For a majority of my mother's life, she has vacillated between being a playful, boisterous, joyful woman and a person plagued by fear and low self esteem - someone who seemed to feel powerless to take command of her life and follow her dreams, or defend herself against what she perceived to be the many injustices of the world. On more than one occasion she has shared her dreams and desires with me, none of which she pursued or realized — some which completely surprised me based on the life I know she has lived. Aside from just being a mom, I think this is a big part of the reason she's always been so supportive of both my sister and I to go out into the world and pursue our own dreams. And hell, she's an Aquarius, I'm a Taurus, and Carol is an Aries; independence of spirit worked to her advantage in raising two headstrong daughters.
In the last year or two, I have observed in my mother a curious balancing and leveling effect brought on by her dementia. While it continues to take bits and pieces of her memory, it also manages to provide her with a much-needed peace of mind by removing a great deal of the fear associated with the departing memories, fear that was both the driver and result of her old thinking patterns and behavior. Don't get me wrong — she still has fears, especially since she is very aware of her mental and physical deterioration. However, every time she experiences a major drop in memory and cognitive function, the signs of relief appear as well, her expression opening and relaxing like a blossoming flower; her face, her manner, how she responds to stimulus and where she chooses to focus her attention become simpler, more free. It makes sense to me to focus on this relief and the blessing that it is, as nothing can be done about the memory loss. The dementia has also taught both my sister and I to join mom in the now and embrace her as she is, rather than lamenting the loss of the person she used to be.
I had a groovy realization the other day while talking with my mother. I have a tendency to sometimes run off at the mouth about topics that excite me, but I have found that I can't do this with her because the frontal lobe damage from her strokes makes it near impossible for her to maintain a long attention span. I was animatedly discussing philosophical ideas with her, ones we have touched on in past conversations. She was very excited and interested in what I was saying, but at a certain point she just interrupted me mid-sentence and started talking about something entirely unrelated. At first I was annoyed and I felt myself taking it personally, even though I know better by now.
Then, I calmed down and let a few moments pass without saying anything. I knew I had been here before, and had been able to de-personalize moments like this. So, I used this quiet moment to question any unexamined beliefs I had about what I thought should be happening vs. what was actually happening. I wanted to get out of this funk and continue to enjoy my mother's company. I discovered there were two assumptions, neither of which had to do with her.
Assumption 1: Effective and engaging conversation involves a focused and polite exchange of listening and sharing.
Hmm...sounds reasonable, but that's not what's happening here with my Mom. So what is true about conversation? When I really thought about it, I realized that maintaining focus on the person you are conversing with is nothing more than a learned social norm; it's considered an active listening skill that identifies someone as a good conversationalist. It is not necessarily an honest or genuine behavior. However, my mother was being genuine and in the moment. She was, in fact, quite present and focused; what we were talking about had sparked a thought of something else she was excited about, something she wanted to communicate to me, and she did so minus the filter of convention.
Because of this, I realized that (with the exception of moments when she can't find the right words due to memory loss) she is often much freer in her communication and expression of herself than I am. This doesn't surprise me, as I continually discover areas of rigidity in my personality and behavior that I'd like to shake loose. I want to let go of the need to do it "right" and just enjoy the reality of doing - just be present with my mother, enjoying wherever the conversation takes us because I'm not attached to things looking, sounding, or feeling a certain way.
Assumption 2: Whatever I have to say should be of interest to my mother because, well, she's my mother.
The little kid in me was still expecting mom's world to revolve around me — this one made me laugh when I realized it was still there. I didn't have to question any further, because I know how unrealistic it is to expect another person to put me and my happiness before their own, even if that person happens to be my mother.
Because of all this, I came to see — first with surprise, then amusement, then appreciation — how I had not acknowledged the teacher that my mother is, even now. Periodically she will say, "I hope you girls learned something good from me," as though she hasn't contributed to who we are as people. But I think the active part of influence is in the receiving, rather than that which is deemed influential. I learn from mom all the time, whether she realizes it or not. I believe that as long as people are participating in this physical existence, they have the ability — through whatever they are living — to inspire and influence another. Taking on the responsibilities of power of attorney, medical advocate, and financial advocate had led me to the mistaken notion that I also needed to orchestrate mom's thought process. How wonderful it was for her to show me that I didn’t need to (or able to) do this. The parts we play in relationships are much more fluid. The roles between mom and I have been reversed, and then reversed again, continuing to refine who we are both together and as individuals.
I know just how fortunate I am to experience the continuing clarity that she provides, just by being who she is. I am also glad to have the opportunity to uplift her as the beautiful, powerful creator and contributor that she continues to be - it beats the hell out of feeling powerless in the face of her failing body and health. I look forward to more opportunities to challenge my assumptions about what is right, what is good, and what is worthwhile, and I love and cherish my mother for being an active participant in this process.