Saturday, December 9, 2023

Long Goodbye

I haven’t talked about it much here or on social media, but my mother has been suffering from dementia for at least four years now—four noticeable years, anyway, but in retrospect you start to wonder about the state of her mind even earlier, and certain things appear in a different light. This fall, we brought her closer as we moved her into memory care—a 20-minute drive rather than an hour and a half. Which makes it possible to see her much more often. 

The place where she lives had a holiday dinner earlier this week and it was nice to share a meal with her. 

Having her close is a double-edged sword: we can visit more often, but with work and school and all the related commitments, I still can’t get there as often as I feel like I should. It’s almost worse, because when it’s prohibitively difficult to visit, well, you just can’t visit that often. But now? Now that she’s not living in the town where she spent the past half century, I know that no one will come to visit her except me, and I can’t seem to get there often enough. 

We traveled to be with my wife’s family over Thanksgiving, which made it a week and a half between visits, and I felt terrible about it. Part of me expected, and dreaded, what Mom would say when I did visit her, what kind of guilt trip it might be. That is, after all, kind of her MO. 

But she didn’t seem particularly aware of how long had passed. Which was a relief, but also a painful reminder of how much she has lost already. The Mom I grew up with would have been acutely aware down to the hour of how long it had been and never would have let that slide. 

I’ve heard this called “the long goodbye.” And I try to recognize it for the blessing it can be. I know people who have lost parents or spouses suddenly, and that is so devastating. Mom’s death, when it comes, will not be that. I have had years already to come to terms with the loss, because the loss has been happening little by little, day by day. My dad’s death was similar in its own way: not dementia precisely, because his loss of mind and self came from a tumor and damage from surgery, but it was also the kind of long goodbye that meant we were ready, relieved, when his suffering and ours finally ended. The grief we felt—of course there was still grief—was simply the crest of the final wave of many that was crashing against our shore. 

And yet. Earlier this fall, Mom went to the hospital with a fall. It turned out she had COVID and pneumonia. Realistically, any of the three things could have killed her. And driving to the hospital, sitting with her, I realized that while I could make peace with it, while she was going, she wasn’t entirely gone, and I’m not ready for goodbye either. 

And so, each visit, each event like this week's, are at once difficult reminders of loss and precious moments before the real goodbye.