Mothering Your Mother
By Angela M. Shupe
“Hi there, honey. I think she’s still in her room.” The receptionist greets me as I walk through the heavy, dark wooden doors leading to the place my mother now calls home. The glow from the fireplace welcomes me in, warming my face and hands.
It’s hard to believe this is now my mother’s home. As a child, home was a place of comfort, filled with safety and warmth. All the things that make a house a home came from the natural outpouring of love from my mom. Can a home cease to exist? Can something so real just fade away? Without her presence, it doesn’t seem like home anymore.
My heart is sad and I fight back tears as I mentally prepare myself for my visit. Coming to terms with this new reality of mothering my own mother was proving to be a slow process. As a mom of two young children, mothering isn’t new to me. But this is different. It’s just not natural. It’s a struggle.
I pull myself from the glow of the fire and turn away to head to her room. I’m relieved this place is nothing like those I remember from childhood, when we’d visit elderly family friends – grateful this place is one of kindness. It’s been eight years since her diagnosis. Our role reversal began when I first stepped into the world of motherhood. The neurologist confirmed our fears, “I’m sorry. It is Alzheimer’s.” I remember when I was just her daughter, but now I take on the necessary role of mothering the one who gave me life. Once a strong and vibrant woman, my mom now lives life with childlike naiveté.
I reach the end of the hallway. I gently push the door open. She’s sitting on the bed, her frame a shadow in a room alive with the sun’s rays.
“Mom,” I say quietly. “It’s me, Angie.”
“Angie,” she says, leaping to her feet only to be slowed by muscles and joints worn from age. (It warms my heart that she still recognizes me.)
“Angie, it’s so good to see you, honey. I’ve missed you. It’s been so long.” We embrace.
“I’ve missed you, too, Mom. It’s so good to see you.” Knowing she doesn’t have any recollection of it, I play along, saying nothing of my visit two days before.
“Let’s sit down, mom, so we can talk.”
“Oh, yes.” We make our way back to the bed slowly, careful to be sure she doesn’t fall from a misstep.
We settle in on the nubby scarlet throw that graces her bed and we begin.
“How are you doing, Mom?”
“Oh, you know. I’m okay,” she says quickly, eager to hear how I am.
“How are you, Angie? I worry about you, you know. And your…who is it, what is his name again? Oh, why can’t I remember his name?” she says with embarrassed desperation.
“You mean Jared, Mom, right? Your grandson?” “Oh yes, Jared. How is he?”
“He’s doing well, and so is Sofia, your granddaughter. They’re good. Growing quickly, though,” I say, wondering if she really remembers them.
“Have you seen your father? Is he in New York?” she asks.
“New York?” I say pausing. Her question strikes me as bizarre. My dad’s never been to New York and has worked and lived in Michigan their entire married lives.
“I haven’t seen him, Mom, but I spoke with him and he’s doing well. I’m pretty sure he came to see you yesterday.”
“He did? I just don’t remember. I miss him.”
My heart sinks knowing that this visit, like the others, will quickly fall from her memory, allowing loneliness to creep in.
“Have you seen your father?” she asks.
“No, I haven’t seen him, Mom. But I know he’s doing well,” I assure her again.
“And Jared, how is he doing?”
“Well, he’s great. He just turned eight and is in third grade.”
“Third grade, my goodness.” She’s genuinely surprised. The same questions are repeated again and again. Each time, I gently provide the answers.
I begin describing the goings on of my life, as simply as I can. “I just don’t know how to get through to him sometimes,” I finish, knowing not to expect any words of wisdom anymore, but only her generous smile.
She looks up, directly into my eyes. “Angie, you’re a wonderful mother. He’ll change, you wait and see. He just needs some time to grow. Don’t worry, honey. He’ll change,” she says with absolute lucid clarity. I’m stunned. In this moment, I see my mother. The same woman who spoke words of encouragement into me as a child, sits before me, affirming me with her words and a strong, maternal gaze.
The creases on her face disappear in my mind’s eye, giving way to a much younger woman sitting on a front porch stoop. No more wrinkles, just smooth olive skin and deep brown eyes revealing her Filipina Italian heritage. Her long paisley skirt and creamy blouse are set off by the single strand of pearls around her neck. “Angie, tell me what happened?” she asks me, a willowy ten-year-old girl beside her.
Inside our house a moment ago, my words to her had been sharp. She knew there was something more behind them and was determined to uproot the truth. It was a particularly bad day at school; unfair, cutting words thrown my way had hit their mark, wounding my young heart. She listened quietly, wiped my tears and began to tell me of a similar little girl, one who grew up in the middle of a war that consumed home and country. It was her story; about a girl dealing with the same issues as me, but in the middle of a brutal wartime occupation. Careless words spoken by classmates stung, even in the chaos of war. Her stories were foreign to me. She’d never shared so much before. Her message was clear: you can walk through the fires of difficulty and survive. It can be done.
I was sorry before she even began talking and apologized while choking back tears. Despite my hurtful words to her, she loved me unconditionally. “I’m never going to stop loving you, Angie, even when you disappoint me. I’m your mother and I’ll always love you,” she’d finished, pulling me close.
Looking into her eyes now, I’m unable to say anything. I relish these words, spoken from a much older woman, the first of such profundity in many years. I delight one more time in who she is - my mother - the one who sees me, as me. I take it in and say nothing, but look at her and smile.
“Let’s take a walk, Mom.” I button her into her sweater and carefully help her to her feet. Together we walk down the hallway toward the sun porch. The explosion of color on the sturdy maple trees outside the windows is in view. “Look at how beautiful the leaves are, Mom.” She takes my hand trusting me to steady her. I know her love is real and it strengthens me. I can do this, I tell myself. I can mother my mother. I simply love her. “I wish your father was here. Have you seen him?” she asks and we continue our walk in the sun.