It was a dark and stormy night last Friday here in Georgia. Okay, it was really just drizzling, but it was dark. My mom was driving me and my daughter to my sister’s house, about a mile away, for dinner. Because Mom lives here and I don’t, I figured she knew where she was going. We picked up her prescription at the drive-in pharmacy, then headed to my sister’s house. At least that was the plan.
I did wonder why we headed into the Deer Run subdivision. But still trusting – she’s my Mom, after all – I rode along without alarm. Until she tried to run a stop sign. “Stop!” I hollered. She did stop, for about three whole minutes, looking carefully around her, letting car after car proceed at the three-way intersection. My alarm was rising, but still trusting, I sat silent as she finally rolled forward.
At the end of the road, Mom pulled into the clubhouse parking lot like she knew exactly where she was going, like this was where we were supposed to be. I had no idea where we were, nor why we had come to the pool and tennis courts.
“Where are we?” she asked, sounding befuddled, driving slowly through the deserted parking lot.
“We’re at the pool. See, there are the tennis courts,” I replied, as calmly and as matter-of-factly as I could. I was doing my best to give her the space she needed to figure it out, partly because I didn’t know how to get to my sister’s house and partly to protect her fierce pride.
“Well, this isn’t right,” she muttered, as she proceeded to execute a 10-point turn to turn the car around and exit the way we had come in.
“Mom, I think you can go right out there, straight ahead, and it will get us back to where we came in,” I suggested. This should have been obvious, but apparently, it wasn’t for Mom.
“No, I need to turn around,” she asserted.
We finally got out of the parking lot and I began to read off street names to try to help her locate herself. She eventually understood where we were and headed back toward the pharmacy. She wove back and forth between the two lanes, often straddling the line. I became seriously frightened as I realized she was too confused to safely drive. And my daughter was in the car, which only increased my anxiety.
“Mom, stay in your lane!” I yelled at one point, conscious of the pizza driver behind us, who was patiently trying to predict the erratic movements of the crazy driver in front of him. Of course, my outburst only increased her anxiety.
I probably should have insisted on driving. But I was too shocked at what was happening to know what to do. Mom always knows what to do and how to do it. Surely she knew how to get to my sister’s place. And I know all too well that stubborn independence that has served my mom so well all her life and that I honestly admire so much in her. I did not want to be the one to take that away from her in such a humiliating way. I wanted her to figure this out and get us there, like she always has.
We did make it to my sister’s house without crashing. I do not scare easily and I’d always thought “trembling with fear” was literary hyperbole. Not so. I walked into my sister’s house trembling with fear and burst into tears in my sister-in-law’s arms in the pantry.
The hard thing is, my mom is the most creative, vivacious, productive woman I’ve ever known. My tears were not just a post-traumatic release, but indicative of pure heartbreak at what is happening to her. It’s just not fair. She has been ill all her life with various ailments, beginning with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She’s been divorced, broke, and hospitalized too many times for one lifetime. You would never know it, though. She has lived her life with a courageous determination and an attitude of can-do that has served her in miraculous ways. Simply said, my mom is amazing.
But things are changing as she ages. Mom is still and always amazing, but it’s harder to see it through the fog of fading memory. I live on the other side of the country, so I only see her once or twice a year, which makes the changes glaringly apparent and all the more disturbing. I am not coping well this trip. I cry through my prayers, which are not for me, but for my mom. It breaks my heart to imagine how she feels as she experiences the loss of her own keen wits, as she senses how much of her own life she is missing due to memory loss. It may literally kill her to lose the independence she has fought so hard for. Then again, pretending she still can do all the things she’s always done may kill her, too. Or someone else.
I know I am describing the experience of many of you with aging parents. It is harder than I imagined. It’s like I’m losing my mom before she’s even gone. And I do not know how to face this with grace.