“How is your mom?” I know you mean well when you ask that question. You’re just trying to be a good friend. And I love you for that.
But here’s the thing. Here’s why the question stings, despite your tender intentions: With Alzheimers, the answer is always the same. My mom is worse. She is well cared for, but she is worse. Worse than last time you asked. Less there. Less herself. Less my mom. Or less my Real Mom, as I distinguish her in my mind.
So this is what I ask of you, dear friend, what I would ask on behalf of anyone who is saying the Long Goodbye: Don’t ask “How is your mom?” How is your dad?” Or “How is your friend?”
Ask: “How are you?” “How are you doing?”
That’s the question that won’t sink me, that will fill me with the love and care you mean to express. That’s the question I can answer.
And the answer is this:
I’m struggling. I feel guilty when I’m not with her and heartbroken when I am. I bring her ice cream and chocolate and soup. I don’t even know if she likes those things anymore. I know my Real Mom did.
I show her photos and talk about my dad. I play his music. His voice, his banjo. I talk about her grandsons. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t register anymore. But that’s okay. I’ve accepted that I can no longer jog her memory. I’m far more frightened of losing my memory of her. My Real Mom. That my memories of these past six years will “write” over my memories of all the other years, like when you save a new version of a document. But when it comes to Alzheimers, writing is not rewriting. It’s the opposite. The older draft was better.
I want to remember the original. My Real Mom. The wife who could light up a room with her adoration of my dad. The confidant whose every girlfriend counted her as their very best friend. The woman who howled with laughter at a movie or a joke so ridiculously loud it was embarrassing, but in truth we all wished we could laugh like that. The mother who couldn’t sleep one night when I was away at grad school because she wasn’t sure if I had a vacuum cleaner. The grandmother who insisted every single nurse admit that her newborn grandsons were in fact the most beautiful babies they’d ever seen because she truly believed they were, objectively speaking, preternaturally divine in their perfection — as if the hospital should call in a news crew to cover the real Jewish messiahs in her arms.
I cling desperately to memories of my Real Mom and get angry with myself for the all questions I didn’t ask. And the answers I don’t remember. Was it the Poconos or the Catskills where she met my dad? How strange to realize there is no longer anyone alive who can answer that question.
How am I?
The times I miss my mom the most are when I’m with her. I am an orphan with a living parent. But I pray I’m doing my best for her. Thank you so much for asking.
And one more thing.
If my sons are ever in my shoes, saying the Long Goodbye to me — don’t ask them how I am. Ask them how they are. That’s what I would want.
That’s what their Real Mom will want.
My beautiful mother, Blanche Mayem, passed on August 15, 2021 of complications from Alzheimers. She is still waiting to be scattered at sea. In my next piece I will try to answer the question “Why is my mom still on my credenza?”