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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I have no recollection of my mother feeding me when I was young. But I’ll never forget the first time I fed her.

She was in her late 90s, a few years into what’s become a six-year stay at a home for dementia care. I happened to be visiting around dinner time, and she happened to be going through a rare phase of not slowly and methodically devouring everything put in front of her (though increasingly petite, her appetite has remained one of her many marvels). I cut her a bite-sized piece of chicken, added some potato, scooped up a pea or two for good measure. In years gone by we might have been playfully debating the relative merits of mixing the food on your plate – of which she was a staunch and lifelong proponent – versus my preference of savouring each individual item to its full and unique potential. But Mom wasn’t speaking much by this point.

That first bite was … strange. It had been a decade and a half since I’d spoon-fed my own kids. And regardless, this was my Mom: the cook, the provider, the gentle nurturer. I was hesitant at first. She wasn’t. I felt almost … ashamed. She clearly didn’t. We soon fell into a deeply familiar rhythm, even if the roles weren’t. Cut, scoop, down the hatch (with the occasional napkin wipe, because my aim isn’t what it used to be). I found myself encouraging her in ways that seemed downright infantilizing to my ear; she wasn’t bothered a bit. And with that tender, intimate act – that turning of the tables, so to speak – we turned the giant wheel that is the circle of life one more firm, inevitable click.

When we first moved her into the home, our mom was coming from the four-bedroom house where she and Dad had raised my brother and me. In the decade since our father had died, she’d kept pretty active, heading out for line dancing, making new friends, even taking public transit to appointments. Sure, there were hints of deceleration and we’d grown concerned about her having to navigate all those stairs every day – and there was that pound of bacon she’d left in the cookie drawer – but overall, she was vital, talkative, fully mobile and largely engaged. She made 93 look easy. After the move, we continued to take her out for dinner, included her in family gatherings, even whisked her up north for a cottage weekend that first summer (her distinctly white knuckles during a routine boat ride – despite having boated for 60-plus years – silently heralded the winds of advancing change).

At first, she took part in all the activities the recreation staff would dream up. There were word games, ball games, arts and crafts, dances and parties and singalongs. There were outings to the local mall and the Toronto Islands. There were guest musicians and guest dogs. Mom was the one in the front row, the one that didn’t need a walker or a wheelchair (or to be asked twice).

And then … she slowed down. Gradually. Imperceptibly at first. As the cirrus clouds in her mind started to mass – the high, wispy, non-threatening ones, not the unremitting cloak of autumn grey that would come later – her physique changed, too. She hunched over, needed help getting dressed. She spoke less, responded less, disengaged just a little from the goings-on around her. We’d sit in comfortable silence when I took her out to our favourite Vietnamese restaurant. She’d thoroughly enjoy the food and the outing, but while I still felt an unmistakable connection with her, conversation itself had stretched out into a bridge too far.

Eventually, outings of any kind became difficult. Balance was a concern. We did get her a walker at one point – and she tore up and down the length of the corridors at first, the old urge to move having been startled awake – but that phase was fairly short-lived. It reminded me of those few weeks when our eldest son was learning to walk but wouldn’t quite let go of our finger. Everything is a phase, at both ends of life. But like a deep breath, your world is hungrily expanding at the one, reflexively contracting at the other.

As the fog has rolled in on Mom’s eyesight – and with her hearing ever more faint – our times together have grown quieter still. (Of course, through the pandemic our visits were strained and achingly sterile; the double-paned glass between us may as well have been a canyon.) She sleeps most of the time now, cradled in her wheelchair, and when she does surface it’s the simpler comments she appears to comprehend. A whiff of a smile and a subtly cocked eyebrow are the gifts she can still give. Mostly, we just hold hands. They’re still soft and reassuringly warm. Hard to believe they’re the hands that raised me, drew stories on my back, led me and fed me.

Remarkably, Mom now has a full century behind her. Most friends have passed. Visitors are few. Her world is all but as small as it was when she was new. When the past is shapeless and the future immaterial, maybe there really is nothing more to say. Mom has always done things slowly and quietly – on her own timeline and terms – and this long goodbye is no different. As I sat there with her the other day, holding her hand and stroking her hair and letting all the noise of my world fall away, I felt something new. I could be wrong, but I can’t help thinking it was … love. Just love. In its purest, simplest form. No more, no less. Unencumbered and richly uncomplicated. I gave her hand a squeeze, and the wheel clicked once again.

Paul Ackerley lives in Toronto.