What My Mother Remembers by Krista Varela Posell
“So what classes are you teaching this year?” my mother asks.
I take a breath, my hands gripping the steering wheel.
“Actually,” I say, “I’m not teaching anymore.”
“Oh,” she says, with a hint of disappointment in her voice that any daughter could recognize. She was so proud when I told her five years ago that I’d be teaching college writing. That I’d be a professor, straight out of graduate school, barely twenty-four years old. It seemed to her that I had achieved an incredible status for someone my age. “So what are you doing now?”
“I still work at the college,” I tell her, “but I’ve transitioned into an administrative role. One with regular hours and benefits.”
After digesting this information for a moment, my mother rolls down the car window for some fresh air. The mild Bay Area summer breeze wafts through the front seat of my Volkswagen Jetta. My mother stares out into the rolling hills of the East Bay as we make our way from the airport to my house. Though she closes her eyes to enjoy the cool air now, she’ll feel differently when the sun starts to set—she came outfitted in a t-shirt and shorts, prepared for an Arizona summer rather than a Northern California one. She turns back to me, taking on a slightly more cheerful tone, and asks, “Well, do you like it?”
I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve had this exact conversation, but it’s the second time today I’ve told my mother that I no longer have the job she thinks I have. In fact, it’s been a year since I’ve been in the classroom. The first dozen times I gave her this news, I explained how difficult it was to be an adjunct, how I wanted something with more stability. How the title of professor doesn’t necessarily come with the prestige and permanence that she, like so many others unfamiliar with modern academia, seems to associate with the role. A handful of times after that, I described my new job to her in detail, detailing all the behind-the-scenes work I do with faculty and students as a program coordinator. Now, I tell her the bare minimum and hope that she doesn’t sense my annoyance at having to answer this question for what might be the thirtieth time.
“Yeah,” I say, “it’s been a nice change of pace.”
Normally, this exchange happens over the phone. To keep my patience with her, I try to chalk some of her forgetfulness up to the distance between us—nearly 900 miles to be exact. I call her in moments where I can split my attention, like driving in the car or standing at the sink doing dishes, to distract myself from my own grief at her inability to remember simple details about my life. Otherwise, I get off the phone with her and my jaw is clenched so hard that it hurts.
I thought—hoped, prayed—that maybe there’d be something about telling her in person that would finally make this information stick. But I can see as soon as we change the subject to what we’re having for dinner that our conversation has floated right out the car window, that we’ll have this same conversation again, maybe tomorrow, maybe an hour from now.
There are things my mother can remember: my name, my birthday, the fact that I’m married (though half the time, my husband’s name escapes her reach), what kind of dog I have. This is a fairly finite list, and limits our ability to hold a deep conversation. Our phone calls are filled with little more than pleasantries (“Hi, how are you? How are your classes? How’s your hubby?”), and each time I talk to her, I struggle to remember that I’m talking to a woman who once took care of me, who once took care of other people for a living as a nurse.
The things my mother can’t remember, however, are endless: my job, my dog’s name, whether my dog is a boy or girl, whether my husband finished school, what my husband does for a living, what she ate for breakfast, whether she took her medications, who she spoke to an hour ago. I try not to take it personally when so many of those facts pertain to my own life, as dementia is undiscerning and ruthless. It does not care how hurtful it is or give you a say in what details stay or go. It culls memories without abandon, handing over the burden of remembering to the rest of us. We are forced to remember things three times: once for ourselves, once for them, and once for the people they used to be. Every time I talk to my mother, I ache with all the remembering I have to do.
Every time I see my mother, which is maybe once a year, she pulls my left hand out in front of her and inspects my wedding ring. She always comments on how beautiful it is, though I think her admiration of it is a bit over-the-top; it’s just a modest white gold band with five small diamonds. But she has always been someone to find beauty in simplicity.
No accompanying engagement ring, my wedding band represents the day my husband and I eloped on the beach with only my brother to officiate, a couple friends to witness, a photographer, and our dog. If my mother was disappointed that she couldn’t be there for my wedding, she never acted like it. When I called two weeks before to tell her I was getting married in a small ceremony, she said, “You know, I had a feeling that’s what you were calling to tell me today.” Though how she could have possibly guessed that, I don’t know.
“How long have you been married again?” she asks me now, squinting at my finger. I feel more disappointed that she can’t remember this detail than my job or anything else important about my life.
“We’re coming up on our third anniversary,” I say.
