Full Circle


Sometimes it seems that life is really just a bunch of overlapping circles, a little bit like the Spirograph I played with as child. Beautiful and complicated images could be made with those circles....but it was also pretty easy to end up with a scribbled mess. If you were very careful and patiently worked your colored pen around in the proper motion, you had a beautiful picture that had magically brought you back to your point of origin.

Life is often like that, I think. You carefully go through the motions of your life and try to be patient and attentive, only to discover you have come full circle. Of course, life always throws in a twist, just to keep it interesting.

I had the chance to spend a little time with Mom this past week and she has come full circle, too. In many ways, she is a child again. Mom is 85 years old now, and she has dementia. Overall she does very well. She gets around quite well, she's cheerful and she has very few health problems overall. She doesn't have any trouble recognizing her children and grandchildren. That part is pretty good. Like many elderly people (even if they don't have dementia) she remembers the past much better than she recalls what happened yesterday. But my mother's memories stop at about 1951. The 38+ years she was married to Dad? Gone. Her own children's childhoods? Gone. It feels very strange, I must admit. She doesn't seem to recall my late brother at all: he was born after the magic memory threshold and passed away 8 years ago, so he is in that window of missing time. She knows I have two sons, and she recognizes them when she sees them. But if they aren't there, she doesn't know that they're grown men.

Like the pretty spirograph pictures, there are ups and downs and sometimes unexpected moments. Mom cusses now. In two languages. Since I'm a big fan of appropriately-used profanity, I'm not offended. But it's funny to hear the same woman who washed MY mouth out with soap say "shit" every few minutes. She has to be coerced into bathing, and feels free to stick her tongue out at anyone who crosses her, like a petulant toddler. And yet, she is insulted if she feels like she's being ordered around. Come to think of it, that's a lot like a toddler, too, isn't it?

There's also the filter thing. Until just a couple of years ago, Mom refused to talk about anything that happened during the war years, unless it was funny. She was always careful in her speech, didn't speak Dutch unless everyone in the room was also fluent in that language. Then her filter started to become more porous. Dutch words pop out in the most unexpected places. Ask her a question about Holland and the answer may very well come back in Dutch. She started talking about some of the not-funny things that happened during the war. She talked more freely about the starving time. And of course, the profanity began to pepper her speech until she became downright spicy.

Then I started to notice that some of the stories she was telling had changed from previous versions. She would sometimes take two separate stories, mix up parts of both of them and come with a whole new story. Gradually, she even began to contradict herself within a single telling. For a brief period of time, I had a window into a part of Mom's life that she had carefully shielded before. Then she lost all those middle years to the dark cavern of memory loss. Now even the parts she does recall are jumbled and amorphous and confused.

So it is that years of being able to have a meaningful or sensible conversation with Mom have passed. Friday afternoon, we sat on the porch, Mother and I. We had two basic conversations. Only MY part of the script varied at all. Conversation 1 went like this:

Mom: "So. What have you been doing?"
Me: "Not a whole lot. I had a meeting this morning and I brought some work home with me to finish up here."
Mom: "Awww. Poor baby. Should I cry now, or can I wait til later?" (This is Mom's stock answer to anything she perceives as a complaint, a worry, or something that she would not like but that doesn't bother anyone else. In other words, she says this a LOT.)
Me: "You can wait til later, I guess." or "Can you squeeze out a few tears for me right now?"
Mom: "I'm too old to cry. All dried up."

Conversation 2:
Mom: "How are the boys doing?"
Me: "They're good. Working hard, having fun...like all young men should."
Mom: "That's good. At least you don't have to support them. Are you going to give me any more grandchildren?" (The first couple of times she dropped that last little bomb on me, I almost had ice tea coming out of my nose.)
Me: "Sorry Mom. That ship has done sailed."
Mom: "Awww. Poor baby. Should I cry now, or can I wait til later?"