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I still remember what it felt like that day as I sat on the tiny balcony of my third-floor apartment with my mother. It was July, a hot and muggy Saturday in Ottawa.
I am a single dad, and my three children and I were entertaining my mother and father. We had spent most of the day at Vincent Massey Park lounging around, throwing the Frisbee, talking and reading, then following up with hamburgers made on a portable barbecue. Potato chips and pop – something my nine-year-old can’t seem to get enough of – flowed freely.
The day could only be described as perfect. We were happy. I was happy.
My mom had always been an anxious woman, something I only recently realized. Worries about finances haunted her, even though she and my dad were long since financially established. Her fears were perhaps somewhat justified by the fact she was the daughter of an alcoholic father who nearly drove his family into bankruptcy when she was nine.
And she fretted about health, too – her health. Though all her anxieties were certainly real, some seemed to me more serious than others.
I remember when I was a child how she developed tennis elbow, and how long that seemed to take to heal and how serious it seemed to be to her. As she aged, she was haunted by headaches and chest pains, all of which seemed to come and go, all without ever a firm diagnosis.
I guess some of the effects of my grandfather’s alcoholism carried through the generations and affected me. Though my mom loved me, I never did feel a real sense of affection from her. Something always seemed to be missing in our relationship, an unspoken emptiness I could always feel but never quite grasp.
One day several years before the day on the balcony, Mom had said: “I think there’s something wrong; I can’t seem to think straight.”
To say I was skeptical wouldn’t quite cut it. “Really, Mom?” I said. Undoubtedly this would pass as everything else had.
But the complaining continued. “I forgot where I put my keys.”
Really? Who in this world has never forgotten where they put their keys?
“Oh my God, I brought a banana upstairs, and I can’t find it!”
What? Are you kidding me, Mom? Behind her back, I allowed a smile to cross my face at my mother’s expense.
The Saturday on my balcony, as the breeze started to cool down it was getting close to being time to go back inside the apartment. It had been such a nice day and the full moon was rising as if to celebrate with us. It was a special day, one you could hold onto and treasure for a long time.
Then my mother asked me: “Well, do you work full time?”
Somewhat annoyed and a little bewildered, I answered: “Yes, of course I do, Mom! You know that! You know I work full time for the government.”
“Well, how was your day at work today?” she asked.
The question hit me like a ton of bricks. Right there, I knew. I knew for the first time that something was seriously wrong. My brother and my father had long had their suspicions, but it was not until that day that I knew.
What followed was a nightmare in slow motion. The diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s came in 2010 at Toronto’s Baycrest health sciences centre.
My mother suffered in the early days, when she was ill but still well enough to know she was slowly losing herself. Losing her “self.” Losing her own person.
And I suffered, too. But my suffering was different. I was losing both the mom that I had and the mom that I’d always wanted. I had so many questions that were only starting to become clear and time was running out.
In the fall of 2012, I was visiting my parents in Brampton, Ont., and trying to have an intelligent conversation with my mom. I needed to ask her a burning question: “Mom, why did you tell me I deserved to be beaten up by that bully in Grade 7?”
I never got that far. I’d started out gently, easing into the question: “Mom, do you remember some of the friends I had in Montreal?”
Oh yes, she replied, she did remember. My brother and I were such good boys. We’d had such a great childhood, so many good memories. We were truly blessed.
“Yes, Mom, we were good boys,” I said. “And we are blessed. But do you remember my friend Mark in Montreal?”
Oh yes, she did remember. What nice boys my brother and I had been. We had had such a great childhood, so many good memories. We were truly blessed.
“And what a nice time we are having here today,” she added. “Where are we, anyway?”
For half an hour I tried, continuing to ask her if she remembered some of my childhood friends and some of my childhood experiences. But the conversation went round and round, ending up nowhere.
I visited Mom last week in the long-term care residence she lives in outside Toronto. She doesn’t say much these days. Much of her vocabulary is simply gone. She seems to know that I am familiar, and usually puts on a smile when she sees me. But my name escapes her now.
We were good boys. We are truly blessed. But Mom is now gone, and my questions are left.
Ward Quinlan lives in Ottawa.
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