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Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide

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Today’s First Person is part of a week-long tribute to mothering.

Ever since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I’ve tried to prepare myself for the day when my mother no longer knows who I am. I have carefully rehearsed a façade of nonchalance, equanimity and grace that I know I’ll never feel. I don’t want her to experience my sadness and hurt. I don’t want her to see me cry.

When that day finally comes, we are driving south on Highway 11 through cottage country north of Toronto. Mom sits beside me in the passenger seat.

We are on our way home to Guelph after a visit with my mother’s oldest friend, Elaine. The two met during registration at the University of Toronto, in the line reserved for students whose last name started with “K.” Each had gone on to careers in social work.

Now heading home, the December sky is growing dark. Mom is giddy from her visit and perhaps a little tired after the long drive. She is cheerfully chattering away to herself until out of nowhere she asks, “Were you born before me or after me?”

Oh boy, I think, this is it.

“Well,” I reply, “I was born after you.” After a pause, I add: “Because you’re my mother.”

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“I am?” she exclaims, “Why am I only finding out about this now? I feel cheated! I want to get to know you better! Yes,” she nods, “I like that prospect.”

It’s all I can do to keep my eyes on the road and the car pointed straight ahead. Are we living some imagined postadoption reunion, I wonder? Who knows. But it could be worse, I remind myself. My mother doesn’t know who I am, but she wishes she did. I can live with that. I don’t want to leave her feeling cheated, so I gently assure her that we have known each other my whole life. “That’s possible,” Mom responds agreeably, “I do have Alzheimer’s.”

And so it goes. I grow comfortable with my anonymity. I become adept at playing whatever role her reality requires. I can be the 8-year-old playmate, the teenage girlfriend, the mother. Every visit is a day at the improv.

On the day that she’s assessed for long-term care, the caseworker performs the usual cognitive testing. Mom loves puzzles, and she treats it like a game. She gives Mom three words to remember for later recall – apple, table, penny – which Mom dutifully repeats to herself. Then the caseworker proceeds to ask her about me.

“Lillian,” she asks, pointing at me, “What is the name of this person?” There’s a long pause during which I hold my breath, a smile carefully arranged on my face. I can see the wheels turning as Mom stares at me, but no answer is forthcoming. She tries again. “Lillian, what is your relationship to this person?” Silence. Suddenly, Mom asks, “Does it start with ‘C’?”

“Yes,” we confirm in unison.

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“Is it Carolyn?”

“Yes!”

“Well,” says Mom, “That was almost too easy!”

Shortly after she enters long-term care, a nurse asks, “Lillian, is this your daughter?” Mom looks at me wistfully and says, “I wish!” On another occasion, as we enjoy a bowl of ice cream together, I overhear Mom say to herself, “This is the sort of thing that Carolyn would enjoy.”

One day I arrive while she’s eating her lunch, and I greet her with a kiss on the cheek. She looks at me in astonishment. “That’s nice,” she says, “but are you sure you’re not mistaking me for someone else?” “No,” I say, “You’re my mother.”

“Oh, I’m far too young to be your mother,” she replies.

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“How old are you?” I ask.

“About 23,” she replies.

“That’s fine,” I say, “We’ll just be friends then.”

It’s not all sweetness and light. There are occasional angry outbursts at staff and altercations with other residents. Her social graces, long intact, sometimes desert her. One evening I get a call from the charge nurse saying that Mom has barricaded herself in her room. Speaking through the closed door, I am able to coax her into opening the door a crack. “Oh!” she says when she sees me, still cross but softening slightly, “It’s you!”

“Can I come in?”

“OK, but just you. Nobody else!”

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On a visit, in what would be her last spring, I notice that her hands are as cold as ice. I kneel at her feet, placing her hands against my face to warm them. For a long time she stares intently at me, her blue eyes searching my face. At length, she says, “You look like your mother.” I am speechless. I have my father’s profile and his colouring, including his brown eyes. Who does she think I am in this moment?

Changing the subject, I suggest we go for a drive. These days it is my mother’s favourite thing in the whole world. Her excitement is palpable, and she bounces up and down on her heels. As we walk down the hallway toward the exit she asks me, “What’s your name?”

“Carolyn,” I reply.

There’s a flicker of recognition. She peers at me. “What’s your last name?”

“Davidson,” I say.

“Mine, too!” she exclaims, giggling and shaking her head at this extraordinary coincidence. And walks on.

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At the drive-through, I place our usual order: tea with milk and sugar for Mom, tea with milk for me. A cookie for each of us. I place the bag of cookies on the dashboard and hand Mom the cardboard tray with our drinks. It’s her job to hold the tray, to keep it steady and level until we get to our destination. It’s a task she takes very seriously, and she’s a study in concentration as I ease the car over the speed-bump and turn out into the street in search of a quiet spot.

Once parked, the next few minutes pass in silence as we nibble our cookies and sip our tea. Mom’s earlier comment about resemblances lingers in my mind, and evidently, also in hers.

“How is your mother?” she asks.

“She’s just fine,” I say. “She says hello.”

Carolyn Davidson lives in Guelph, Ont.

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