My mother, Barbara Lovett, died in August 2018, almost exactly two years after my brother and I tricked her into moving out of the house where she had lived happily alone for the preceding thirty years. She had dementia, but not Alzheimer’s — she never forgot who the people around her were, and was usually alert and aware. Once, not long after her initial diagnosis, she said to me: “Rachel if only you would read Proust! Then you would understand!” So: no slouch. I tell you this to make the point that, though “suffering from dementia” my Mom was not so very different from anyone else who lives as long as educated, wealthy white people tend to do in this country, at this time. She was a real character, atypical in many ways, but much of what happened to me was the same as what happens to anyone with a parent in the last stages of life, so buckle up:
- There will be one good child who shows up and takes responsibility and one (or more) who does not pull his or her weight. Seething will ensue, and probably shouting as well. At some point, if you’re lucky, roles may reverse.
- Mom will refuse to accept that she is becoming someone who requires help and consider you a traitor for trying to plan ahead.
- Mom will be humiliated by her own dependency and you will not know what to say or do to make it better.
- Certain objects, remarks, and other ephemera will take on exaggerated value and you will cling to them with a tenacity you never knew you had. (Real estate falls into this category, as may earrings with no mate, shopping lists in her handwriting, and weirdly stained linens.)
- Paradoxically, you will learn to surrender to the loss of other objects (hearing aids that cost $6000, for example) with strange equanimity. (Years later, you will find said hearing aids exactly where you hid them to keep the facility from losing them when Mom moved in.)
- You will weep in rented cars in mall parking lots; carry on long, overly personal cell phone conversations in public places; and rage at nice people who mean you no harm.
- Helpers will emerge. Some of them will be so helpful that you tell them you love them. Some will turn out to be monsters (I found a journal in which one nurse described my mother as a “kike cunt”). And some of them will be so clueless that it is a miracle your parent isn’t dead several times over. You will feel creepy about even the best of these relationships, because really you are paying them to be the dutiful daughter you can never be.
- You will read “Being Mortal” and become hopeful that smart people are working on making all this better.
- You will visit various facilities, ranging from truly dismal to nearly glamorous, and in all of them you will find feces where feces should not be.
- You will clean feces while gagging.
- No matter how “nice” the facility, you will still find your mother wearing someone else’s clothing, or asleep in wet diapers, or drinking water that appears to have been used to soak another resident’s dentures, or worse.
- Mom will periodically perk up and say or do something remarkably insightful, droll, or caustic.
- People will tell you she is beautiful, sweet, and loves you very much. You will wonder if they have you confused with the daughter of another resident.
- You will wish that she would just die, already. You will even say this out loud. And when she does, you will be gutted.
- You will realize that you are next.
All three of Rachel Cline’s novels include fraught mother-daughter relationships. Her latest is called The Question Authority