I want to share this story from Love in the Land of Dementia, a tribute to my mother and her beautiful capacity for wisdom. Here’s to embracing the divine flow of life.
Let It Be
For the first time, my mother cannot really help prepare our Seder meal. She wanders around the kitchen, pausing at the counter, the stove, the table as if to collect something lost.
“What was I doing?” she asks.
“Setting the table,” I say.
“How many people are coming?”
“Ten,” I say, spilling the spoonful of oil in my irritation. An old football cheer floats into my mind, “First and ten, do it again. Do it again.” And again. Mom has already asked me these questions several times in the last 10 minutes.
When Mom and Dad drove up two days ago, Dad’s face was tight and he went straight to the guestroom to take a nap.
“Sometimes I wish I were hard of hearing,” he told me, later that evening.
Mom’s speech is like an old record player with a needle that refuses to leave its groove. The simple anchors of life, the who, what, where, and when of things, often elude her.
“Did you remember the macaroons for dessert?” she asks, a fork in hand.
“Yes,” I say, again. I crack an egg and have to scoop shell out of the bowl.
I stir the matzo mixture and take a breath. I have trained myself to be brisk and efficient, but now, around my mother, I need to be slow and soft.
“How many people are coming?” she asks.
“Ten,” I say, impatience pinching my throat. “Let’s take a break and go for a walk.”
I wipe my hands and look for the house keys. They are not on their usual hook in the cabinet. They are not in my purse, or lolling on the kitchen table. I feel a brief flutter of shame over the impatience I felt just this morning, when Mom misplaced her glasses case for the second time. Then I feel a stab of fear: am I too losing my mind?
She stops, Hershey’s bar in hand. “They’re right in front of you, Mom,” she says, pointing to a huddled mass of metal on the counter corner. I pocket the keys and double check to make sure I have turned off the stove.
Outside, the redbuds are flowering; the dogwoods skirting newly green lawns. My mother and I walk past a closed-down lemonade stand, three broken lawn chairs,set out on the curb, and a blond, floppy-haired girl, skipping over a pink jump rope.
“It was hard when my mother died. My father just disappeared, took off walking,” Mom says. “He was a good man, though.”
I nod. I remember as much about my mother’s childhood as I do my own. The story of her mother’s death is one in a series of memories Mom has told me all my life.
We pass a woman strolling a sleeping baby and Mom smiles.
“Did you get the macaroons?”
“Yes, I did Mom.”
“Did I already ask you that?”
“Your father gets mad at me sometimes,” she says. “He thinks I’m forgetting on purpose.”
“What’s it like to not remember?” I ask.
An eager black spaniel rushes up to us.
“I start a thought,” Mom says, bending to pat the dog, “and the end disappears. If I try too hard to catch it, that makes it worse. So I let go, and eventually I get the answer. Of course, by that time, something else is going on.” Mom smiles and shakes her head. Her hair is silvery and curly; her hands like fine dried flowers; her stride crisp and full.
All weekend, I have watched her happily listen to the conversations around her, passionately asking a question, then moments later, equally passionate, asking the same question. I have listened to her stories, which have the comforting familiarity of a well-worn quilt. These stories, which sprinkled my growing-up years, are now the major part of our conversations.
That evening, we celebrate Passover with a Seder service. As the service progresses, my father tells our guests about “Dayenu,” a Hebrew word that means, “Even that would have been enough.”
“It sounds like Die-aa-nu,” he says. “You repeat it after each of the sentences I’m going to read. It’s a way of expressing gratitude.”
My mother fiddles with the prayer book and asks for the third time, “Is it time for Elijah?”
“Not yet,” my father says, his voice tense. Then he calms and begins the Dayenu litany:
“Dayenu,” we all repeat.
“If God had taken care of us in the desert for 40 years without feeding us manna,”
“If God had fed us manna without…”
And so we follow the journey of our ancestors, promising we will be satisfied. With whatever we get.
As I repeat my gratitude and pledge my satisfaction with life as it is I think of my mother. I miss her remembering all the details of my life. I miss her knowing where the silverware drawer is. I miss telling her something I’m proud of and having her remember it. And yet, she is the living symbol of Dayenu, graciously accepting her failing mind and making the best of it.
“And now, it’s time to eat,” my father says.
My mother reaches over and pats my wrist. I see the patina of softness that burnishes her, the loving core that goes far beyond mundane daily detail. I see the woman who has loved me even during the years I wandered through a difficult wilderness.
As we sip our sweet wine and break off a piece of unleavened bread, I create my own litany:
If my mother gets pleasure out of life. . .
If she remembers who I am. . .
“This is a lovely Seder,” she says. “You did a beautiful job of putting all this together.”
I press her hand, look into her smiling face and say, “Dayenu.”
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.