Mom and I were both very late bloomers in finding out who we were, who we were not, and in learning how to enjoy each other.
Up until very recently when dementia set in, she endured a psychologically tortured life with a giant social smile, having grown up in a family that didn’t have the emotional stability to nurture her or allow her to feel safe or ok as her unique self. Most of her dreams were ridiculed and squashed in the 50’s, because she was a girl, because she was stunningly pretty, and because she’d been taught to set her whole self aside for her narcissistic, emotionally ill mother. My grandma, Margaret, had been through the trials of an orphan in the 1910’s, and was a beautiful person on the inside, as I believe we all are when you care to look deep enough, but that alone couldn’t help my mother. Mom tells me now that all her life she felt forced into a role that never fit her.
Mom then met my future dad, another incredible person intensely (and then invisibly) burdened by severe psychological issues from his childhood that kept him from being able to meet my mom emotionally. Quite the opposite. She found herself once again caring for a person sucked into self-absorption by his own inner demons.
Then my parents decided to have children to save their marriage and to help my dad out of his terrifying depressions. You might guess the basic way this story turned out. 😦
Mom lost her husband violently and unexpectedly when I was 9, with no career, no income, and two small children to care for. The stress of it all took its toll on her and on our family, and I had an intensely tortured relationship with her, way up until the time she was diagnosed with Parkinsonism, in her 50’s. Mom had known little, if any, solace within herself or in her relationships, and though she loved her daughters ferociously, she didn’t know how to find or create peace, and the three of us (my mom, my sister, and I) grew up together as a tempestuous trio, to put it mildly. My sister and I have not yet been able to overcome all the pain that destroyed our relationship during that time, but perhaps time will heal.
Now on to the good part of this story. As my sister and I left home and Mom started aging and nearing retirement, she found herself inconsolably haunted by debilitating depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, which therapy and meds couldn’t put a dent in. When Parkinson’s came along, it seemed like the cruel icing on the cake.
But I sure don’t see it that way now.
For the first time in my life, I saw Mom starting to let go of what she couldn’t control, noticed her ceasing her compulsive criticism of my sister and me, and saw her forced by her disease to start living in the present. As the dementia progressed gradually, there was more humor emanating out of her than the old bitterness, and she started spending her money and going on adventurous trips with friends. Not doubting that the shadow of a progressive disease tortured her immensely, I still was sure I saw a new Carol Jean emerging, who didn’t have time or energy to fight or dig up the past. To my amazement, I started to enjoy her company in a way I never could as a young person, and we ever so slowly began to trust each other and became friends.
Until very recently, I had felt like an orphan in many ways, since Mom had been so overtaken by her life-long inner misery that she had a hard time caring for us and being present emotionally. Dementia has stripped her of a past that made her miserable, unburdened her of a huge chunk of the anxiety and depression she lugged around all her life, and has allowed her to feel peaceful and focused in the present for chunks of time. Granted, she sure has her share of sorrows these days, but they now seem based on present reality, (losing her home, losing physical abilities, being bored by too much demeaning bingo at the memory care facility), rather than ghosts from her past.
We’ve been having a fabulous time lately doing the little things that neither of us ever would have taken time to notice or enjoy if life had gone on the way we thought it would. And there’s so much laughter, largely because we need it to survive, so we look for the humor in each day and find it more than we ever could before.
People talk about dementia as being a cruel disease, and I suppose it is, especially in the later stages, or if your life was mentally stimulating, emotionally enjoyable, and now is not at all. But in mom’s case, and regarding our relationship, it has been an odd, unexpected blessing in certain ways.
It feels disconcerting to call this stage of now moderate dementia for Mom the best time of our lives together, but I belive it is. And at the risk of saying something unpopular that many might not fathom, going through dementia with her has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, in that it’s also forced me to let go of everything not important, and see the essence of love and life long before most people my age are forced to make that reconciliation.