At My Mother’s Knee

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.”

12 Comments on “At My Mother’s Knee

  1. Heartbreaking. I have read this before but for some reason didn’t comment–probably internet problems. Touching and beautifully said. I have a similar situation with my sister. I’ll be seeing her in a few weeks. I try to come up to see her once a year and her memory ebbs and flows. Mainly she’s in a world of her own.

      • I hope so, too. Forgottenman will be with me and she really likes him. The last time we were there, she said to me, “Judy’s boyfriend is really nice, isn’t he?” I said, “Yes, he is.”

  2. What a beautiful lesson! And such a poignant reminder that our mothers see so much of us, even when we don’t want them to.

  3. I was never estranged from my father, yet to the end I was irritated with his stoic attitudes about everything. It wasn’t until after he died that I realized that he had been proud of me, he just couldn’t open up enough to say it outright.
    I hope this meeting with your mother will bring you some peace. Best wishes!

    • Thank you. It wasn’t the perfect ending to the story but it was a good one and, yes, I think it did bring me some peace.

  4. Oh, Jan, I’m so glad you had, and took, this opportunity. What a stroke of blessing to see that billboard because that drive was a looooong time to face the reality of being there.

    Beautiful story. The trip and gesture will become even more significant when you no longer have your parents.

  5. I’m sorry, Jan. Sometimes life is so painful but I’m glad you have the courage to write about it.

  6. A beautiful story of what many of us need to do but just can’t seem to move towards Thanks for saying what we can’t.

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