Memories of Love

By Karen Leone

I won’t let her die alone because I’m afraid.

That’s what I keep telling myself.

But I am afraid.

I’m afraid to watch my earliest protector, my most enduring support, my biggest fan, my best friend, my mother, suffer.

I’ve been watching her disappear for so many years now, but during most of that time, I’ve made believe I was strong.

But I haven’t really been strong. I’ve been chasing her shadow and busying myself with day-to-day life, and in quiet times, with thoughts about everything, anything other than Alzheimer’s disease.

But now her time is at hand.

And so, too, is mine…

“Mom?”

“Yes?” My mom had her back to me, hands up near her face, her shoulders hunched and faintly heaving.

“Why are you crying?”

I’d never seen my mother cry before.

I was so young that morning, sitting in the warm bath water and playing with my tub toys. My brothers had left for school already. Only my mom and I were in the house. It was quiet – the only sound other than Magilla Gorilla softly emanating from the master bedroom TV, was my mother’s muffled sobs. She didn’t want me to see her crying. Why not?

I didn’t know what to think. I remember feeling a little afraid because my mom seemed to be so sad, but mostly I was puzzled.

She turned to me and smiled weakly.

“Oh, honey. I’m sorry.” She sat on the edge of the tub and gently rubbed circles on my back with a soapy washcloth. “It’s your grandpa. My father. He died this morning.”

“Oh.”

I knew it was sad that my grandfather had died, but only in the way that six year olds do.

I can’t say that I remember everything my mother told me that morning about her father, about his life and about how deeply she loved him. But I can imagine what she said:

“My father was quiet. He was gentle. He was generous and kind, and everyone he ever knew loved and admired him. He always told me how smart I was and how proud he was of me. I never saw him angry. I never heard him raise his voice. I can see him now sitting at the head of the kitchen table, smoking his pipe, smiling. When he laughed, which was more like a happy chuckle, his whole body bounced, and his eyes danced. When I was a little girl, he was my life. He was my father.

And looking back now on that moment we shared over 40 years ago, it feels like a clue, or maybe just a simple truth, that I couldn’t comfort my mother on that morning her father died other than by being her daughter…

I hung up the phone and indulged myself in a prolonged sigh. My mother called me in Chicago looking for my brother, who lives in New York. I gently provided the pertinent phone number and then engaged listlessly in a rerun of our typical conversation. We now communicate in a loop.

“How are the kids?”

“They’re fine.”

“Where are they?”

“They’re at school. It’s Tuesday.”

“It’s Tuesday?”

“Yup. Where’s dad?”

“I don’t know. He’s around here somewhere. Or he went out. I’m not sure.”

“Okay. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine. My back hurts today. We’re probably going to get rain.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll call you when the kids get home so you can talk to them.”

“Oh, where are they?”

“They’re at school.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye, Bye.”

But the kids will arrive home at 4:00, and I probably won’t call back. “I’ll have them call her on the weekend when there’s more time,” I assure myself before shutting down completely and escaping to the morning chores…

“Mom?”

“Yes?” I keep my back to her. I don’t want my six-year-old daughter to see me crying. Why not?

But then I turn to her and smile weakly. “I’m just sad about grandma, honey,” I say. And as she climbs into my arms I rub tiny circles on her back with my hand. She places her soft cheek against mine, and her small, thin arm around my neck and squeezes gently. I take a deep breath and hold it; hold it perhaps in the hope I can hold on to this moment forever – or maybe just a little while longer – this moment when my sweet baby girl somehow understands that she can make me feel better just by being my daughter…

What will I remember about my mother? Will I remember the disease most of all? Will I remember looking into her eyes as she slowly faded away and seeing only how flat and unanimated and lost those eyes seemed to be? Will I remember finding nothing there I could recognize or reach? Will I forever be burdened by the pain of knowing that what used to be behind those eyes – intelligence, warmth, wit – was lost long before I was willing to say goodbye?

Or will it be this?

My mother was quiet. She was gentle and generous and kind, and everyone she ever knew loved and admired her. She always told me how smart I was and how proud she was of me. I never saw her angry. She never raised her voice to me or made me feel anything but supported and loved. I can see her now standing in the kitchen in her nursing scrubs making my breakfast, exhausted but smiling. When I was a little girl, she was my life. She was my mother.

And so I must understand that, as my mother’s memory of love abandons her, I have to love enough for both of us now.

My time surely is at hand.

About this writer

  • Karen Leone Karen Leone was born in New Rochelle, New York, on April 9, 1965. She earned her undergraduate degree at Duke University in 1987 and a graduate degree at Washington & Lee School of Law in 1990. Karen currently lives in Chicago with her remarkably unflappable husband, four reasonably manageable children – except the youngest one, Luke – the black Labrador retriever, an ancient hamster with an agonizingly sluggish doomsday clock and intermittent fish.

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