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Notes on my mother, who has Alzheimer's disease

This woman looks like my mother. She sounds like my mother. She smells like my mother. There is that visceral feeling when I hug her, that I am hugging the woman I came from, the woman of whom I am a piece, a rib. But each time she opens her mouth, I find that she is just an echo.

The thing is, none of my mother’s “defects” ever made me love her any less. I loved—and love—her fiercely, and while she was often not the best mother, and while she damaged me and hurt me and cost me lots and lots (and lots) of money in therapy bills, I always knew that she loved me into oblivion—into an insane place where only mothers and children are able to exist—and the two of us, both easily dramatic and equally troubled, were tangled in a heated codependency for just about as long as I can remember. I could count on my mother to say terrible things and I could count on her to love me ferociously, and when that is what you’ve grown up with and the way you’ve always been loved, those things are one and the same.

My sister and I have counted on our fingers the ways in which our mother is kinder now, more appreciative, more gentle since the Alzheimer’s.

One morning, I was making breakfast for her in her kitchen (my mother can no longer cook or figure out how to pair or prepare ingredients), and I remembered that neither of us had taken our medications yet that day. I said, “We’ll take them together.” When she asked me why I took medication, my eyebrows drew together and I felt a pang in my heart. “Because I’m bipolar,” I told her uncertainly. “You are?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, so puzzled that this was something she could forget. “You don’t seem like someone who’s bipolar,” she said. I laid out all six of her morning pills in a row beside a glass of water and said wryly, “That’s funny. You used to tell me all the time that I was crazy.” “I did?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “all the time.” She paused, the look on her face like something you might see from a gentle bird who has just flown into a window and is dazed. “Well, I guess I wasn’t a very good mother,” she said, and softly laughed.

My heart stopped for a beat and then pounded painfully. “Oh yes you were,” I said hugging her to me so that she could not see my tears. “You were an amazing mother.” It was half-lie and half-truth, but it didn’t matter either way. That something as awful as Alzheimer’s could give my mother’s mind enough empty space that she could see herself from outside of herself, for the first time ever in her life, was touching. And it was sad. And even then, an enormous, aching part of me wanted my real mother, who was so often cruel to me, but was my mother—was wholly and truly and utterly my mother—because this woman, while kinder and more gentle, barely was or is.

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