept poking the key into the brass surround as though her fingers didn’t belong to her. Finally, she handed him the key and said, “Here, Bennie. You do it.”
Mother is certainly not purposely losing her ability to use a key. I tell him maybe she has arthritis. Or she’s tired, not getting enough sleep. Maybe she has a lot on her mind.
Brenda, Daddy, and I have three distinct interpretations of what we’re seeing, all reflecting our individual personalities and our differing relationships with Mother. But we have one thing in common: none of us wants to admit how sick she is.
One night, my father, Henry, and I are at Brenda and Chuck’s for dinner. Mother is in Columbia, visiting her sisters. Before we get to the table, before we even take off our coats—in the front hall, under that merciless light—we start comparing notes. Do you realize Mother can no longer look up numbers in the phone book? Have you noticed she now wears only pants with elastic waists, no buttons or zippers, easy to get on and off? How long has it been since she’s written a letter? The words are like matches striking.
Our father takes Mother to a neurologist in Charlotte. Days later, a receptionist calls Brenda with the diagnosis. The doctor doesn’t call. His nurse doesn’t call. His receptionist calls. And whom does she call? Not the patient. Not the patient’s husband. The patient’s daughter (who then, of course, calls me). Did the doctor not want to spring for a long-distance call from his office in Charlotte, North Carolina, to my parents in Rock Hill, South Carolina? Did he think the news was so bleak it didn’t warrant a face-to-face meeting with my parents? Here’s the problem. There’s nothing we can do about it. You’re on your own, folks.
Of course, Brenda and I don’t realize it’s easier to focus on the delivery of the news than the news itself. We’re too young, too inexperienced, to know we’re fixating on one small piece that will ultimately be beside the point, just so we can avoid burrowing down through grief.
Now we’re focusing—and disagreeing—on how the news will be delivered to our parents.
Brenda thinks we should tell our father first and let him decide how, when—whether—to tell Mother. I want to tell them together. After all, it’s her illness. Doesn’t she deserve to know? And doesn’t she deserve to know at the same time everyone else knows?
I tell Brenda what I think. She tells me what she thinks—again.
The final decision: Brenda will call our father, arrange for the two of us to meet him at Shoney’s in the Rock Hill Mall, where his stores are now, and she and I will tell him in person. Without Mother.
Normally, I don’t even notice I’m letting Brenda talk me into something. What’s new here is that I actually voice disagreement with her. I speak up! But it’s such risky behavior (she could get angry; she probably knows best anyway) that I quickly go silent, slip into her way of thinking as easily as I used to slip under the parrot-colored quilt on my childhood bed, next to hers.
Brenda pushes open the doors of Shoney’s and walks ahead. I hold back, wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness, spot our father alone in a booth near the back. He’s in his shirtsleeves. His brown tweed jacket is folded long, then short, beside him, and he already has his iced tea. He waves a small wave. It’s late afternoon, so the place is quiet, except for one table of waitresses near the front and their world-weary chatter.
My father slides out of the booth to give each of us a kiss. He’s cheery. So cheery, in fact, grinning his lopsided grin, that for a minute I can pretend we’re here to plan a glittery surprise birthday party for Mother. We’ll set up tables in my empty living room, freeze casseroles ahead. I’ll buy a new outfit.
But no. Brenda gets right down to business. We’re still positioning ourselves in the booth, she and I on one side, our father across, when she begins telling about the phone call from the doctor’s office.
I glance from our father to Brenda, one a shadow of the other. Their faces are roundish, nicely shaped, not long and thin like mine. I could sketch the profile they share, the way their foreheads slope outward and their noses turn up slightly. My father is a slim five-eleven. Brenda, a just-as-slim five-eight. Whenever I stand next to her, I’m struck by how tall she is. I’m under five-three. When we’re walking together, I can barely keep up with her long strides.
“The news about Mother isn’t good, Daddy. It’s Alzheimer’s disease. Mother has early-onset dementia.” Brenda’s words are close together and match her breaths. I can tell she’s trying to keep from crying. Her glasses are a little crooked, but she doesn’t bother straightening them. “There’s nothing they can do for her, so we have to prepare ourselves. It’s a neurological disorder that’ll only get worse.”
This is 1975. People know about senility but not Alzheimer’s disease. Rita Hayworth has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, is in magazines and newspapers everywhere, trying to raise public awareness of the disease. You can’t miss the anguish in her face, the look that says, Somebody, do something. This can’t be happening to my mother. She’s too beautiful. Too important.
“Mother will have more and more trouble remembering things,” Brenda is saying. None of us is taking a menu from the clip on the paper-napkin holder. I look at my father but can’t read his face. “She’ll get lost, even in familiar surroundings. Soon she won’t be able to recognize her own family. And she’ll become violent.”
I fiddle with an earring, try to decide if I should contradict my sister. Decide. “Well, she might become violent.”
Brenda contradicts me. “She will become violent.” And for backup: “That is what the lady from the doctor’s office said.”
And because the lady called Brenda, does that make Brenda captain of this illness?
“I understand,” I say, “that people who have Alzheimer’s disease lose their memory. What I have a hard time believing is that every single person with Alzheimer’s becomes violent.”
“Well, that is what I was told.”
“But by a receptionist!”
“Judy.” How does she manage to get across so much just by saying my name?
In my wildest dreams, I cannot imagine Mother being violent. What does violent even mean? Stomping her feet in a fit of temper? Bullying someone? Hitting? It’s not going to happen. I’d bet my life.
