Not the Mother I Remember

Originally published in Cognoscenti/October 2020

This is not the mother who raised me.

That woman was a quick-to-anger natural redhead, with mood swings that would have made the Flying Wallendas dizzy. Still, she was bright, well-read and conscientious to a fault. The house I grew up in was spotlessly clean, highly efficient and full of books. Beyond her moodiness, Mom was supportive of my interests — which varied from stamp-collecting to an obsession with all things Canadian to small roles in high school plays.

Now being with my mother is an exercise in patience and protection. It is my job to see that nothing goes wrong, or, at least, goes as well as possible.

During a pandemic-era trip back to Cleveland, I stop by her assisted living home so I can take her for a masked ride around town. She walks toward my car warily, bent on her mission and hunched over her walker. Her shoulders meld into her curved neck, her head is downcast, her body a question mark. I want to tell her to straighten up, to stand tall — to her full 4’11” — to relax her shoulders and straighten her back as her physical therapist has instructed.

Her bright red hair is unruly and mussed — out of character, another form of letting go — and penciled-in eyebrows give her face a quizzical look. Her gold bracelets jangle, threatening to slide off of her tiny wrists and she wears a beige top and pants combo that might have fit years ago when she was 20 pounds heavier.

The effect is heartbreaking, and I try not to look. Instead, I flick the radio to a sports-talk station. (The news is too depressing: Trump and the pandemic, a lethal one-two punch.) I distract myself from the evidence that sits beside me: I am losing her, she is losing herself.

In the passenger seat, my mom slumps down, peering over the windshield and swimming in her too-large blouse. I try to spark conversation, to pull her back from the silence and the place she goes in that silence, staring into the abyss.

This is not the woman who raised me. The pieces have been rearranged and some have gone missing. And yet her essence is still there; she will always be my mother, and though I’m past 60, I will always be her son.

I am the responsible parent now, the protector, trying to get it right, afraid I won’t. We are both cursed with anxious genes, though she is calmer now, living in the present — a skill I’m still trying to master.

I am the parent now. When I see her slipping away, carried off by the tide, I am helpless, anchored to the shore, waving her back in — but the undertow is relentless, steady, unyielding.

I had a difficult mother who loved me the only way she knew how, with right and wrong formulas, shifting standards of behavior, algorithms only she could decipher. Now time, age, and the anesthesia and surgery that saved her life but stole her short-term memory have smoothed her out, worn down the jagged edges. Now she is compliant, grateful, content to let me take the wheel.

She doesn’t worry about the past or the future, is challenged enough by today. Why can’t I follow her example before I lose my own memory and obey Ram Dass’ dictum to “Be here now”?

On my visits back to Cleveland, I miss my “old” mother, the one who prattled on about people I hardly knew, who took her share of airtime. Now I have to fill those spaces, sit in the quiet or listen to the blather of talk radio.

Half a century streams by, picking up momentum. My mother and I are carried along by the current, heading toward the falls.