RAKING THE COALS

Words by Joline Martin
Photo by Catriona De La Torre

Seeking meaning in a beloved mother’s dementia.

 
 

I never know what to expect during our visits. Often, she is not home; her tiny body is present in a mobile chair or bed, dressed and groomed, yet her mind is elsewhere.

This is to be expected when your parent has lived for 96 years. 

During her life, she navigated two world wars, the Great Depression, and a bombardment of technological advances. Now she winds through the final part of life’s journey. Although she no longer walks, her physical health is perfect. Death is nowhere near.

She used to tease me, saying, “Well, you got it on both ends, kid. Your father died when you were so young, and I am living a long life.” 

Her own mother, my grandmother, died of breast cancer five days before my father. Imagine saying goodbye to your mother and husband in the same week. 

A year after my father died, Mom discovered suspicious lumps in her breast. We kids felt terrified when she started a series of operations. The lumps were benign, but I began to practice my goodbyes, readying myself for her death. 

I’ve prepared for the past fifty years. I’m done preparing now. 

At Easter, I go to see Mom at the Cumberland Lodge; she wears a
coral-colored dress freckled with gardenia flowers. A care aide calls out, “Oh good, I’m glad you’re here. Charlotte’s having a good day.” 

My mother is talking to her stuffed dachshund—the breed of dog we had throughout my childhood—and blowing on its snout to discipline it. When satisfied, she caresses the dog and coos, “Good doggie.” The dog’s crooked smile peeks out through Mom’s thin arms. 

She is blind now, so her eyes give her very little information. I communicate through touch and sound, starting with a soothing stroke of her shoulders and arms. Then, speaking in muted tones, I greet her. Sometimes I sing a tune from the old days, but she may not respond to me. 

On this day, she continues to converse with her stuffie. Our conversation will be limited today; she has just told the dog to wait until the train stops.

In her final years, my mother has taught me about the decline of the mind. While ageing is a forward motion for all of us, dementia is a train that leaves the station with no destination—just away. Stops are random and frequent, without logic or intention. The train loops back to the beginning for brief interludes in arbitrary patterns. I can’t discern where she is on her journey. When I ask questions, she responds in her unique language. Even though I rake through the embers of my childhood memories to find meaning, I don’t understand. I must let go of my quest to decode her language. 

My friends used to ask me if she recognizes me when I visit. This matters little; I only care that I take the time to share her journey wherever the train takes her. Mom lives in a dream, within a dream, within still a deeper dream. She seems happy there. On good days, I catch up with her at a station for a fleeting visit. 

On this day I support Mom’s chatter with mindless retorts: “Is that right?” Or “Of course you can have a padiddle.” My words bring a contented smile to her face as she continues to babble in a confabulated language as if the whole world is listening to her. Today she is a conductor, spouting out orders to imaginary staff. The care aide was right; it is a good day.

After twenty minutes, Mom gets tired and nods off. The train is leaving the station again. This Easter she rouses herself abruptly and yells, “Mom, Mom, where are you?” 

How poignant. I want to know, too.




Category: Volume 24