1. Fraser, Diane


A daughter realizes her mother, a former geriatric nurse, is experiencing dementia.


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I was shocked when my 80-year-old mother started crying after I helped her into the passenger seat of my small Subaru sedan. It was an awkward entry. Mom was 5'9" and used a cane and had to duck and fall backwards to land in the seat. She usually made some comment about how it was like getting in and out of a clown car.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Janet Hamlin.

As we drove away, Mom put her face in her hands and began to sob. We'd just spent the day at my sister's house, where we sat under an umbrella by the long aquamarine pool and ate barbecue. As far as I could tell, there was no reason to be crying. We'd had a good day.


"Mum, what's wrong? Why are you crying?"


She looked pained. "I'm old. I'm really old."


Her upset baffled me. If anyone should know what comes with aging, it was her. She'd been a geriatric nurse until she retired at the age of 75. Her favorite part of the job was daily rounds to see her patients. She usually wore some whimsical, sparkly shirt to make them smile. I still remember her tales at the dinner table when I was a teenager.


"Walked in on a couple of patients going at it today," she said. "You didn't think old people still liked to have sex, did you?"


"Mom! I'm eating!" At 17, I really didn't want to think about it.


Sometimes she'd recount the number of enemas that were administered, or conversely, the number of times they had to clean up after patients who didn't make it to the bathroom. She loved to see me and my sister squirm. Some days she carried home more sadness than laughter. "This was the fourth holiday that Stella's family didn't come to visit. Didn't even bother to call," she sighed. Or "Poor Bill. He can't even remember his own name anymore-he can barely use a spoon."


The one time I visited her at the nursing home, I was 40. Mom brought me around and introduced me to each patient. A thin, pale woman in a floaty white nightgown followed us and stared at me, her toothless mouth open in a perpetual O. "Don't mind Eleanor; she has dementia and just likes to be close to someone. It helps her feel less alone," Mom said, touching Eleanor's arm. "You're right here with us, Eleanor."


I couldn't wait to get out of there. It felt spooky and sad. How did my mother do that every day?


"People won't die while their family is in the room," Mom told me more than once. "The family doesn't want to let them go, so they hang on until after their family leaves. I hold their hand and tell them it's okay for them to go, their work here is done. Some people really need to hear that."


Now that it was Mom's turn to be an elder, she had trouble accepting it. Last May, we'd gone for our annual trip to see the lilacs at the arboretum. When I offered my arm to help as she stepped gingerly down the stone steps, she shooed me away.


"Stop. That just makes me look really old." She was 80, had silver hair, and walked slowly using a cane. At what point would it be okay for her to look her age?


We stopped to admire large purple blooms on a billowing bush. "This is the most beautiful lilac bush I've ever seen," Mom said, her face glowing.


There was something odd in how she said it, almost like it was the first time she was seeing lilacs.


I paused, trying to find a way to pose the question.


"Mom, do you remember all the times we've come to see the lilacs?"


She said no, but she was still smiling. She'd been forgetting things here and there-facts or dates or what happened to people she once knew. But not remembering the countless Mother's Days that we'd visited the arboretum for Lilac Sunday was a much wider swath of memory loss.


Now as I drove her home from the barbecue at my sister's, I asked why she was so surprised by aging.


"I didn't think it would happen to me," she said. "Those were my patients. This is me."


I wish I could go back and ask my younger mother all the right things to do for someone who's showing signs of dementia. I wish I'd listened a little more closely when she talked about her work. And I wish I didn't see the day coming when I'd be the one holding her hand as she gets ready to leave this world. But at least then I'll know the right thing to say.