Life is a beach, some say. For me, life is a trail. Change or reorder the vowels, as the situation warrants. The very best thing about my small home town, and being back here as an adult with a car (with 268,000 miles on it), is there are literally hundreds of beautiful places to go—from mountains to sea—and be home for dinner.
When I returned four years ago to care for my mother, I didn’t have to be home for dinner. She heated one of the frozen dinners she insisted on buying or ate leftovers. Now, though, she can’t see what’s in the refrigerator and she can’t read or remember the instructions on a frozen dinner; and she is increasingly particular about food. So now I’m home for dinner unless my sister can be there. I wonder when the day will come that Mama can’t be alone at all. I’m grateful it’s not yet.
Monday I went to Tolmie Peak in Mt. Rainier National Park. As I rattle across the washboard road up the mountain, dodging potholes and sinkholes, I observe their connection with Mama’s life, and mine with her. She is better at avoiding them than I am, as she steers clear of my backtalk. I am apt to challenge her dementia and her woe; but I am getting better at not falling into the holes with her, protecting both her and myself.
Like yesterday when she said she guessed “we” shouldn’t make a pie again because the rhubarb juice burned onto the pie plate and she had scrubbed and scrubbed but it was never coming off. She guessed we could look for another Pyrex pie plate at an antique store. Was she really saying “you ruined a family heirloom”? I apologized and promised to work on cleaning it. “Just leave it,” she sighed. Michelle apparently got it clean, it was back in the drawer last night. I once might have said something about it not being hopeless after all, but now I let it go.
She fell into a sink hole the other day after a session of taping her epic life story. She was almost in tears as she told me at dinner that while she could remember the man she passed in the hall at her job 75 years ago, see his face, and what he said every time they passed, she couldn’t remember that his last name was Burroughs at the moment she was recording the story. “My mind is really going,” she whimpered. “That’s hard,” I said sympathetically, not adding what a minor forgetfulness that was. Not pointing out that she is on her ninth 90-minute tape and is only now at when she met my father, clearly remembering a great deal of detail. Only this one forgetting was important to her right then. She didn’t want to be bothered with facts.
On the other hand, she refused to believe me yesterday that her small cavity was filled in December; that it wasn’t at her February exam that the dentist said she had one; that she doesn’t need to go in before next month’s cleaning appointment, suddenly thinking that it can’t wait another moment. Such a jumble of remembering, not remembering, misremembering. These clear signs of cognitive dysfunction are harder for me to let lie.
As I have gotten moderately better at not challenging her memory when it doesn’t matter, I realize that when I do correct her I feel irritated with her. Don’t you dare lose your mind; I will keep you from it. When I don’t challenge her, even in my head, I feel sad. In the same way that anger is easier than grief, irritation is easier than sadness.
She hasn’t blissfully left the past behind and moved into life in the moment. She knows she is forgetting and she’s frightened. She insists her version of the story is the correct one, and she accuses the forgetting on those who care for her—pushing us into the pothole—because that’s easier than admitting the holes are in her brain. And it surely beats letting us be her memory.
I am doing well stepping between the roots and up and over boulders on my way to Eunice Lake and Tolmie Peak, until I lose my focus and stub my toe hard, going down on one hand on the steep trail. As I navigate the downhill switchbacks that come next, my toe throbbing, I understand the inevitability of imperfection at this job. I will lose focus and double back on myself, relearning what I have forgotten.
As I wind back and forth, down and down, I hear the voices of those above and below me, voices that will quiet on the straight sections, leaving me alone. They might be the voices of those who have gone before, reminding me that this is noble work and that someday I will appreciate having had the experience—a gratitude I’m not feeling right now. Or maybe they are the mentors providing information about why things are the way they are and suggestions for dealing with it. Or maybe it is my own voice, reminding me to let go of my stumble on that last root and keep going.
I grip my trekking poles and propel myself determinedly forward as the trail straightens and climbs back up.
Mama and I are climbing a mountain, and it certainly isn’t an obstruction-free or level trail. But we will get to the top. We will emerge from the trees and into the alpine meadow of wildflowers overlooking the mountains and the heavens. When we reach the summit, I will return alone, re-walking the trail in reverse order. This is grief. This is joy.
I drive home after my hike, sad the day is over, breathing new life for having done it.