My mother died a few days into this new year. My sister and I cared for her during her long battle against Alzheimer’s, and she remained here with us until entering hospice for her final week. I have written before about my complicated relationship with her while she was alive. Now that she is not, that relationship is no less complicated.
For the first few days following her death, I continued to automatically look for her whenever I went downstairs, expecting to see her sitting on the couch or find her wandering around in her endless search for the way home. Walking by the door to her bedroom, which I do dozens of times throughout the day, I continued to hold my breath, not wanting her to wake up and need my attention. At night, I still slept fitfully, alert for any sound that she had gotten up and needed to be put back in bed.
Then, as I was removing the last of the ornaments from the still-standing Christmas tree and officially putting an end to the holiday season, it registered that she was gone. After more than three years (six for my sister) of her taking up virtually every moment of my days, I was no longer held captive by her disease. More important, for the first time in a decade, she too was no longer a prisoner of her disintegrating mind. That night, for the first time since setting foot in this house, I slept without waking.
No longer having to bear witness to my mother’s painfully slow disappearing act is an enormous relief. But the end has also brought some interesting revelations. While searching for a photo to include with my mother’s obituary, my sister and I looked through an envelope of photographs that I had never seen before. Many of the photos were of my mother and father when they were young, while others were of the period between the births of my sisters and myself. I am 12 and 10 years younger than they are, and my parents aged from their twenties into their thirties during this time.
The changes are remarkable. In the earliest photos of their marriage, my parents are laughing and smiling. They lie on beaches, celebrate holidays, attend family gatherings. Their expressions are full of joy and visions of futures filled with happiness. In my favorite photo, my mother is as glamorous as any 1960’s movie star, all dark eyes and youthful beauty, and my father looks relaxed and handsome, a man content with life.
These are not the parents I knew. I don’t know where the people in those photos went, but they were gone by the time I showed up. “Were they really like this?” I asked my sister.
She assured me that they were. She remembers my mother as someone who was funny, someone who had plans for her life, someone who she liked to come home from school to. But she also remembers the woman who left her family to live on the other side of the world because of my father’s job, the woman who lost a child for whom I was something of a replacement, the woman whose beloved brother was killed in a car accident not long after my birth, and the woman who changed under the strain of a marriage that became difficult.
That’s the woman who became my mother. The woman I was left with after my sisters grew up and began their own lives while I was just beginning mine. The woman they never knew until much later, when I told them about her.
In these last years, my sister and I cared for two different women in the same body. I wish I had known the mother my sister knew. I wish the mother I did get had been more like that version of herself. I wish she had had a different life, the one she wanted, and not been disappointed by what she got. I wish, too, that both of us had been better equipped to deal with the person she became.
I’ve written before that I did not love her. This is not entirely true. I did not love what she became. But I also know from my own life that we seldom get to choose what happens to us, only how we react to it. If I could rewrite my mother’s life for her, I would, even if it meant erasing my own chapters. Since I can’t, I am at least glad that my sister and I could give her story, if not a happy ending, at least a peaceful one.
I won’t miss my mother. But, for both our sakes, I do miss the person she wanted to be. I wish I had gotten the chance to meet her.
Michael Thomas Ford’s most recent novel, Lily, is a Tiptree Award long list title and is a finalist for the Lambda Literary award and the Shirley Jackson Award. More Michael Thomas Ford