My mom was diagnosed with vascular dementia several years ago, and she has had increasing memory problems. Mom is one of close to six million people living with dementia in the United States. Last Thanksgiving, Mom struggled to remember which grandchild was in each of her three daughters’ families. So, we took a family picture and labeled it with our names. She loved it, put them on the refrigerator, and says it helps — she looks at it daily! I’ve noticed a number of our residents’ families making picture albums to help their loved one continue to feel connected to family. (More on this topic: TED Talk: A Mother and Son's Photographic Journey Through Dementia)
I Know You, But I Don't Remember You
Once, when we were out for dinner, Mom talked about how frustrated she felt not remembering. She said, “I know you, but I don’t remember you.” On one level, that doesn’t make sense. How can you know someone if you can’t remember them? But on another level, it makes sense. We know not just with our brains, but with our hearts. That deep, heartful knowing of a beloved person or a beloved Savior doesn’t require remembering. Something happens when we love someone, almost as if they are etched onto our hearts. That comforts me when I grieve Mom’s failing memory.
In Isaiah 49: 15 -16, God says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands." My name is written on God’s hands. And I’ve discovered that I am also engraved upon my mother’s heart, even when she forgets specific memories.
Grief in Aging
One of the tasks aging presents us with is grief. Many of my residents grieve life transitions, death of loved ones, and the loss of physical abilities, such as walking or the loss of memories. What I’ve discovered is that talking about those losses with other people helps us continue on our life journey and travel through grief to a new normal.
To that end, I share some of my memories of my mom as Mom and I each make our way through our grief. Thank you for bearing witness with me.
Memories for My Mother
“Mom, this memory is all yours. You told me when I was three, I got mad at you and I told you, “I’m running away.” You helped me pack a small suitcase, and I left out the front door, trudged down the sidewalk past three houses. I set down the suitcase and sat on it, and after what seemed like forever to me — but was probably only ten minutes — I made my way back home to be welcomed with a hug. I have a feeling we each made a hard journey that day, both mother and daughter.
When I was in first grade in a new school and a new city, my teacher in her first year of teaching often scared me. She had me stay in for recess when I colored outside the lines. Once she accused me of cheating when I most certainly did not! As I walked home with my older sister, Susan, my worries twisted my stomach in knots. It hurt so much that I laid down in the ditch beside the path and told my sister I couldn’t walk any further. Susan ran home, and Mom, and she got into our station wagon and came to rescue me. You made me feel safe.
I have many good memories of coming home from school and sitting down with you to talk about my day and have a snack. You didn’t make cookies like your mom, but I always had my choice of a Twinkie, Ho-Ho, or Hostess cherry pie. Talking and laughing with you was easy. Of course, we had our fair share of arguments too. I was always quick to point out when something “wasn’t fair, for me.” I felt totally free to express myself, not always nicely. Having teenagers of my own now, I realize teenagers are pretty myopically self-absorbed. I won’t forget what you told all of us — thankfully comfortable long past that time, it only a memory. “I have always loved you girls. There were times, especially in middle school, when I didn’t like you. But I always loved you.”
When my first son, Jacob, was born, you flew out to Sacramento and stayed with me for three weeks. I will always treasure that time. You weren’t bossy. You weren’t opinionated. But it was nice to have your advice. And even more than that, your presence calmed some of my new-parent worries.
Mom, I wouldn’t have made it through seminary without you caring for my four children! You flew with two-year-old Jacob from Sacramento to Grand Rapids while we drove across the country with all of our belongings so I could go to seminary. All my kids — Jake, Sam, Liam, and Fiona — have good memories of time with Grandma. My final year of seminary surprised us all with the birth of Fiona! I managed to finish final projects and take oral exams only because you came to my house every day and held Fiona between me breastfeeding her so I could study. Thank you, Mom! I love you.
I’ll remember for you now, Mom, until you remember.
Experiencing dementia personally or as a family member is painful. The Holy Spirit has been a bastion of comfort and hope for me. So too is God’s promises for the coming peaceable kingdom and the new creation when God makes all things new. Even memories will experience a bit of a resurrection.