“Really?” she asks, and I see she is struggling to understand. “It feels like a lot longer.”
I can already feel where this conversation is going. “Well, we’ve been married for three, but together for thirteen.”
“Thirteen? Wow!” I can tell she truly has no grasp on what this number means—I could have said nine years or sixteen, and either would have made just as much sense to her. I could walk her through the math, remind her that my husband and I met my junior year in high school, and remind her that I’m twenty-eight now. But it’s pointless; I know that she can’t cognitively bridge the gap between those two facts to understand the timeline.
And what difference does it make, anyway?
I try not to compare her to my mother-in-law, who sends us a card every year on our anniversary, who brags about how long we’ve been together to friends, co-workers, family, anyone who will listen.
People and events don’t exist for my mother in a chronological, three-dimensional space. My husband has become a static character in her narrative of my life. In some way she comprehends that he has always been there; sometimes she asks me, “And you two are still happy together, after all this time?”—even if she doesn’t know the exact meaning of “all this time.” But she can’t build upon her history of him beyond what she knew before her memory became frozen in time, can’t integrate the details of his growing older into her understanding of who he is.
I too have become merely snapshots to her, figments of a daughter she thinks she knows. The fifteen year-old version of me who fell in love with the trumpet player in the marching band is a different daughter than the twenty-eight year-old she thinks is a college professor. It doesn’t help that I look the same now as I did when I was fifteen, that I’m a woman who gets mistaken for a freshman student at the college where I work or asked if my parents are home when the Comcast guy comes to fix the internet. She holds onto the version of me that she thinks is perennial, this amalgam of details she’s managed to hang on to, even if none of them are accurate.
The concept of time no longer holds any meaning for my mother. And yet, time marches on and makes its mark. Each time I see her, I take stock of all the ways in which she’s changed. Her hair, which she used to color diligently once she reached her late thirties, is thinning and graying. Her one hundred dollars a month spending allowance that she gets after her disability check goes to living expenses doesn’t give much room for extravagant personal grooming purchases. Her skin, once tanned and smooth, is wrinkling and rough. The knuckles on her hands have become swollen and bulging. Her top left incisor is missing, a story that I never got to hear, from a time when she lived on her own and sometimes wandered too far, unable to make her way home by herself.
I wonder how she sees herself when she looks in the mirror, if she can tell the ways in which she is getting older. I admit that I suffer from the same problem—I often have the same vague image of her in my mind that doesn’t age, one that is a rough combination of the most recent pictures I have of her (which are still several years old) and the last time I saw her in person. She doesn’t have a computer or cell phone to be able to do video chats in between visits, so each time I see her has its initial moments of a shock as I tweak my memory of her and incorporate the new physical changes: the way her skin sags and stretches in new ways, the sunspots, the increasingly weathered look on her face. I barely recognized her in the airport a couple of days ago, having to do a double take as she deboarded her plane.
My mother lowers my hand from her face and gives it a squeeze. “Well, your ring is just gorgeous,” she says.
It takes all my self-control to just say, “Thank you.”
We are talking at dinner one night, and she’s having a particularly difficult time speaking. This is just as well; it’s her third night in town and I feel as though we’ve already run out of things to talk about. Or rather, things that I have the patience to talk about for the fifth time.
There are things I can talk about with my mother, and just like the things she can remember, that list is quite restricted and is limited: my husband, my brother, my father, my father’s family, people who she still remembers, even though she hasn’t seen them in years. These things don’t necessarily make for many stimulating conversations, as I’m often just updating her on the various relationships in my life with people she knows.
The things I can’t talk about with my mother are far more extensive, and it’s a list that grows the older I get: politics, my childhood, my debilitating student loan debt, my life-altering experiences with psychedelics, my fears about climate change, my anxiety and depression, the time I had to pick her up from work when I was fifteen because she was high and I’ll never know on what, the fact that I am her power of attorney. I add to this list every time someone tells me a conversation they had with their own mother, or every time I observe an interaction between a mother and child out in the world. I make mental tallies in an invisible column of things I can’t share with her. There are some that hurt when I add them to the list, others that are simply just facts of life.
What my mother wants to talk about tonight is what she’s been reading. I’ve given her a book called The Wisdom of Anxiety. I got it for free months ago, and have been keeping it just for her visit so she’d have something to do during our downtime besides watching Will & Grace reruns. She’s been glued to the book, and I feel a little relieved to have some time and space at home when I don’t have to manage her.
