Showing up after ten years’ absence when your mother is ill with Alzheimer’s Disease and having her look at you and say, “I never thought I’d see you again,” and realizing that if you had waited, like you wanted to, for another six months to pass before coming home, she would probably forget who you were, all of this is a very big deal. And it’s an important story to tell even if I don’t know exactly how to tell it.
I’d been warned by my father about my mother’s deepening Alzheimer’s Disease or A.D. as he called it in his letters. Our written correspondence had been going on for over a year, the melting of ten years’ worth of silence into drops of questions and information. I told him about his grandchildren, one of whom had been adopted during our estrangement and whom he had never met. I told him her story and he wrote to me, “she wouldn’t have had a chance without you.” I smoothed that letter out on my desk and left it there to see; it felt like praise, what he had said, and it was like rain on dying grass.
Finally, it was the time to make the trip home. My mother seemed so much the same to me. Still trim with her button shirt tucked into a pair of tailored pants, leather loafers, her hair neat, but she was off. Halting in her speech, quiet much of the time. But because my mother had always been very quiet, a conversational minimalist at best, the change wasn’t dramatic. Small things. Pointing to a picture of her sister as a toddler and calling her ‘that little one’ because she’d forgotten her name. Sitting still with her hands folded. Going to the pantry in the basement to organize the canned goods into pyramids that she decorated with Christmas bows. Being present but absent. And sad, well, maybe not sad, melancholy as if she knew what a bittersweet thing it was for us to see each other in what was probably the nick of time.
It made me sick that I had kept the estrangement going so long. When she was well, she had made her own contribution to our stalemate but now that she was ill, what I had done seemed unforgiveable. My children had grown up without their grandmother; she had missed everything about them. It was a permanent and irretrievable loss. And the breach seemed impossible to repair especially with her diminished capacity to understand and communicate.
But I was inspired and bolstered by a billboard I’d seen on the way to my parents’ house. I remember it was sponsored by the Church of Latter Day Saints, showed a picture of family members embracing, and carried this message: “If you think it’s too late to make things right, you’re wrong.” I pondered that the rest of the six-hour drive; that message that seemed meant just for me alone.
After dinner that first night, I went looking for her, first in the basement where I thought she might be rearranging the cans of green beans and hash, and then in their bedroom. She sat there in the corner in a rocking chair, moving back and forth ever so slowly, the light on her dresser casting a golden glow.
“What are you doing, Mom?” She just looked at the light. I considered leaving her there. She looked content. I could go back with the others; she wouldn’t mind.
Instead, I knelt down in front of her. She looked at me, waiting. Now was the time to say what I had to say. “I want to tell you that I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry for what happened and I’m sorry it took me so long to come home.”
She answered me right away, speaking the only full sentence I would hear from her that day or for many days. And what she said made the billboard true.
“It’s okay,” she said, patting my hand, “You had a long way to come.”