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Not My Mother

There is something wild about the woman my father now lives with. The buttons of her shabby cardigan strain against the swell of the leaves and twigs she collects in the yard; she has dirt under her fingernails from digging small stones out from the driveway. Her hair hangs limp over a face that is lined and mottled like tree bark and she seems to favor conversations with animals – her dog, the squirrels on the porch, a dragonfly – over our company.

I can’t help but liken her to a housecat that has gone feral – showing up to be fed, but otherwise roaming the house and property with a territorial air.  She even brings in birds and field mice – barely breathing or cold and still.  She holds them in her hands and strokes them tenderly.  She whispers to her small and broken little friends and I watch her from the line between curiosity and aversion. When she looks up, smiles gently and reaches out to touch the cheeks of my children,  I instinctively pull them away.  In these moments – moments where I’m overwhelmed by the state of her – the guilt I feel is sharp.  Not letting her touch her granddaughters feels so unkind.

Alzheimer’s is so unkind.  It is a set of expectations and needs that my father, despite his love and sacrifice, will never be able to meet.  It is a cruel filter on a face that my daughter does not recognize in photos from only five years ago.  It is a glimpse into a possible future that rattles my husband, unnecessarily but not without cause, every time I lose my phone or keys.  It is a thief that took my mother away from me before we could resolve our battles – or start new ones, as mothers and daughters do.  She’s not even seventy.  Alzheimer’s didn’t even have the decency to wait for her.  Just a little longer, at least.

We’re in the thick of it now. There are decisions to be made about her well being and whether her needs can even be met at home.  A home that my father has been building for her – for us – over the span of over forty years.  Where there was once discussion and excitement over new gardens and a go-cart track through the back pasture, there are now whispers and hesitations over stair lifts and locked cabinets.  We always thought that the life of our family would come full circle on Millstone Road – mint brownies on the counter, the smell of sawdust rising up from the basement, another set of daughters bumping around in the back of a rusty tractor cart.  So I suspect that it hurts my father deeply when my mother wakes up in the night, gathers her things and calls for him to take her home.

I find myself watching the mothers of my friends with a sad envy.  These mothers, in their clean shirts and hair tucked neatly behind their ears, seem so full of light to me.  They laugh at jokes and have friends and smell like fabric softener and make snacks for their grandchildren.  These mothers do not slip silverware up their sleeves or refuse to shower or forget their children’s names or put ketchup in their coffee.  My mother’s light is barely visible.  I have to squint my eyes to even see her.

I realize how unsympathetic this all sounds. I do.  Like I should love her just the same.  It’s just very hard to do, you know – love a stranger like you would your own mother.


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