From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Step on a Crack,
Bring Your Mother Back

“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” my best friend Franny laughed. She stomped her detested new white bucks on every scar on the cement, giggling. From that call to attention, our walk to school became dangerous. I marveled at her risky rebelliousness as I tiptoed my Mary Janes around the sprung concrete of those New York City sidewalks. I come from a superstitious tribe. A broken Mom was a big threat, something I could never—would never—wish on my mother.

These days my mother lives on the Pacific side of the continent in a small group home. Several of the other residents, like my mother, have Alzheimer’s disease.

It was no surprise to me when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over a period of years her optimistic eyes began to dim and the mental agility of this eternal student began to disappear. The process was slow and subtle; at first she made jokes about her forgetfulness, but gradually the benign humor vanished, to be replaced by a more severe helplessness. At the memory disorder clinic of a nearby teaching hospital, they described the prognosis; they recommended to me the books I could read that would help. They were kind and caring. The rest of my mother’s life, though, seemed a frightening pathway, cracked and distorted by the unpredictable course of a debilitating disease.

“Does she still know you?” This was the first question people asked when I mentioned my mother’s disability. Not understanding the slow course of the disease, they always pictured the worst and were surprised and reassured when I told them that my mother did indeed still recognize me. In fact, I told them, her humor surfaced frequently, like when she coyly introduced me as her mother. Her vocabulary was often startlingly original and, with great effort, she still had pockets of usable memory.

A better question emerged: Did I still know her? Who was that woman who looked like my mother but whose eyes could not belie her bewilderment? She was a woman of independence who had lived alone for more than twenty years after my father’s death. Unprepared for her sudden widowhood, she learned over the years to manage well on her own, physically, financially and socially. She was determined to survive the poverty of her first-generation immigrant upbringing and, finally, in her later years, she came to enjoy a freedom she wasn’t raised to expect.

Alzheimer’s, a thief in slow motion, stole that freedom and left a woman who could no longer remember her personal history or how many years ago her husband had died. She couldn’t recall where her money was or how much it amounted to. Her supposedly golden years were spent living in a house she never called home and enduring a sense of disorientation that she did not understand.

One morning, her arm threaded in mine, we strolled out of her group house for our walk around town. The sidewalk in front of the house was slowly giving way to a mighty cedar tree that dwarfed the Victorian structure.

Suddenly, my boot wedged in a deep crevice in the walkway, and I was pitched forward. My mother reacted instantly, making her arm rigid and yanking me upright. I regained my composure and smiled at her gratefully.

“Are you okay?” she asked with concern. I looked at her, and the thrill of recognition gave me goosebumps. My old Mom, the Mom that I had always known, was smiling at me, her eyes clear, bright with the light of purpose, not a trace of confusion evident.

For a brief moment, my mind flashed back to another time, many, many years ago, when I had seen my mother smile at me in just that way. It was a rainy winter’s day in Queens, New York. The weather had been stormy all week and our ’54 Plymouth didn’t like the rain any more than we did. It stalled just after we picked up my father’s shirts at the cleaners. As we sat together in the car, patiently awaiting the tow truck, my mother took my rainboots off and tickled my feet under her coat. We laughed and talked as a car pulled up and parked behind us on the downward incline of a slight hill. A woman in a red kerchief and dark coat sprinted to a shop across the street. Something in the rearview mirror caught my mother’s attention. In a flash, she thrust open the car door and swooped me out into the street as the car behind us rolled from its parking spot and slammed our Plymouth into the car parked in front. But we were safe. I huddled against her in the rain, peering up with surprise. She hugged me closer and smiled with relief.

“Are you okay?”

She needn’t have asked. Of course I was. I was in my mother’s arms.

Those same arms now wrapped around me after my stumble on the sidewalk, and that same smile reassured me.

“I love you so much,” she said as she kissed me. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.” I had heard her say this many times in my life but not recently. I felt overjoyed to have her back.

We continued on down the street where we had walked several times a week since I moved her closer to me. “I haven’t been on this street in years,” she announced. As she turned to me for confirmation, something she does often given the erratic universe of her mind, I saw that my real mother had slipped away again.

Nothing in my life could have prepared me for the complicated task of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s. Our tender relationship has become an act of balancing familiarity with strangeness. It is one thing to grieve for a parent gone; it is quite another to have to learn to love one you still have but no longer know.

Even though I see my mother often, I miss her very much. I keep looking forward to the next time I might stumble across her endearing old self, feel her love wrap around me and, if only for a moment, keep me shielded from the pain of losing her.

Sandra Rockman

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