The Gift

Posted by on Dec 5, 2014 in Short Stories | 1 comment

THE GIFT

Published by the Blue Lake (California) Literary Review, October 2013

 

I was spending a little time with my mother in Ashland, Kentucky, in the summer of 1998. We were on a day trip when she put her hand on my arm and said, “You’re such a nice young man. What is your name?” It took me a second to understand that she was not kidding—my mother had forgotten my name.

I knew that she was three years into Alzheimer’s, her memory was falling away like broken glass, and she would eventually forget everything and everyone. I knew this intellectually, but my emotions didn’t give a tinker’s damn about my intellect. When she forgot my name, it hurt.

“I’m your son, Tim. You know that, but you’re just checking up on me, aren’t you?” I said, pretending it was a game.

She laughed. “Yes, I know your name. I was just testing you.”

After I dropped her off at her caregiver’s home in Ashland that night, I drove back to my room at the motel, then sat down and cried.

Later that night I remembered something that happened years before, when I was a teenager. Mom, Dad, my younger sister, and I were visiting my grandparents. My grandmother—Mom’s mother—had been acting strangely for several years. This was in the ’60s, before Alzheimer’s disease had entered the general lexicon, so the adults said it was just old age or hardening of the arteries.

One night I awoke to hear my grandmother’s voice as she stood at the window of their bedroom.

“This man won’t let me come out and play,” she said, calling to childhood playmates. “This man” was my grandfather, who was trying to keep her quiet, telling her that everyone was asleep.

I heard another sound and left my sofa bed to see what it was. Mom stood at the locked door of her parents’ bedroom. She had her hand over her mouth, but I could hear the soft sounds of her weeping. She was in her nightgown, and the dim night-light in the hallway where she stood cast her shadow on the wall next to the door. I was looking at my mother, but I saw the little girl whose heart was breaking. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen in my young life.

Decades later, I grieved for her, just as she grieved for my grandmother. I finally understood what it was like to see the mother I loved disappear a little bit every day.

* * *

Six months later, I drove from my home in Michigan to Ashland for my Christmas visit. It was Wednesday, so I knew Mom would be at prayer meeting at our family church. I planned to arrive as the service ended so I could avoid the “God talk,” since I had discarded religion in my twenties.

I entered the vestibule, spotted an empty pew behind her, and sat down without her noticing me. I would be able to surprise her. That is when it dawned on me that the service was not almost over—the youth choir was presenting their Christmas cantata.

As I attempted to shut out the lackluster performance, I thought about a letter Mom had written to my older sister after my summer visit. I was surprised that she could write and spell correctly at her stage of Alzheimer’s, but she did. Her thoughts, however, were a jumbled mess.

Mom wrote that she (my sister) was her only child, and that she loved her. (She had forgotten not only me, but my younger sister.) Then she wrote about her only son who had gone off to war (which I had), and had returned home a different man (which was true). He suffered from the terrible things he did in the war, and when he could no longer live with the guilt, he killed himself. I e-mailed my sister, telling her that I was sending her a message from the grave, since I was dead and suffering in hell for the evils I had committed as a chaplain’s assistant in Vietnam.

The cantata ended and the preacher gave the closing prayer. In a Southern Baptist church the closing prayer is usually a sermonette, because there is always the possibility that someone at the service is not saved. This night was no exception. It was only seconds before the preacher uttered the words that fundamentalists most enjoy: sin, hell, and salvation. The missionaries around the globe were mentioned, as were the sick and dying. Finally, he said “Amen,” and the congregation tottered to their feet.

Mom put her hand on the pew in front of her and pulled herself erect. When she did, the thin jacket around her shoulders slid off.

I picked it up and said, “Here, I’ll help.”

Without turning, she slid her left arm into a sleeve, but her right arm was only going halfway into the sleeve—I was holding it closed. This was a game I played with her often over the years. After several tries, she realized something was stopping her. She turned around to see what it was.

Her eyes flew open. She laughed. “Tim. It’s Tim!” she said to the women who had been sitting next to her.

“This is my son, Tim. He’s come to visit me. Isn’t that wonderful?”

I was amazed.

She picked up her purse and asked, “Where are we going?” Her eyes sparkled with excitement.

“How about some ice cream?” It was winter, but she would never turn down ice cream.

We walked out of the church with our arms around each other, got into my car, and were on our way to the Dairy Queen. I called Ann, her caregiver, to let her know that Mom was with me.

As we ate our ice cream, it was not long before I saw that she was slipping away. Remembering me was a short-lived event, and before long she was recounting childhood memories—some were accurate, but most were not—once again fulfilling the “last to come, first to go” meme of families of Alzheimer’s victims.

When we arrived at Ann’s residence, Mom asked if I had come to take her home.

“This lady is very nice,” she said, “but it’s not my home. Can we go back home tomorrow?”

Although she would forget anything I told her, I knew that “home” for her was not a physical location. She was a child again, and home was the feeling of comfort, of safety. She needed a sense of security, a solid place to protect her as her world fell away. Telling her the truth would hurt her, so I lied.

“The doctor says you have to stay here a little longer—until you have your memory back,” I said.

“Oh, I know I can’t remember much these days,” she said. “I’m just going crazy.”

“No, you’re not crazy. You’re just having some memory problems.”

Ann opened her door. I hugged and kissed Mom good-night, and said I would see her in the morning. She would forget that, just as she would forget everything about my visit, but Ann would have her ready.

Back at the motel, I called my partner, Barbara, at our home in Michigan.

“How is Mama Elsie?” she asked.

“She’s fine,” I said. My voice quivered.

“Are you okay? I know these trips are hard for you.”

I cleared my throat. “Yes, I’m all right. I just realized something: Mom gave me a lovely Christmas present tonight.”

“What was it?”

“She remembered my name.”

 

 

 

 

 

One Comment

  1. I lost my mother to this hellish problem.she started to shoe sighns in 2005 and although I was there all the time it was my older sister she spoke fondly of,I on the other hand was just someone who she saw now and then.it was so hard to watch her slip away,but when you looked in her eyes you saw a scared child and when she passed away in 2010 it was with relief and saddness that I had held her hand as she went.i was an grey for years at her for not knowing who I was and then it was even sadder for her,she didn’t know who she was.love your parents as they are and not who you want them to be.