Most of us have heard phrases like, "There was an accident; he's gone," and, "If only I had told him one more time that I loved him." The shock brings sadness, but none that compares to the hurt caused when you see it coming "¦ and coming.
The loss of my mother was that greater pain. It is analogous to having your car stall on a train track with a looming train in the distance, not quite there, but definitely approaching. You try desperately to get your mother out, but there is no escape.
Some other-world force finally lifts you out of the car, but you are unable to extricate your partner, the one you love so much. This very hurtful kind of loss is slow, with tiny bits of what you have known for so long slipping away, one special memory at a time.
Dementia doesn't just confuse a person. It can steal an individual's life entirely and, in the process, the lives of those who love him most.
My dad passed away just after I finished college, so I moved back with my mother to share a life of support and love for the next 41 years. My dad had been my mom's life, so it was difficult, but my mom and I became a team.
My brother was the only relative living close; he had come back to town the last 17 years of our mom's life. He was special, her only son, and she was very proud of him. She asked his advice, doted on him, and just loved any time she could spend with him.
A few years before she passed away, our mother's confusion surfaced in unexpected ways. Whether due to misunderstanding or lack of time, people hurt her by being curt or disinterested. She would say, "They don't listen to me because I am old."
Her sadness hurt me, and I tried to convince her that people were just too busy or that they hadn't understood her.
What I know now, but couldn't acknowledge then, was that I should grab every good moment and make it last. I felt I should be productive, so instead of sitting with my mom for tea, I would fix hers and charge off to do laundry. I should have known how much I'd want those times back later.
My mom began to have confusion about clothing and other ordinary objects. I tried hard to help her without making a big deal of it — and would cry later when alone. I found her drinking glass in her sweater drawer, and one day she hid the key to her car, a precious possession that she loved to go look at in the garage. Then she wanted to find the key so she could drive home.
She often thought I was someone else, and a few times she told both my brother and me to leave her home. The most difficult part was her fear and sorrow in moments when she realized where her confusion had led her. I was still in denial, hoping this terrible and frightening life would disappear.
Everyone deals differently with loss. My reluctance to admit what was happening may have cost me memories. Perhaps I should have recorded some of our conversations or made a game with our camcorder. Maybe my overt effort to save what we had would have made it easier for us both to let go. I will never know. I do know that I could never have made it through that time without my brother. He assuaged her anxieties and made contacts that helped us with the challenges yet to come. I may have missed some chances to tell my mom of my feelings, but I've tried not to miss the chance to thank my brother.
If someone you love is slipping away, there may be help out there in your extended family and in your community. Ask for it. One bit of advice: live every minute to the fullest, hang on for dear life to what is good, and most important, don't wait to say goodbye, out loud to that person, and inside, to your own heart.
Mary Lynn lives in Medford.