May 2012

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Question Th e In her own words, a daughter's story of learning how even through the fog of dementia, her mother's love was never lost By Carol Elizabeth Larson "Do you have children?" Th e question was asked quietly by some- one who wanted to know, who trusted I wouldn't scold or make fun of her for not remembering. Th e person who asked the question was my mother. Th is is the woman who raised me alone after my father died, saw me through my terrible teens and my turbulent 20s before becoming a treasured friend in my 30s. But in my 40s things changed. Mom's world became unfamiliar and frightening to her. Now when I call her each night or visit, I tell her my name and that I'm her daughter. I say this with a smile as if there is nothing unusual in re- minding her who I am. At age 94, my mom's dementia means bad days when she is irretrievably lost, and must be instruct- ed how to get out of her chair or how to use a fork and spoon. But there are also good days when she exudes affection, delights in being hugged, and loves to feel the warmth of the summer sun on her face. "Have you ever seen a sky so blue?" the fi ne spring day, a brilliant sky and be- ing happy. Some say only young children can live perfectly in the moment, devoid of a past or worries about the future. But on her good days, Mom knows pure pleasure. "Th ose trees are so regal!" Mom has become enamored with two Nothing else exists at that moment but things she can see without fear of being contradicted, but when I ask if it rained earlier she looks lost. Even in her best mo- ments there is little of her memory she can retrieve from that day or years before. Which puts me in the strange position of pine trees growing in the side yard, tall enough for her to see with dimming vi- sion. We admire the trees, their beauty, in a shared moment of contentment. But the living-in-the-moment coin has two sides. We can talk about the trees, telling Mom stories from her own life. She likes the ones about our family vacations "up north," about fi shing, the times she and I caught bigger fi sh than the know-it- all men of the family. I also tell her what a great mother she's been, about her volun- teer work for the church, the school, the food bank, and the local history society. "Really, I did that?" Mom listens with her eyes wide, sometimes nod- ding at a passing recol- lection. Other times she doesn't believe I'm talking about her. "Well," she says, giving me an indulgent sigh, "if you say so." Over the course of 12 years as Mom's memories faded, so did her person- ality, her identity stripped to its basic components. As her identity changed, mine was forced to change, too. I had to become a helper, an advocate, a caregiver—a May 2012 55

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