My Mother’s Dementia Helped Me Finally Hear Her Stories

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This week, the Cut presents stories about the complex bonds of parenthood.

Yesterday, I walked by a mirror and I stopped and looked into it and thought, or maybe said out loud, as I’m prone to talking to myself, being one of those writers who spends far too much time alone, “I am not my mother,” repeatedly. Then I walked away.

For a long time I thought my mother and I didn’t get along because we were so alike, because that was the story my mother would tell me, again and again. In my 20s, my mother-in-law said to me, “But you’re more like your father.” And that stunned me. When I spoke to myself in the mirror yesterday, I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking, I’m just my own person, completely. Which is a story I need right now, as we need stories to understand things, even if we know they are not the whole truth.

When I think of my mother, I think about her in the stories she told about herself, especially those she told most repeatedly. As all daughters do, I found my mother’s repetition annoying.  Now, I’m not annoyed, but rather ashamed and sad that I ever bothered to be annoyed with her. She’s dying of dementia, and I’m middle-aged, and all the petty things that young women and girls dislike or hate or are repulsed by in their mothers have faded for me. Completely.

In a recent NPR interview, Toni Morrison said, “I regret everything.” I’m with Toni on that one, in particular with regard to my mother, my children, and my husband.

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My mother’s stories were these: She was born Hildegard Stalzer in Graz, Austria, in 1943, and raised in Leobon, a small town with a brewery.  Her father was a tailor and beat her brother. Her own mother died of lupus when my mother was 6. I am named after her mother, and in my mother’s stories, this is another reason why we didn’t get along. That story makes zero sense to me, but she wouldn’t stop repeating it. She believed it. In her stories, her mother’s death formed her, which I do believe. Loss shapes us and it shaped her, although I’m not sure exactly how. I think it ruins us, for the most part, but if we weren’t ruined, we wouldn’t be human. After her mother died, she was raised at first by her older sister, who was kind, and later by her stepmother, who beat her. She was often hungry. She shared a room with her sister and her brother. They shared underwear, the three of them. They were poor.

As a teenager my mother proved to be very smart in school. And yet, despite book smarts, she went to a state-run boarding school where she was taught to make patterns, sew, set tables, and cook. It was a “finishing” school. In my mother’s stories, her teachers begged her parents to let her go to a university and the story is her parents said, no, she’s a girl, she’s going to get married, and her parents instead sent her not-so-smart brother to university, where he failed out.

My mother then became an au pair in Paris. There, she took a night class at the Sorbonne. Now I must tell the story from my father’s point of view, in that he sat next to her because she was the most beautiful girl in the class. Six months later, my American father married her in a Catholic Church in Leobon and promptly took her back to the United States, to Wisconsin. She was pregnant and 20 years old.

How do my own stories about my mother go? Like this: “We had 12 good years together.” Which isn’t nothing. Those years were the years after my sons were born, and not only did we have something so beautiful in common — we were both mothers — but she stopped focusing on me, and focused on her grandchildren. They were able to amaze her instead of threaten her, as I once did. Prior to those 12 years, I was the daughter who destabilized her marriage, who she thought was too close to her husband, who was trouble. And I was trouble. Smoking and drinking and doing drugs by the age of 12, asking for a diaphragm at the age of 15, attempting suicide at 16, spending a couple of days in a coma, no one knowing whether I’d make it. I was a bad daughter. I cursed like a sailor. I was disrespectful to her. I was mean. My father worried about me, my mother was enraged.

Until my sons were born, she also treated me like the competition. In boarding school, I acted in plays. When I came home, she made me come watch her act in a play at Notre Dame, where she’d gotten her masters in psychology. When I lived in Spain for a year, to learn a language she didn’t know — she spoke German, English, Italian, and French — she got a Cuban woman to live in my former room and teach her Spanish. When I started graduate school for writing, she sent me her newly written memoir. Add to this the fact that I was also her scapegoat. The first time I called home from boarding school — a place I went to because I wanted to get away from my mother — she said, “When something goes wrong, we still blame you.”

I used to hold against my mother the fact that she married well. I thought it made her calculating. Later, I realized she was madly in love with my father, totally loyal and caring to him. They were the lucky ones. They had true love. She was insanely beautiful and righteously smart. I thought, again, that she used her beauty in a premeditated way. Later, I understood that those two things, when combined, are the things the world hates most in women. She also was wildly affectionate, even with me, as a small girl in particular. She liked to help people. Sometimes, she acted tougher than she was, but don’t we all?

I miss her. Recently, while taking notes for an essay on Peter Handke’s book about his mother’s nervous breakdown, I wrote in the margins, “The death before death.” My mother, too, has suffered a sort of death before death, a death of memory. If we don’t remember our lives, our days, who are we? She has no more stories to tell. At the onset of her dementia ten years ago, she was angry, ashamed, and confused, which was worse than the near-coma-like state she is in now. She took that anger out on me, and to be fair, others as well. She regressed to viewing me as a threat. And once again I felt like the teenager I’d been, one who often anguished that her mother didn’t love her.

Now, her eyes often show the confusion of a small child. At other times her eyes show the blankness of a small baby. Sometimes I try to convince myself that it is not all bad. That this way, when she does die, she won’t really know she is dying.

*

Not long ago, I called out for her, yelling, “I want my mother.” I was in bed at the time, and so lonely I felt like I was dying. And she is whom I wanted in that moment. I craved the comfort she gave me as a small child, before we got complicated. When I write it now, this is a story that shocks me — wanting my mother at the age of 47. It unnerves me, the possibility that we never stop wanting our mothers.

I’m visiting her in a few weeks. To my children, she has been the best grandmother I’ve ever known. She sits in a diaper in a memory-care unit — why don’t they call it a no-memory, little-care hellhole? Why lie? — sometimes babbling, sometimes smiling, still eating well enough to keep her body alive. She doesn’t know who she is or who I am or anything, really, but I worry that somewhere, in there, she’s suffering. I’ll never know for sure. I am not her, but she is a big reason I’m me, the good and bad in me, both. I’m glad we had those 12 good years and it’s a story I cherish. I always loved her, even when I hated her. I always will love her. I dedicated my last book to her. She doesn’t know that, because she doesn’t know anything anymore. In that last book I also quoted the painter Lisa Yuskavage in my epigraph: “I don’t think there’s an uninteresting person alive.” I’ve learned that through my mother.