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Dementia Gave Me the Mom I All the time Needed

February 3, 2024
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The summer before I turned 13, my mother dumped a macaroni-and-cheese casserole in my lap. Sizzling hot from the oven, it left an angry red mark in the shape of a spiral noodle on my thigh.

This wasn’t an accident; my stepfather, Jack, had roused her ire by playing tennis after work, and I’d chimed in to support him. “What’s the big deal?” I muttered, just as she walked into the dining room carrying the Pyrex dish on a tray.

“She didn’t mean that,” Jack said quickly, and we both instinctively ducked as the dish came slamming down. Luckily, it was a glancing hit, with the container and most of the noodles landing on the floor. While Jack scrambled for an ice pack, my mother shrieked, “I hate this family!” Then she rushed upstairs and threw the contents of his tennis bag out the bedroom window. 

No one told me that my mother’s episodes were abnormal

I helped clean up the remains of our dinner while sneakers, tennis whites, and dirty socks rained down in the backyard. “Welcome to Morrisa’s Dinner Theater,” Jack said, rolling his eyes. 

Growing up, no one told me that episodes like these were abnormal; they seemed unpleasant but inevitable, like thunderstorms or stomach flu. My mother regularly slapped my face for transgressions like having a messy closet or forgetting to empty the dishwasher. She once threw a bicycle at me because I had left it in the driveway, blocking her car when she got home from work. 

I graduated high school a year early and accepted a scholarship to a university in Europe, as far away from her as I could get. By then, I believed that life was fundamentally unsafe and filled with pain, and that no one, least of all me, had the right to be cherished. I told myself that I was strong and independent; that I could survive anything; and that I didn’t need anyone.

My relationship with my mother was dysfunctional. (Photo credit: Deborah Gaines)

I was free from my mother but looked for other dysfunctional relationships

The next 20 years were a roller coaster, with dizzying highs—earning college and graduate degrees, returning to the U.S., and working as a travel writer for a New York newspaper—and stomach-churning lows. Although I was free from my mother’s violent rage, I sought out similarly dysfunctional relationships. 

By the time I was 37, I had weathered two divorces and been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I had an infant daughter and was staying in a church basement to escape her emotionally abusive father after he drained our joint bank account.

My mother and Jack came to the hospital when my daughter was born, seeming charmed by their first grandchild. That was the last I heard from them until eight months later, when they paid us a visit at the church in Hoboken.

Over lunch, my mother offered me the use of their guest bedroom while I regrouped. I stifled a gasp and accepted. Maybe becoming a grandmother had softened her? Whatever the reason, I was willing to try to reconnect.  

We arrived at Baltimore Station on an icy afternoon three days later. I was toting the baby in a sling, together with a car seat, a stroller, and a backpack containing all of our belongings. 

Jack met us on the platform. As soon as I saw his hangdog expression, I knew that my mother had backed out. “Morrisa thinks you’d be uncomfortable in the guest room,” he said, staring down at his shoes. 

“Worse than a basement?” My face burned with sudden heat. In an instant, I was 12 years old again, embarrassed and ashamed to have expected anyone’s help. “Fine. We’ll leave in the morning.” 

I was determined to give my daughter a loving home

I’m strong and independent, I reminded myself. I don’t need anyone. But I knew this was no longer true. I needed help to raise my baby—a lot of help. She deserved a family who cherished her, and I had no idea how to provide one.

Standing on the platform with my eyes watering from the cold, I resolved to do whatever it took to create a safe home. If I didn’t know how to love myself, I could start by loving her. Back in Hoboken, I went into counseling, found an Al-Anon group, and freelanced until I could afford a small apartment. Eventually, I got a job, and a few years later, remarried and moved to a bucolic suburb. 

The years slid by, filled with the joys and worries of daily life: work challenges, school band concerts, a garden that wouldn’t thrive no matter how much time I poured into it. My peaceful world was shaken when my husband was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 56, and nearly destroyed when he died three years later. 

I found out my mother had dementia

One hot summer morning, the phone rang. It was my mother’s doctor. “I’m sure you know that Morrisa has dementia,” he said. (I didn’t.) “Now that her husband is gone, she’ll need to be closer to family.”

I’ve often wondered why I didn’t just hang up. But caring about others had become second nature in the years since my daughter was born. And we’d both been widowed; maybe we could understand each other better now. 

I moved her to a senior facility down the road from my home. The first few months were awful. At 85, my mother was still fueled by rage, with the added frustration of cognitive decline. “My daughter institutionalized me so she could steal my money!” she told anyone who would listen. 

I was embarrassed to hope she died quickly

I fervently hoped she would die quickly, although I was ashamed to share that sentiment with anyone but my therapist. Then I got a call saying the staff had found her on the floor of her room, paralyzed from the waist down. 

This is it, I thought, lightheaded with relief. But the ailment turned out to be treatable—a urinary tract infection that had spread to her kidneys. She spent 13 days in intensive care, her mind wandering in uncharted waters.

The first time she saw me afterwards, her face melted into a gentle smile. “My beautiful daughter,” she said to the nurse. “Aren’t I the luckiest woman alive?”

“You certainly are,” the nurse replied, adding, “Morrisa hasn’t stopped bragging about you since she woke up.”

Love and kindness were her new symptoms

“That’s—thanks.” I took a deep breath to steady myself as the shock reverberated through my system. I’d been warned the hospital stay might accelerate her dementia. Could loving kindness somehow be a symptom? 

Whatever the reason, it quickly became clear that my mother’s short-term memory was shot. She didn’t know why she’d been hospitalized; she also had no idea what she’d eaten for breakfast, or when she’d last seen me. “Just drop by when you feel like it,” the nurse said. “It will be a wonderful surprise.”

When I did, instead of an endless stream of accusations, she offered gentle observations on how pretty the clouds looked. Any activity I suggested was met with enthusiasm, from petting a therapy dog to attending a performance by the local glee club. 

I did not forgive the past but was grateful for the present

From then until her death a year later, I visited my mother a few times a week. Sometimes we sat on the couch together, watching cat videos or episodes of Grace & Frankie. I leaned on her shoulder and she stroked my hair. When we held hands, her skin felt soft and delicate. 

I like to think I got to know the person she always was, under the resentment and rage. A proud parent. An animal lover. A joyful human being. 

I still can’t forgive her for our shared past. But I’m grateful, for that short time, to have had a mother who cherished me. 

More Great Reading:

Even Though My Mother Is Gone, I Am Not Motherless

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