A year ago my wife and I sat with my mother for one last lunch at her nursing home in Albuquerque before moving from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. Sometimes she knew who we were, but lately that had not been the case.
As we chatted, she asked us where we lived. Santa Fe, we told her. Oh, she said, do you know that other couple from there?
Of course, she meant us.
We told her that we knew them very well and that seemed to satisfy her.
No one enjoys seeing an elderly parent slip into a state of not knowing. My mother, who raised my three sisters and me when our father left in 1949, always had a quick wit about her. The one I remember best occurred when I reported to her that the state police officer giving me a test for my driver’s license would not let me fill out the form as R. Thomas Berner. The officer insisted on Ralph Thomas Berner, but because Ralph was my father’s name, I never used it in full so it was disconcerting when the officer insisted on it.
The government doesn’t allow people to do that, he said.
Tell it to J. Edgar Hoover, my mother quipped when I told her.
My sisters, who have sat with my now 97-year-old mother through more than a decade of lunches and dinners, have reported that even as her mind seemed to deteriorate, she still had those moments of lucidity and she could get around in a wheelchair. She might not know who you were, but she could still come up with a good rejoinder.
Because she did not know us at that final luncheon, I did not feel guilty about returning to our native Pennsylvania. But about 10 months after settling in, I heard from one of my sisters that my mother wanted to know where I was. Traveling, my sister told her, which was more or less true.
Nevertheless, I decided to visit my mother. When we stopped by coming from the airport and my older sister told her who I was, she opened her arms welcome wide. It was the only time she indicated she knew who I was. When I sat with her for lunch day after day, she gave no sign that she knew me, even though I made it point—as I always had—to call her “Mother” or “Ethel.”
So I was surprised one day when the lucid mother spoke up. I forget the circumstance that made me ask her if she was OK, but I do remember her reply. In fact, I immediately typed it into my smart phone so I wouldn’t forget.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
She looked at me and replied: “I don’t know what that means anymore.”
I was stunned at how profound her answer was, that despite her fading mental condition, she could verbalize her condition in one short sentence.
And then she went back to being herself.