Easy Does It



My mother lives within five miles of our home and she turns 94 this month. She loves it when I drop by and she smiles right through the telephone when I call her. She tells me I’m the most wonderful of God’s creatures, even though she is not entirely sure who I am.

My mother, in addition to being one of the loveliest women I’ve ever known, also has dementia. Her brain is deteriorating, week by week. She has lost most of her memory, including all 63 years of her marriage to my father. She has only very limited mechanical ability of any kind, and more and more often, leaves her sentences hanging in the air after about three words, leaving me to wonder where in the world she was headed. When I am with my mother, what she most needs me to be is relaxed and present, patient and slow.

Too much of the time, I am NONE of those things.

Loving a person with severe dementia means you continually live with a large load of cognitive dissonance. In my head, I know that she cannot understand, cannot remember, and cannot move quickly, either physically or mentally. But my heart wants her to be as she once was: fast-witted, funny, vivacious, interesting, well-read, deeply spiritual.

Who she is now … is slow. Her brain is losing itself, day by day. Scientists do not yet understand all the complicated mechanisms that make this true, but this much we do know: the part of her brain that remembers things is disintegrating. The part of her brain that understands how things work, how time happens, what she said 30 seconds ago is almost entirely non-functional.

So when I hand her a napkin at lunch, she has no idea what to do with it. I say gently, “Put it in your lap, Mom.” And she moves to pick up the knife and fork that were just wrapped in that napkin, sending them to her lap.

Because she has always had a gift for sociability, and is a natural extrovert, she has maintained a semblance of those characteristics. She has a “routine” that she follows when we are together. Ten times in ten minutes, she asks the same set of rote questions: How is your family? Have you found a church you like? Where is your husband? And the biggest one of all, ever-present: Do you ever think about moving?

“No, Mom,” I always say. “I like it here. We plan to be here until we die.” And some days, I swear to you, I want her to hear and understand that verb. I want her to grasp that she is dying, that I am dying. We are all dying. Most of the time, she hasn’t a clue.

But it’s that question about moving that gets to me, almost every time. She wants to be somewhere else. She talks about driving somewhere. She has no idea where she would go and she seems to have forgotten that she quit driving, of her own volition, almost ten years ago.

If I were her, I’d probably want to be somewhere else, too. She lives in a dementia unit, with 15 others in various stages of lostness, three to five aides always present to help them dress, bathe, eat, walk, sing, arrange flowers, watch movies. It’s a lovely place. Truly, it is. And she tells me that she loves her room.

But she’d like to move.

So we talk. And I bite my tongue, swallowing the long explanation I have too often given, willing myself to go slowly, to speak little, to listen well. “It’s good to have dreams, don’t you think?” I’ll say. “We all need to dream, don’t we?”

But inside, I’m roiling. And I’m praying, “Lord, give me ears to hear, give me patience with the pauses, give me words that she can hear and understand, help me to slow down.”

Somehow, slowing down feels like giving up, like giving her up, week after week. There are times when I can hardly bear it, so I constantly fight the urge to hurry everything—to get her back to her room, to be done with this agonizing meal, to get in the car and run away as fast as I can.

I am learning the gentle, difficult discipline of deliberate slowing … not for my sake, but for hers. I’ve learned a lot over the years about slowing down in order to improve my own life, to deepen my own faith, to add layers and textures to the experiences of my life. But I’m a rank beginner at slowing down for someone else, at matching my speed to theirs, at being at peace with what is, not pining for what was.

Slowly, slowly, I am learning how to do this. I look for beauty in what we have, I enjoy and celebrate occasional flashes of lucidity, and I am grateful that she is still able to leave her unit long enough for a two-hour lunch once each week. She is exhausted when we get back, but oh! how she loves to be out, look around the city we live in, see the ocean, people-watch, try new things.

All of it, she does slowly. But she does them. And slowly, I am learning to let that be enough.


Image credit: Tristan Schmurr