Again, Brenda’s assertion feels like a judgment of Mother. How can she be so sure Mother will become violent? Is she suggesting this is something she’s seen in Mother all along?
I’m jumping to conclusions, but I can’t help it.
A waitress comes over and asks if we’ve decided what we want. Her hair is brown and unruly. A waitress should not have unruly hair. Right now, I don’t want unruly anything.
“Water for me,” Brenda says.
“I’ll have water, too, please,” I say.
My father just sits there, fingering his jaw. After a few seconds, he stirs his tea, then tastes it. The waitress moves away, pushing in on the sides of her hair, as if that’ll do any good.
“They call this sweet tea?” he says to no one. The glass is sweating in his hand. “Mattie needs to come down here and give somebody lessons.”
He puts down the tea and closes his eyes. He doesn’t say another word. Brenda and I sit and wait. His palms are flat on the table.
Finally, eyes still closed, he says, “Well, let’s see what the Mayo Clinic has to say.”
So. He’s not accepting the diagnosis. Good. If he doesn’t buy it, none of us has to. We can unsee the troubling signs we’ve been seeing. What if we are making a big deal out of nothing? There are days when Mother seems fine. On the drive over to meet our father, I even said to Brenda, “I know lots of older women who are a little forgetful, and nobody is saying they have Alzheimer’s.”
Brenda kept her hands locked on the steering wheel. All she said was, “Judy.”
In our family, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is the final word on health. My parents flew there over the years with Mother’s two sisters and their husbands just to get checked out, as though it were some kind of luxury spa with lounge chairs beside a pool. Their first time, everyone but Mother got a “clean bill of health.” It turned out she needed thyroid surgery. I remember Mother and my aunts laughing about this, turning it into another family story: Peggy was the only one who hadn’t gone with a specific ailment, who’d been feeling fine, and she was the one who ended up needing an operation. Still, whatever the doctors at Mayo said was true; you could count on it.
This time, my parents fly to Mayo in the middle of winter—January—alone.
When they return, Henry and I pick them up at the Charlotte airport and drive them home to Rock Hill. Henry left his office early today (he’s an optometrist) so he can be with me when I hear the diagnosis. That’s the type of husband he is. If it’s an icy morning, he’ll scrape my car windows before leaving for work. If one of us travels without the other, we both leave love notes—taped to the bathroom mirror or the egg carton in the fridge, tucked into a shoe in the traveler’s suitcase. We’ve been doing this all our married life. Our marriage isn’t perfect—he yells when he’s angry; I’m always trying to make him over—but we’re solid.
My parents tell us everything but the diagnosis. They talk about the underground tunnel from their hotel to the hospital, how they never ventured outside because the city was frozen hard. Mother asks about Laurie and Mike, about Brenda and Chuck and their boys—David, Brian, Scott, and Danny. What have we heard from Donald? (He and his wife, Mara, and their daughter, Sasha, live in New York City.) How is Mattie? It isn’t until we’ve brought in the suitcases and are seated around the breakfast-room table, eating the caramel cake Mattie left on the counter with a welcome-home note, that my parents tell the real news of the trip.
First, the different tests—many more than the neurologist in Charlotte ran. Then, this morning, just before they left, how the doctor sat across from them in his private office and delivered the results. They both heard the diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease. And they both heard the prognosis.
Wait a minute, I want to say. Hold everything! I hate that Mother knows. How can she possibly cope with the knowledge that the promise of her is gone? But then, what do I want? It wasn’t okay that the doctor in Charlotte did not tell my mother. It wasn’t okay that Brenda and I didn’t tell her. And now it’s not okay that the doctor at Mayo did tell her. What is okay?
Later that evening, my father and Henry watch the news in the living room. I hunch on the low stool in Mother’s closet, my face tilted up toward her as she steps out of her wool pants. When she twists to pull off her long-sleeved slipover sweater, I stand to help. She raises both arms like a child. They hang in the air. I pull off her sweater and fold it away on the shelf. She holds on to my shoulder while I take her shoes, one at a time. She’s tired, I can tell. So tired. She rolls off her pantyhose, her panties, and turns so I can unhook her bra. In a gesture of respect—a nod toward decorum—I glance away at the corner, where wall meets wall.
When I look back, she’s holding her nylon nightgown. I accordion it up, hold it over her head, and let it down over her shoulders, the full length of her body. She lowers her chin, and I see that she’s crying quietly. No sound. Only the tears, which make her cheeks wet and pearly. I hand her a Kleenex from the decorative wooden box on her dressing table.
She dabs her eyes. “The first thing I said to the doctor at Mayo was, ‘How in the world am I going to tell my daughters?’ ”
Which is unsettling and reassuring. Both.
Unsettling, because it means she understands what this diagnosis means. She has always put all her eggs in one basket: communication. She believes nothing is so tough that we can’t discuss it. In fact, talking about difficult things is what gets us to the other side. But this news is so tough, so difficult, she didn’t know how she could possibly tell us. It’s clear she understands exactly what lies ahead.
At the same time, her response is reassuring. For now, at least, my mother is still very much herself. Her main concern: How will she protect her daughters? How can she comfort us, guard us, keep us safe?
Judy Goldman, who lives in Charlotte, is author of two novels and two books of poetry. This piece was excerpted from her memoir Losing My Sister (John F. Blair, Publisher). Available wherever books are sold October 2, 2012.