What I didn’t expect my mom to say

I lean back in my chair, not prepared for the response I had just received from mom sitting in front of me in a wheelchair.

Next to us, a movie continues to play on a large flat-screen television. Across the room, two other residents of the assisted-living facility stare off into the distance, each lost in their own little world.

That’s usually how I find mom these days, after the same diseases of the mind that slowly destroyed her mother, hit my mom hard. Less than six months ago, she seemed fine for the most part. Now after a combination of Alzheimer’s, dementia and strokes, she’s here in this place, where, despite the very best efforts of cheerful attendants, seems mostly devoid of life.

I believe this right after I was adopted in 1967.
I believe this right after I was adopted in 1967.

She’s often connected enough to know that Alzheimer’s can be hell with your mind and family members around you. My mom saw what it did to her mother, making her fear this disease above any other.

On most days, I could be her waiter, the bus driver to take her back to Kansas or Army drill sergeant. With Alzheimer’s or dementia patients, it’s so easy for cynicism to creep in, so easy to shake your head at another family member. As if to say, “You’ll never guess what she said today.”

But today, she seems different, and I’m not sure why. The ever-present shroud over her mind appears gone for the most part. Her personal wall — a defense mechanism for nearly my entire life — also appears to be gone. Instead, I see someone more meek and humble, like a little child.

Mom tried her best with me growing up, while struggling to cope with challenges beyond her control. But I seemed to have born the brunt of her negativity. At least that’s how it seemed to young Mike.

In her effort to make me better, she always seemed to tear me down. Nothing appeared good enough.

Mike, you’re breathing wrong.

That’s not how you treat the Betamax.

With penmanship like that, you’ll never find a girl.

It has always bothered me for a number of years, even as signs of her negativity carried into our marriage. It took years, but my family and I grew to love her, in spite of some constant messages of doom and gloom.

Now we were face-to-face, connecting with each other for the first time since she became sick.

I ask her about her regrets in life, which she talks about openly.

Then I ask her one more question, the one I was sure I knew the answer to. It was only four months earlier — when the signs of the sickness first appeared — that I tried to get her to say something positive about me.

In the video snippet below, I interrupt a conversation between her and Micah.

“Is this the part where you say something nice about me,” I kid her from behind the camera.

As you can see, there is nothing mean about her reply. But despite my best efforts to draw something out of her, the compliment never happens.

It doesn’t bother me at all. Because I had learned to expect it by now.

Now here in this room where I usually dread to visit, I ask her one more question.

“What are you proudest of the most in your life?’

She looks me in the eye and doesn’t even hesitate.

“Why my kids of course,” she said.

I smile back at her and decide to press a little more, even though I have a good idea what she will say.

“So you really are proud of me,” I ask her.

Again, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Of course, I am. I wish I did a better job bringing you up. But I think you figured out how to get there.”

It was time to go. I leaned over, kissed her on the cheek and told her that I loved her.

As it turns out, I didn’t really know the answer after all.

And that’s more than fine with me.


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