43: Always a Mother

43: Always a Mother

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Always a Mother

Mother is a verb, not a noun.


I had just heard two of the most dreaded words in the English language. “It’s cancer.” My husband gripped my hand, as I struggled not to dissolve into tears. I want my mother, my inner child wailed. I craved the reassurance, the support that only a mother could give.

But she was the one person I couldn’t turn to. Her home was hundreds of miles away, and she lived in the fog of Alzheimer’s.

For more than five years the dementia had stalked her, ripping away memory and severing logic, leaving confusion and fear in its wake. During those years, she’d become the child. I mothered her through bouts of panic, when she couldn’t remember where her home was. I comforted her when she cried as she relived her own mother’s death. I calmed her when dementia-induced fear erupted in a temper tantrum. I metaphorically tucked her into bed each night, sending her kisses over the phone line while my own heart fractured.

Now, when dementia gnawed on her mind and cancer ate away at my body, numb hopelessness enveloped me. I didn’t dare let the word cancer slip into the daily conversations with my mother.

Yet she knew things weren’t right, and the protective wall I’d built around her began to crumble. At first it was a tiny chink, brought about by her insistence that something was wrong with me. The chink cracked and widened until the wall crashed down. She demanded I tell her my secrets. I stopped holding back and shared the news of my impending surgery — still careful not to use the “C” word, but admitting my other fears.

She asked if I’d have a scar.

Yes, I would.

“Well,” she said, “I think a diamond necklace should cover it nicely.”

I smiled.

Together with my stepfather, she made the 500-mile trek to my house to “help” me through the treatments. On the eve of my surgery, family surrounded me.

At the hospital, as the team prepared to wheel me away, my mother pushed past my husband to grab my hand. “I love you,” she whispered fiercely, her eyes blazing as she bent close and kissed my cheek. In that moment, the tears I’d held at bay for months broke free and the fear loosened its grip.

By some miracle, my mother had thrown off the dementia, fighting her way through the fog to be at my side. She’d come to me when I needed her most. Her spirit was stronger than the disease.

The moment of grace lasted through the hours of surgery and beyond. During the night, my husband sat at my bedside, while my mother and stepfather managed alone in my house, without the benefit of their routine. They stayed with us through the days of recovery until I was home and safe.

Then, the fog descended again. Dementia locked my mother away and I returned to parenting her. But with a difference.

She’d taught me something. This, her last and best lesson, was that the mind might fail. The body may deteriorate. But the spirit will remain strong.

As she slipped further away from us in mind and body, I began to watch for glimpses of that indomitable spirit. Sometimes, it tiptoed in with flashes of humor. Once, while visiting, I lost my train of thought. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said as she smiled and patted my hand. “I didn’t know it was contagious.”

At other times it stomped in with a stubborn declaration. “You’re not the boss of me!” my mother shouted when I encouraged her to take a hated medicine.

But mostly, it appeared in her constant determination to live life on her terms. She fought to stay with her family, surrendering to death only on her terms, and in her time. She left surrounded by her children, husband, and friends — that spirit still intact.

Even today, her spirit whispers to me that nothing — neither death nor dementia — can stand in the way of love.

~Kelle Z. Riley

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