Ann Patchett is an author whose novels I find compelling. Her novel State of Wonder does a good a job of capturing some the joy and a wonder of field work. The novel is set in South America, and I did field work in SE Asia, but the novel held me.
She has a column in Sundays NYTimes called "Finding Joy in My Father's Death". I love her writing, the stories she tells. I love that she can pull me into what she is thinking. But now, as my mother is very very slowly dying of Alzheimer's disease, I do not want to read other people's views. There is a lot of talk about AD right now, given the academy awards, and I find that I turn the radio off. I don't want to know more about it. I feel like I know everything I want to know, need to know, except how much longer will my mother live? How hard is this going to be for me and my sister? How much more indignity will this wonderful brilliant woman have before she finally shuffles off her mortal coil?
But I glanced at Patchett's op-ed and read the first paragraph and I was hooked. From the op-ed:
In Costco, I told Felice that I would do everything I could to help my father, but that I had resolved not to feel sad.
“He’s still alive,” I said, thinking he might last a few months. “I’ve decided to wait and feel terrible once he’s dead.”
“Or not,” she said brightly, and gave me a hug.
Or not. Or not. More:
“What if you’ve thrown a dinner party,” I said. “And at 11 o’clock your guests got up to leave. The dishes were still on the table, the pans were in the sink, you had to go to work in the morning, but the guests just kept standing in the open door saying good night. They tell you another story, praise your cooking, go back to look for their gloves. They do this for three years.”
Please don't say, but this is your mother, not a house guest. Please don't say, but this is a life, not a dinner party. The person who my mother was, professor and brilliant do-er of cross-word puzzles and reader of murder mysteries and knitter of gorgeous sweaters is gone. There is someone there. Someone who is contiguous with her. Someone who sometimes looks like her, but not always. The woman with whom I fought and argued, the woman who hurt me and who I surely hurt in return, is not the woman I visit and feed and comfort.
There is very little left of my mother. There are still things in which, I believe, I think, I hope, she takes joy: ice cream, a hand to hold. Why think? There is no language left, no expression or communication. I do not know what she sees, I do not know that we understand how AD interferes with the signals from eyes to brain.
Patchett's post was a little ray of light for me. A little help in thinking about my mother.
I do not know how to end this blog post. Hopeful? "And as long as there is a person there, I am still her daughter, and I will still care for her"? or coldly realistic? "She has certainly taken years at the door to leave the party and it is painful and hard and cruel". Both are true.
I have no idea what I will feel when she is gone. Hell, I don't know what I feel right now. The world is not a fair place, to old people dying slowing or to young people figuring it out.