“I’ve been reading the book you gave me,” she says, slowly, but intentionally. “And I really think that’s what I have.”
She means anxiety. I know this. I’ve known this for years, since I first saw pieces of her medical record after her opioid overdose and saw the different medications she was taking.
“I just get so nervous,” she continues, and I can see that she wants to say more, but the road from her brain to her mouth is full of speed bumps and potholes, and most of the time only a fraction of what she really wants to say even comes out.
“I know,” I say, trying to be empathetic.
“Have I ever told you about my brother?” she asks.
She’s talking about her brother who molested her when they were both children, her brother who dropped dead a year and a half ago of a heart attack, with whom she was never really able to reconcile. She’s told me about her childhood before in bits and pieces, and I’ve read about it in her medical records. Once I knew what happened to her, things in my life began making sense and falling into place. The way she used drugs and alcohol to try to hide her pain, to try to forget, to stop feeling like she was “dirty,” as she’s described to social workers and psychiatrists. It was like finding a missing puzzle piece, except it revealed a final image of the puzzle that was actually much different than what was on the box.
“You have,” I say, wanting to give her space to talk about it if she wants to, but not knowing how to respond. I’m not sure I’m ready to engage in this conversation, not sure I’m equipped for saying the right thing or knowing what to do with whatever she wants to share. Though we’ve talked about this before, I don’t trust myself to have the right language to support a sexual assault survivor in the proper ways, much less one who cannot fully communicate her feelings.
“Oh, okay,” she says, and looks slightly relieved that she doesn’t have to try to relay the whole story when she’s having such a hard time getting words out. “Ever since then, I’ve always been anxious.”
I nod to say I hear you, I understand, but feel lost with where to go from here.
She goes to continue, but can’t. Every other second she pauses to try to think of a word, but she struggles, and finally gives up.
“I wish my brain was better,” she says. The simplicity, clarity, and desperation behind this sentence devastates me. It makes me wish I was better.
Halfway through the week, I take my mother to visit some family: her sister-in-law, Cindy; Cindy’s two adult children, Annette and Bobby; and Annette’s two young sons, Sam and Jack. A mini-family reunion of sorts.
My mother immediately takes to Sam and Jack, and sits on the floor to play. She has always been drawn to young children, with her nearly twenty years of experience working as an elementary school nurse. But watching her with the boys now, I realize, they are in the same universe. They speak the same language and their days are controlled by others who drive them around, who tell them what to do, and what and when to eat. She so easily slips into this mode of play because she understands it and operates on a similar attention span. The rules of pretend govern her world now—something can exist one moment and be gone the next.
My cousin Bobby asks me when my husband and I are going to start having kids. I laugh and shrug, trying to be casual whenever someone asks me this question these days. “We’ve actually decided recently that we aren’t going to have children,” I say. This statement always makes people uncomfortable so I quickly follow up lightly with, “We’re very content with our little family of three,” referring to our dog.
My mother looks up from playing with Sam to say, “Well, I’m not!” She laughs. She thinks she is making a joke, but I can also tell it is a half-joke. There is a beat where no one says anything. “Just kidding,” she says, and goes back to helping Sam build his castle.
Around us, my aunt and cousin are discussing the kids’ pick up and drop off schedules next week. My aunt brings out a bag of books she bought for the boys. In my head, I add another tally to the list. My mother is oblivious to all of this, deep in fantasyland, now building train tracks that run the length of the living room.
We won’t speak of this later. We don’t speak about children at all. Even before her memory became so brittle, my mother never expressed an explicit desire in my having children. I think part of it was because I met my husband so young and she didn’t want to put any ideas into my head. The only time we ever talked about it was when she came into my bedroom one day a few months after I met my someday-husband, asked if I needed birth control, and that was it. She took me to Planned Parenthood to get on the pill, and we never talked about sex or children after that.
Then, by the time I got old enough where having a baby wouldn’t have meant sacrificing my education, my husband and I were in such a comfortable routine that she couldn’t envision my life any differently. But I think another part of it lies in her own experience: becoming pregnant with me by accident at 28, the same age I am now, on the verge of breaking up with my father. She made choices—to keep the baby and marry my father instead—and though I’m sure she would admit to not regretting those choices, I wonder how her life would have turned out differently had she been able to find a husband on her own terms, one she didn’t have to worry about coming home from the bar late every night, one she couldn’t use to mask her own problems with alcohol and addiction.
So for now, my mother enjoys every moment with Annette’s two young boys, choosing to watch them play even when they have finished playing with her, rather than engage in conversation with the adults in the room.
