I have such a good relationship with Mom right now, I have to remind myself that as close as we’ve always been, we have had our share of issues.
A good relationship? In the midst of dementia? Well, in an odd way, yes.
Dealing with her dementia isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it has forced me to let go of a lot of baggage, and that’s good for both of us.
I’m talking about emotional baggage — the issues that inevitably crop up between parents and children, married couples, siblings. Issues like unrealistic expectations, or personality conflicts, or bad parenting, or (in my case) an almost too-perfect parent who never intended to make me feel inadequate, but who was, by her very nature, so good at everything that I sometimes felt I’d never measure up. Poor Mom couldn’t say anything about my housekeeping or my parenting without pushing my buttons: What did she mean by that? Was it a veiled criticism? Why do I care??
Very few of us get through mid-life without some baggage, so if you’re like me, when a family member shows signs of dementia you are already carrying some weight. You get on the dementia train hauling trunks and suitcases of tired old resentments, fully expecting to use them all. Who knows when you might need to reach in and pull out a pet argument or a sensitive point?
But eventually, dementia renders all of that baggage useless. Sure, the person with dementia may argue, but she can’t engage in the subtle tug-of-war you packed in your train case. She can’t play your little power games, at least not verbally. She can’t remember what you said five minutes ago. She can’t even remember what she said five minutes ago.
Cognitively, she is traveling light.
At first this is infuriating. Just when you’re old and wise enough to prove to your parents that you know exactly what you’re doing, they can’t hold onto a thought. I remember realizing that I finally had my house the way I wanted it, the way I knew my mother would love to see it, and she had stopped caring. Her need to feel that she had succeeded in teaching me the domestic arts was completely overrun by her need to feel safe and loved.
This is when, paradoxically, dementia becomes a gift. After a struggle — I won’t lie, this takes time — you begin to see that all the baggage you’ve been lugging around at great expense has stopped serving you. It’s just a burden now: your pride, your need for approval, your righteous indignation; all are worthless in the face of pure, vulnerable human need. You begin to unpack, to shed, to leave things behind in baggage claim. You settle in with your traveling companion. For the first time on your dementia journey, you notice the scenery, and to your surprise, some of it is lovely.
I was visiting a friend in the mountains last summer, and she told me about her father’s last years. “I was not close to my dad,” she said, “and I had a lot of anger. It was hard to be around him sometimes. But once he was really deep in the dementia, I let go of all that. He was so obviously in a different place, and there was no point in digging up the old arguments. I just let him be who he was.”
She just let him be who he was.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do that for everyone with dementia? For everyone, period?
Sometimes I think Mom’s dementia is my teacher, helping me learn to be present, to let go of expectations, to release. By practicing with her, maybe I can learn to travel more lightly with all my fellow humans.
I hope so. Baggage is heavy.