The Mom Switch

May 13, 2014

Mother’s Day

I rounded the corner from the elevator and scanned the small room. Why do all little old ladies seem to look alike? I thought. Then I heard my brother say, “There she is! Hi mom! “

I followed his eyes, his wide grin as he moved towards the corner of the little room. There sat my mother, the windows pouring sunlight across her lap, and in her arms, clutched to her chest, was a baby doll. It was a very real looking doll, maybe the size of a three month old infant, swaddled in a flannel blanket and she was gently rocking, now looking at my brother, smiling, but still rocking.

“Hey mom,” I said, but softly, as if I might wake the doll.

The other women were mostly disinterested in our entrance. They stared off, slumped in their wheel chairs like broken marionettes. Some smiled, some did not. The dementia unit, with only eleven beds, is actually co-ed, but in the five years my mom has been there, I have only seen one man. Curious.

My mother does not know me anymore; she can’t think in terms of, There’s my daughter Robin. But I suspect, watching her mother hands move over her doll, adjusting the receiving blanket, then patting her ever so lightly on the back, that the Mom switch is still intact, and that she knows on some deep guttural level that I am someone familiar and safe.

If you ask my granddaughter, Olive, what she wants to be when she grows up, she’ll say without hesitation A Mommy. That a four year old, (today actually) is also wired to hold, rock, feed, burp and dress a baby is just as amazing to me as my mother’s behavior. God made us to be moms. Mysterious.

To me, and to many other women, the Mother-Daughter relationship is fraught with complex, maze-like emotions. We’ve always loved each other, definitely did not always like each other; certainly never understood each other. I’m glad, again, that the Bible makes it so simple. Honor your mother and father. Not because they were stellar or even good enough. Maybe they were awful. It doesn’t matter. You can still honor them just like you can forgive them. It’s positional, not really emotional. And the older I get, recognizing so many of my own inadequacies, the easier it becomes. There should be honor, and lots of grace, for the hardest job on earth.

My brother and I wheeled her downstairs to a Victorian-esque living room with high ceilings and dark panels crowded with paintings of British queens, and after parking her next to us, we talked and laughed and goofed around like we’ve done for more than 50 years. I can comfortably regress around my siblings. Mom had a tissue and began wiping the fingers of her baby with great attention, one by one, looking up when we laughed too loud with a little half-smile, then continuing her work. Then I watched as she bent down and kissed each little finger, ever so gently. I’m fascinated by this and I cant help but think I don’t think she ever did that with us, or her grandchildren. But maybe she wanted to.

My mom has vascular dementia, which means the vessels criss-crossing her brain are letting go; some are microscopic, like frail gossamer strands that just weaken and collapse. Then two major arteries in the front of her brain dramatically burst within two years of each other.

The frontal lobe is the vault for judgment, reasoning, memory and speech. It’s also where we record social restraint. All that is gone now. So the New Mom we’ve noticed, and frankly enjoyed, over the last five years is more tender, warm and playful. The guarded reserve, the fear and self-doubt…gone.

In Lauren Kessler’s book, Dancing With Rose, she describes an Alzheimer’s unit she works in as an aide. They actually have a “nursery”, with a baby-doll for each woman, and after lunch, they are led to the nursery where they each pick up their baby, with blankets and clothes. These ladies are severely demented but they each know which baby is theirs. That’s how my mom got her own baby. She started kidnapping another woman’s baby on her floor and because she could walk then, she’d run off with it and stash it in her room. Not cool Mommy.

Sometimes when I walk past the Pediatric Unit at work I can hear the scream of a newborn that is addicted to opiates. It’s a very distinct, heart-wrenching cry and they hire “rockers” just to hold these babies that have had such a really rotten start to life. Too bad we can’t join the Wanting-to-Hold like the ladies on my mom’s dementia unit with the Need-Too-Be-Held drug addicted babies. It’s not practical. When my granddaughter gets distracted or bored with her babies she just drops them on the floor and moves on. And I’m afraid my mom would do the same.

We wheeled her back to her floor after about a half an hour. I don’t know what goes on in her head, but I think the doll was more interesting to her than her big not-as-cute kids. I like to think that she can love without fear or restraint now, that it’s safe, much like how Olive can love her babies. She mothered five children, lost one at age nine, which confirmed what she feared most, I can’t do this!. The first time I handed her Spencer as an infant, she held him at arms length, then placed him on her knees, at a distance. I was confused and hurt. Now I know she was just scared.

Loving is risky business. My mom loved me enough and the very best she could. But sometimes it’s just wanting to hold, and rock and hold some more, and she can do this. I like to think of her now, with her hands that remember, wrapping that baby-doll snug in her blanket and kissing her so tenderly good-night.