The other day I read a blog post by Lori about gratitude, and how her mother’s dementia was enabling her to explore a different kind of relationship with her.
It made me think of my own mother, also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and how our relationship seems to be changing day by day. Then I thought some more, and wondered if all of our relationships, particularly parent-child, are not constantly evolving from moment to moment. It doesn’t seem difficult to grasp that the dynamic of our relationship with our own parent or care-giver will change as we develop from babies to adolescents, or from teens to adulthood. But I think I may have made the unconscious assumption that once I was an adult and seen as an adult by my mother (ie doing those things that in her eyes constitute adulthood: earning money, managing a home, having children) that our relationship would somehow plateau and remain unchanged.
I was of course, most wrong. And I also wonder if this is one reason why we are constantly frustrated by relationships: we want them to WORK, to be smooth like well-oiled machines. Once we get them running to our liking, we want them to stay the same, for crying out loud! But they are not machines, they are organisms that grow and atrophy in different ways, depending entirely on how and what and how often we feed them. In different environments they respond differently – don’t we all know that though? Tough times and we pull together, or fall apart: nothing like a good war to bring everyone together. Yup.
So why, I wonder, am I constantly surprised at the ever-mutating state of my relationship with my mother? Perhaps because the wave-form it follows can be extreme. Perhaps too it;s never really what I want it to be, or need it to be. Much like a lot of us, I grew up with a mother who herself was damaged, traumatised and making her way the best she could, whilst simultaneously passing on a great big heap of awful, awful junk. At several points during my late teens and twenties, I debated whether or not to stay in contact with her, as it was just so painful. But I decided to maintain the relationship, not cut everything off, mostly for the sake of my dear old stepdad and my sister. Also, one of my mother’s defining characteristics is, or rather was, her ability to feud for years, decades even, and bear a grudge whilst doing it. I have no desire to inherit this as part of my own character, so I stayed part of the family group, whilst keeping my distance when I really needed to. I am not a fan of feuding.
But, going back to the dementia and memory loss. I really empathised with Lori’s post on gratitude, how her mother can no longer remember the awfulness to keep on dishing it out. I am finding exactly the same. She now cannot remember the nasty things she would save up to say, so she can’t say them. In the moment, she is loving and sweet to me, because her reponses are more instinctive, more primal, I suppose.
I take her out for a coffee at the garden centre, which she likes, so she is happy. I made her happy, so I am a nice person, therefore she loves me. Therefore she says nice things to me, and invents a nice story she remembers about me. If she starts down a negative pathway about somebody (every single time), she is easily distractible and she will forget what she was saying if I interrupt her with something catchy enough. It’s great! For the first time in my life, I can manoevre my mother out of the monster and into the nicer person that she can be. I have gone from dreading the phone-calls, having full-on panic attacks at the thought of meeting up, to phoning her after work most days. It’s been easier to do that than find 16 missed calls on my phone because she had forgotten she had called me already, and was worrying I might have died.
I am not desperately trying to rekindle the kind of mothering that I sought for the last fifty years and didn’t find, but I am enjoying exploring a different kind of relationship with her. I am accepting that she is not the same person that she was ten years ago, the person who criticised and judged and was deeply hurtful to me and so many others that I love, because she can’t remember any of it. To her, it’s not part of her timeline any more. I can either feel robbed that I don’t get to address that – because obviously, the time for talking and resolutions like this has gone – or I can move into a different space. And I’m choosing that option.
I am grateful to have this space for now, though I am aware that it won’t stay the same and it will keep moving. And perhaps the cruel parts will re-emerge, and there will be other painful times again. In the simplest sense, knowing that Alzheimer’s is gradually taking over my mother’s brain and self helps me to find compassion for her. And this in turn enables me to put up with the awful bits that are still appearing. Alzheimer’s doesn’t conjure up the nasty things she says, because they were always there in her head and I see no change. But she has little control of her inhibition now, around what is ok to say and what really isn’t, so it just comes out like a leaky valve. If you knew my mother, then you’d also know that she has never really been what anyone would call diplomatic or thoughtful to others’ feelings, but it’s waaay past that now. When you can manage to detach from the moment and watch what happens, it is like watching a person just take off all their filters. In vino veritas, and in some ways, also in dementia.
So. This ever-changing landscape that is the space between me and my increasingly demented mother is an interesting place to inhabit. I am exploring many emotions, noting my responses. Some people have advised me: “you must make sure you are on good terms with her, because once you can’t communicate it will be gone forever, and you’ll regret that.” I understand what they mean, but I don’t entirely agree. I need to be at peace with my own feelings, with how I relate to my mother, who I believe always thought was doing her best. Even when she was being a monster. I’m not accepting that her behaviour was ok, but I am trying to give her a context, away from my feelings of hurt and the damage she caused. And that is not excusing or, indeed, forgiving.
So when I have one of our 5 minute (max) conversations on the phone with mum, and she asks me six, seven, eight times if I’ve seen the doctor about that cough in the first two minutes, and we repeat the same old, same old routines, there is a kind of positive nurturing of this new relationship. We are feeding it little and often. She is anxious when she knows I’m unwell, so she calls me endlessly. I call her more often instead, to reduce her anxiety, (if you’d asked me twenty years ago if I could imagine doing this I woiuld have just stared at you in horror) and it works. In our own small ways, we are doing what we both need. I am meeting her needs by understanding the root of her anxiety and she is making me feel a little more loved, by the endless calls, however repetitive and formulaic they are.
It’s not the mothering that I desire, but it’s a kind of care, a kind of reciprocity without the bitchy comments or deliberate huffing and sulking. Mum can’t do emotional manipulation the way she could now, as she can’t hold onto her thoughts for long enough. If I say this is a good thing, of course that suggests I am glad that she is suffering with a nasty, degenerative brain condition, and I honestly wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But if it means that she is less likely to hurt her nearest and dearest intentionally, that feels like a blessing.
So I too am grateful for the brief snapshot of our emotional landscape that this moment of Alzheimer’s gives. It won’t last, it will change, but right now, I’m glad.
(with many thanks to Lori for her insightful blog post at https://lori.blog/)