Tales of Mom

In honor of this day, five Sun writers tell stories of their mothers

New chapter brings such sweet verse

May 14, 2006|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

Old people, like old cars, can be slow starting in the morning. My mother is 85. When I visited her in North Carolina a few months ago, I dropped by her senior-citizen apartment to make sure she got up relatively early.

I could hear mumbling in the bedroom. "Mom, who are you talking to?"

"Oooohh," she moaned, half woozy. "I was bowling and talking to my partner."

Hmm. Bowling dreams from her youth in New Jersey. That gave me momentary pause. Years ago when my Aunt Marge was dying of cancer, she told me that sleeping was the highlight of her day. Dreams had become more enjoyable than the real world.

That's when I knew Aunt Marge was a goner.

My mother isn't dying. She's just slowly losing her mind. She is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and lives mostly in the present tense. Very present. Whatever happened five minutes ago is mostly memory smoke up the chimney.

I'd come to North Carolina with my immediate family because my stepfather had died, basically worn out at 92. He and my mother leaned on each other heavily for support. Now she stood alone. Wobbling.

Under siege, we humans often take refuge in routine. My mother constantly makes and reheats cups of tea. There's a nostalgic connection: She picked up the tea habit from my Swiss-born grandmother. It's also one of the few things she's able to do herself.

Between cups of tea, my mother fiddles with never-finished crossword puzzles and fusses over her skittish cat. We suspect Mom is feeding him five times a day. Patches apparently lacks self-restraint. He weighs about 150 pounds.

The roles of Alzheimer's sufferers and their grown children don't completely reverse until the later, ugly stages of the disease. My mother still has her outgoing personality, still can carry on a reasonably in-depth conversation, still wants to know why I'm not married.

But she can't drive or be trusted around a gas stove, can't follow a plot on TV. We've taken control of her finances, having commandeered the checkbook and left her only one active credit card: quite a comedown for a gifted shopper who once owned more than 150 pairs of shoes.

It's now our turn to drill deep into reservoirs of patience. We answer the same tape-loop questions over and over. "What day is today?" "Where are we going?" "Would you like a cup of tea?"

Decades ago, my mother was on the receiving end when three young boys wailed "Are we there yet?" from the back seat of the car or kept asking "Why can't I hit my brother? He hit me first!"

The day after my stepfather's memorial service, I helped my mother get into my brother Bill's car. At age 85 -- the sole surviving member of the World War II generation in our family -- she was off to start life anew in Atlanta.

She and her cat have moved into an assisted-living complex near Bill and his wife, one that specializes in Alzheimer's patients.

It's usually parents who burst with pride at something a son or daughter does. But time has a way of turning tables. I was much impressed by the fearless way my mother stepped boldly into the future, despite her foggy mind and shrinking world.

A few weeks ago, I flew to Atlanta to see her new home. I took my mom to dinner one night and paid the check. She started writing the total on a small, yellow-lined sheet of paper she pulled from her purse, insisting she'd repay me. I snatched the paper away.

"No, no!" She stammered. "Don't throw that out!"

Turns out that piece of paper has been in her wallet almost 30 years, tucked inside a change pocket along with my grandmother's rosary beads. On it is scribbled a love poem she wrote after my father died, a poem she had never shown anyone.

One of life's great joys is to discover something new about somebody you know intimately. Or think you do. My mother the poet. She might as well have pulled a rabbit out of her wallet.

The poem is no work of art. Just a simple, sing-song rhyme. Just a suburban housewife's reflections on a heart broken after 33 years of marriage.

"... And tho' we know all things must end /

If I had to do it all over again /

I wouldn't wish a thing be changed /

It's not goodbye, but auf Wiedersehen."

Those are the last lines. My mom has them memorized. Someday the words will slip from her mind. Someday she may not know my name or who I am.

When that day comes, I will try to remember it's not goodbye, but "till we meet again."

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

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