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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

There are worse moments than being told by a nurse that your dear 86-year-old mother, who has dementia and resides in an assisted living facility, is sexually active.

Just kidding. There are not worse moments than when you learn that your mom has been sleeping around.

Mom, who passed on two years ago, was a heart-on-the-sleeve romantic until the end, always believing that whatever exciting puppy-love magic that occurred in the first weeks of a courtship should last forever. She loved love. Two divorces and three marriages did little to change her mind.

Mom’s last boyfriend was as equally demented as her. One could say it was a match made in heavenly ether. When I was introduced to him, Mom said, “I’d like you meet my son, Stephen.” The boyfriend looked up from his chair with a faraway gaze as if Mom was speaking Latin. Then Mom, proudly pointing at her beau, said to me, “And I’d like you to meet … now what was your name again?”

Sure, I laugh now. Actually I laughed then, too. I mean, why not? When you spend time with someone who won’t remember your visit five minutes after you have spent an entire exhausting afternoon with them, you are hardly required to remain serious, or to correct their fantasies, hallucinations or aberrant behaviour. Turn that frown upside down!

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So I would switch into full survival mode during those uproarious hours, downing anti-anxiety pills and popping fistfuls of Tums for my souring tummy. That’s also why I didn’t bother scolding Mom when I heard about her sexual proclivities. Anyway, how much pleasure was really left to her and why should she not enjoy a little sensual pleasure?

During one rare lucid moment toward the end of her life, Mom did bring up the dalliances. She laughed and said, “Well, at least there is no danger of getting pregnant.” Cold comfort, indeed, but comfort nonetheless, and, in those final weeks, that’s really all that mattered.

When I was growing up, Mom and I never discussed sex. Instead, I was forced to endure the horrors of co-ed sex education courtesy of the medieval Chicago Public Schools system. Slide shows of various diseases and disfigurements scared me celibate into my 20s. A classmate once fainted during a particularly graphic filmstrip and took his desk down with him as he hit the floor. We made sure he never lived that moment down.

Meanwhile, Mom, newly divorced and between marriages one and two, was on the prowl, dating men that came by our small apartment reeking of Old Spice and Vitalis. Professional drinkers who only read racing forms and baseball box scores. Tough Chicago wise guys who would muss up my hair, bribe me with a couple of bucks to scram and go outside to play in the alley. “You’re a good kid. Now get lost.” (Bribery was always a way of life in the Windy City and it was good to learn the ropes early in life. Back then, with the right kind of cash discreetly palmed to the right kind of corrupt bureaucrat, you could get your blind grandfather a shiny new driver’s license.)

Occasionally, one of these charmers would drunk-call from a bar and beg to talk to Mom. If I answered the phone, Mom would signal frantically to me that she wasn’t home. Emotions of the inebriated ran from tearful regrets to angry accusations. In the background, I could hear the clink of ice cubes, the crash of glasses, some mournful jukebox tune and lots of male shouting and cursing. This led to a lifetime fear of men and avoidance of bars.

On those date nights, Mom would finally emerge from the bathroom trailing a fog of hair spray and Chanel No. 5, and off she would go to the Kon Tiki Lounge or the Playboy Club. Mom was stunning with a busty centrefold body that attracted men like honey bees to blossoms. She was a powerful tigress, at the height of her sexuality and she used it well.

But, at 86 and in the final throes of mental vagueness, it was heartbreaking to connect the dots between Mom’s sensual past and this diminished present. It was during those visits to the assisted living facility that I learned to ignore the sad reality of my vanishing mother and just play along, such as the time Mom suddenly decided she wanted to go back to work.

“Yes, Mom, I think you should apply for that job delivering groceries for Peapod!” But what I really thought was, Sure, Mom, no doubt there is a plethora of openings for an 86-year-old woman who routinely pours the ground Folgers in the water dispenser of their Mr. Coffee.

Mom then dug out a tattered sheaf of yellowed letters of recommendation from past employers, the newest one from 1985. She called these letters her “resumes.” I told her I’d get right on it. Make a few calls. Rustle up an interview.

This made her immensely happy and hopeful. Then she tried to phone her father with the TV remote. I didn’t laugh that time.

Stephen J. Lyons lives in Monticello, Ill.

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