Charlotte Phillips

“Are you my mother?” – by Charlotte Phillips

Some people may remember this wonderful little beginner reading book by P.D. Eastman, edited in 1960 by Dr. Seuss. A little bird hatches while his mother is off getting food and before she can return, the baby sets off in search of his mother. He has no idea what she looks like so he asks several animals along the way, “Are you my mother?” This book popped into my memory today as I sat thinking about my own mother. We’ve been spending a lot of time together over the past few years and lately there has been a shift in who we both are. There are times when we don’t recognize each other.

Age related dementia is a strange beast. It is a gradual loss of the ability to think and remember. But it is different for everyone. The degree of loss and the psychological reaction to the loss are like endlessly changing weather patterns one can never truly adjust to.

Dementia affects the sufferer and the caregiver in strangely similar ways.

As the daily care and comfort of our mom is in my hands these days, the struggles she faces at her advanced age, both physically and mentally, are front and centre in my life, too. My ability to think and remember what’s really important in the grand scheme of things is something I struggle with.

My 94-year-old mom’s stage of dementia is not a constant or predictable one. She is in a transition phase. Where half of the time she is sharp and witty and in the moment. She engages in intelligent conversation and digs up nuggets of childhood stories that are full of detail and colour. The other half of the time, she can’t hold a thought, asks the same question 5 times in the span of one hour, is very confused and frightened by the confusion, and seems lost, actually depressed. She is strangely aware of the disconnects and often says, “Charlotte, I’m losing it.” There are times when one visit with Mom has both versions of her switching back and forth. Like a child playing with a light switch, you can only endure it for a short time.

This long weekend filled with 150th Birthday celebrations of Canada, seemed like a shifting moment in my life. It was the first time in 8 years, that my mom and I were not celebrating Canada Day together.

Canada Day ranks higher in Mom’s life than any other special occasion. She used to organize city celebrations back in her civic politician days in Saskatchewan. Although as a Newfoundlander, she voted against joining Canada in 1949, she eventually became one of its most patriotic citizens and devoted her life to making our country better.

I made sure her red blouse and white pants were hanging together in the middle of her clothes closet before I left for my weekend at my cottage. I felt bad about leaving her behind and a bit angry with myself for feeling bad. While I celebrated in the sunshine with a raucous crowd on Salt Spring Island, I knew my mom was alone, maybe watching the rainy festivities in Ottawa on her TV. I wondered if this would be the last Canada Day she’d be truly aware of. I think this way about a lot of special days Mom has always enjoyed in her long and eventful life. It’s sometimes hard to be present in my own life when I fret about hers.

Last week, I drove Mom out to the Drivers Licensing Centre in a nearby suburb to apply for a new BC ID photo card for her. I had not noticed that her current card had expired almost two years ago. As someone who no longer drives, this card is proof of her identity and is rather important for legal, financial and flight purposes. Her passport expired last year and as her health is such that out of country travel is not in the cards, we never bothered to renew her Canadian passport.

This particular day, the irony of our task was something we laughed about even though we were not quite on the same page. “Mom, isn’t it funny that you have no valid government issued identification proving you exist?” She laughed and then asked if I was renewing my card, too. Like it was a membership in something we both believed in and doing so was showing our support.

When she stood to have her photo taken by the government employee, she kept smiling like most people do for the camera. Even though the clerk asked her gently not to smile, Mom could not comprehend the request. I thought, in the grand scheme of things, anyone holding up the card to check her identity in person with the photo on the card, would see a striking resemblance because, for the most part, Mom is always smiling.

As the coming year unfolds, I know I’ll be quietly asking the question, “Are you my mother?” This kind of dementia slowly takes ones identity away. There is no before and after, only a fluid, unpredictable in-between time. I guess living in the moment will have to be suspended sometimes. I will remember our Mom the way she used to be and treat her with dignity and respect. In the meantime, I will try to keep smiling, myself and to always be, “her baby”.

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2 Comments

  • Reply tangotv July 4, 2017 at 11:20 am

    I still use that phrase in all kinds of ways, and always with a smile.
    Such a good update on Jean. My favourite part was about the picture taking. And it’s true. The smiling Jean is the Jean we all know.
    I’m glad I could read this, Charlotte. Your Mom will continue to live with you forever.

  • Reply Jane Rowland July 4, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    I lost my Mum at the end of May. My Mum’s name was also Jean. I’ve read quite a few of your essays about your Mum, Charlotte. Your descriptions are strikingly similar to my own experiences looking after my mother for about the last ten years. Immediately after my Mum died, I found I started to mourn the mother I had had in the past before intense old age began to take over the mother I had once known. I was inconsolable from memories of her when she was well, bright and funny. Then suddenly after many days of weeping, the vision of her struggling to see, not eating, and the light and life gone from her eyes came back to me. I realized then how pointless it was to spend my days mourning and hurting at the loss of my dear Mum. I felt the burden of her loss lifted from me when I started to think of her absence as a liberation for her from all the infirmities she had so stoically endured for the last few years. But you know, I still miss her so darn much as all the “first’s’ have to be gotten through. The first Canada Day when we used to laugh at the noon time show on Parliament Hill, and the ones ahead of me like my birthday and the dreaded first Christmas to come.

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