Discover more from What Happened to My Mother
Chapter 1: Teaspoons
My father is ten years older than my mother. In the fall of 2019, that made him 78 to our mother’s 68. To this day he is the picture of health for a septuagenarian—lean and long yet sturdy and vigorous. He’s still the consummate handyman he’s always been around the house, constantly finding new projects and things that need repairing on our one-acre suburban lot. His mind is sharp, with a healthy appetite for books and newspapers. He’s still, somehow, the most skilled driver in the family, and is going on 40 years as an avid mountain biker. Nobody knows the mountain bike trails of Phoenix’s 16,000-acre South Mountain Park better than he does. A retired Vietnam veteran and private pilot, he operates with all the seriousness and routine one would expect of a soldier, but not without a persistent, wry sense of humor to keep you on your toes.
So, it came as a surprise when Mom started expressing concerns about Dad’s mental health with my three older sisters and me. She’d list ways he’d become more forgetful, such as buying a jug of milk when they already had some in the refrigerator or accusing her of closing a window that he himself had closed.
She believed that he knew his cognition was failing and for that reason left himself mementos around the house—an oddly-shaped rock on the windowsill or a piece of found jewelry on the credenza. If those were signs of some form of dementia, though, my father had been suffering from it nearly all our lives. (What does this mean – did he always collect random objects?)
It had gotten to the point where I started pushing back. It was simply not fair to suggest that he was suffering from dementia (Alzheimer’s was her exact diagnosis) because of minor forgetfulness. “How would you like it if every time you forgot something, we started whispering behind your back about how you’re probably suffering from dementia?” I’d ask, whenever she relayed her suspicions.
As people get older, their loved ones begin to anticipate the inevitable signs of aging. It’s my belief that -- far more often than people realize -- this anticipation is so strong that people start to see things that aren’t really there. Past a certain age, ordinary human errors become causes for concern. We convince ourselves that, even though they may just be mistakes, they’re happening more often than before. It’s a form of gaslighting the elderly that is profoundly unfair and that most of us engage in unknowingly on some level.
This belief informed my reaction to Mom’s gossip about Dad. I told her that she was manifesting negative outcomes for him and encouraged my sisters to shut her down if told them similar stories. I felt as if I could relate, if only in some small way. It always bothered me when a single ill-timed sneeze would prompt others to ask, “Are you getting sick?” This was that, only with something much more serious.
My father and I share the same name. So did he and his father, and so on and so forth for six generations now. He’s a native Arizonan, born into a poor working-class family in Tucson before signing up to fly helicopters in Vietnam, where he spent two tours and forged a career as a military, and then civilian, pilot. My mother Carole is his third wife. She was born in Illinois and moved to Arizona for high school.
How did they meet? (and maybe say something brief about your dad’s marriage record – is there something deeper about his character you’d like to reveal? Was he a romantic who quickly soured on the domestic routine, or?)
My parents’ marriage was never ideal[JS1] , but at least it was peaceful. We kids never witnessed our parents physically or verbally abuse each other. My mom was a social butterfly while dad was not. She was affectionate and emotional while he was business-like and steely, preferring the comfort and routine of home to the concert hall or church. She often attended social gatherings alone.
In hindsight, I know that Carole was being deprived of something essential in her marriage – companionship -- but she stayed married for the sake of keeping us all together, as moms and dads often do.
Why make the previous characterization? Was it out of character for her to complain about your dad directly to your and your sibs? Did it feel odd or even disrespectful to hear her insult your father? (more).
“Your father keeps hiding the teaspoons and pretending he doesn’t know where they went,” she told my youngest sister Lucy over the phone one day. The teaspoons in question was from a 40-year-old silverware set which had lost many pieces over the years. But now she suspected it wasn’t just an innocent misplacement.
“He keeps messing up the rug because he shuffles his feet everywhere. That’s what Kay’s husband George was doing when he got Alzheimer’s,” she’d say. She added that he was also getting more irritable late in the day -- another Alzheimer’s symptom called “sundowning.”
We thought of her strange remarks as an annoying new habit, just a phase. By mid-spring, though, it became apparent that Mom herself was suffering from cognitive decline, even exhibiting some of the exact symptoms she said she had started seeing in Dad.
It was a strange foreboding of what was to come for our family. And come for us it did, with the destructive force of a CAT 5 hurricane.