On the drive home she’ll ask how my cousin Annette is doing and I gently remind her that we just saw her an hour ago. She’ll furrow her brow as she tries to remember, trying to account for the last few hours that have escaped her. Whenever this happens, I cycle through a predictable sequence of feelings. There’s the sheer exasperation: how could she possibly not remember someone she saw an hour ago? What even happens to those memories? What is the point of telling her anything if she won’t remember it anyway? Then there’s the guilt: it’s not her fault she can’t remember. She’s not doing it on purpose. And then there’s the grief: she will never again have a normal life, one further enriched by experiences and memories. I will never have a normal relationship with her. These thoughts and feelings condense and expand depending upon the severity of the memory lapse and happen several times a day when I’m with her, even within a single conversation with her. But I’m always left with a single thing: exhaustion.
I can’t tell my mother that part of the reason I don’t want children is because I don’t want to do it without her help. Seeing the way my aunt helps my cousin Annette makes me realize how much I’d have to do on my own, how little support I’d have. My children would not have a typical relationship with their grandmother, if they’d even get to have one at all.
I can’t tell my mother that the real reason I don’t want children is because I feel like I already have one and I don’t want to resent them the way I already resent taking care of her. Or worse, that they would one day resent me, too.
The last day of her visit, my mother and I go to the campus where I work. She’s been asking me all week to take her so that she can visualize it in our phone conversations after she leaves. She’s been at least half a dozen times before. It’s a place that has served as a second home to me for nearly eleven years. It pulls at my heart to think that her memories—the trip we took during spring break my senior year of high school to visit colleges, my bachelor’s graduation, my master’s graduation, and a few other random visits—are gone, vanished from her brain, forever.
The first time she asked me to take her earlier this week, I reminded her that she’s seen it before, which made her furrow her brow again as she tried to remember, going back into the recesses of her mind to pull up an image, anything to jog her memory. Every time after that, I simply obliged and told her we’d see it her last day in town.
She recognizes the deficiencies in her memory sometimes, but not always to an accurate degree. I try not to draw attention to it whenever I can avoid it. We don’t talk about it as often as we possibly can. For her, it is out of ignorance; for me, it is a choice, this choice I make to operate in denial because a mother isn’t supposed to need reminding of what her daughter’s job is or how long she’s been with her husband.
When we get to campus, my mother lets out a faint “wow” as we pull up the drive, the first thing she sees being a sprawling green lawn in front of a chapel and other buildings of Spanish Colonial architecture. We enjoy a coffee out on the quad—it’s a sunny day and even though it’s the summer, the campus is bustling with people. I show her my office, a tiny, windowless room that doesn’t even have my name on the door, but she’s giddy to see it anyway. She thinks it’s my teaching office, but I don’t bother to correct her.
We walk a loop around the campus, which is small and takes us less than twenty minutes. But she can’t stop admiring the school grounds. “I hope you appreciate just how beautiful it is here,” she says.
I don’t know it in this moment, but this will be the last time my mother ever gets to come out to visit me, the last time she will ever get to see where I work. Just weeks from now, I’ll be talking to her on the phone and she’ll already have forgotten the visit to campus, will have forgotten her entire trip. She’ll continue to ask about my job and I’ll continue to remind her, trying to be patient and kind, but failing most of the time.
A year from now, she’ll be hospitalized after being found unconscious in her room at her assisted living facility. Her nurse will throw around terms like “late-stage COPD” and “hospice” to prepare me for what’s on the horizon. My mother lost oxygen and passed out after aspirating some food, the doctors will theorize, something that happens with advanced dementia when a person loses significant muscle function. The raspy quality of her voice from being intubated for almost a week won’t ever quite go away afterward, and her ability to hold a conversation will deteriorate even more markedly, to the point where she won’t ask me about my classes anymore.
But for now, my mother pauses our tour so that she can literally stop and smell some bougainvillea on a nearby bush. I nearly roll my eyes but think about the way in which, despite everything, she still approaches life with a sense of childlike wonder, the way she is able to appreciate the smallest of pleasures. The way she has adopted an attitude of graciousness after all that she’s been through, the way she still finds beauty in the ephemeral. So I stop and smell them, too.
Krista Varela Posell is a queer Latina writer who earned an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. Her essays have appeared or will appear in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, The Bold Italic, GO Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the co-creator of Poly in Place, and lives in San Francisco with her husband and their miniature dachshund.