My mother told me the other day that she hated me. It was not the strangest or most surprising thing she has done lately. My mother has taken to referring to me in the third person. Which makes all her false memories of conversations we had less untrue, I guess. Now it wasn't I who called her the night before and told her to wear her winter coat, as she imagined. Nor was it I who told her she didn't need to take her medicine anymore. "Joey" did.
Joey tells her a lot of ridiculous things. But of all the things I thought about this morning, while walking the 68 steps from the parking lot to the lobby of her senior community, her talking about me like I'm not here was not one of them. I take these steps every Sunday morning to pick her up. I think about things during the walk, but I also pray that it will be a good day. That I will have patience. That I will breathe. And that she and I will get along.
My mother is 71 and has dementia. Barring work or vacation, I try to see her every Sunday to take her to the Cathedral, out to lunch and food shopping. I never know what I'm going to get with her each week, where her mind will be, or what she will be fixated on.
My mother's memory for what's coming up isn't bad. She writes everything down and knows when her doctor's appointments or hair appointments are. But she has very little recollection of having talked about anything. She overcompensates by continually filling in the space where that conversation should be. Everything she says is a segue from something else — either something we've talked about already, or something she thinks we have.
So everything begins with "and" and "so" and "yeah," as if we were just talking about it and weren't finished. She will do this for as long as we're together, stringing together a conversation out of non sequiturs. During mass, I might be kneeling in my pew after receiving the Eucharist, reflecting, and she'll say, "Yeah, so the maintenance man said not to touch the thermostat." Or, "So Snoopy was under the bed when I left." Snoopy is her cat, which she laments naming Snoopy. Sometimes that comes up too.
My mother is adorable. Anyone who knows her will tell you that. She will tell you that. So I have a hard time reconciling the mother I know with the person who recently told me she hated me. She had a doctor's appointment coming up that she was fixating on, and didn't seem to understand that the doctor she was going to see was a psychiatrist and not an internist. I told her a thousand times that he didn't care about her cholesterol and blood thinner medicine, but she didn't seem to grasp it.
I know that ultimately she didn't need to grasp it, but I often find myself fixating, too, on trying to break through to her. Her psychiatrist had prescribed a medication to help her with her memory, and I told her he was going to ask her about it. Was she was taking it? She wouldn't give me a straight answer — claiming to not know what she takes — which is the dead giveaway that she's lying to me. Of course she knows what she takes. It's one of her fixations. So instead of answering, she told me she hated me.
It hurt. But I still took her for ice cream.
I could do a lot better being my mother's caretaker. There are things I should read, and newsletters I should subscribe to. But it's hard enough understanding myself to try and understand her, or the illness that has so changed her. So I manage her money, pay her bills, take her to church and lunch and the grocery store. I can understand those things.
About five years ago she had a psychotic breakdown and wound up at Centennial Pavilion for a month. She told the intake nurse her health had been fine her whole life until she had me, which hurt in the same way her saying she hated me did. I went to the hospital every day I could and had lunch with her. She got better, was released, and for the past five years has stayed fairly stable, even as her brain function slowly declines. I found Snoopy for her on Craigslist, and taught her how to clean the litter box so she'd have something else to fixate on. But it gives her something to do, so I consider it a healthy fixation.
Sometimes she can be extremely lucid, and surprise me. Recently, I spent an afternoon at the film festival, where I used to handle media relations. While there, I was told a young female former associate was having a hard day and could use some comforting. I was trying to explain this to my mother the following day, and she smiled and said, "I think she was just using that as an excuse so you'd hold her." "You think?" I asked, and she laughed. 'Well, I didn't mind," I added. "I'm sure you didn't," she responded. She still has some Jersey in her.
We shared a small carrot cake at Panera that day for dessert. Taking the steps back to my car after dropping her off, I felt thankful that I had gotten through another Sunday. That Joey had gotten through another Sunday. I know my mother doesn't really hate either of us. She probably only hates the conversation she can't remember us having.