I walk into the Alzheimer’s facility with a somewhat brave face. After being buzzed in, I force a smile, force small talk, to yet another new administrator, before making my way into the cafeteria. The small tan room with light tan round tables, is before me. Everything is neutral, as if bright colors might offend those with memory impairment. I behave like this is just another day, no big deal. I haven’t seen Mom in a year, but pretend I am prepared. Mom is hunched over her wheelchair. A nurse is trying to feed her. I sit down and introduce myself to a new nurse whose name I forget instantly. She says this is her first week on the job. Mom strains to turn her head and eyes me, but doesn’t smile. She turns away in slow motion, moving as if under water, as if I am not there. The nurse tells me that Mom loves music. I tell her that she used to play piano by ear, up until a few years ago. She promises to play more music for Mom tomorrow, classical instead of country.
The nurse places a small piece of salmon on a fork and touches Mom’s lower lip with it over and over again until she licks the spot, but closes her mouth reflexively. This goes on until Mom finally manages to open her mouth, even if just barely. The nurse then pushes the food inside. As I watch, I wonder when the day will come when Mom can’t chew, when she can’t swallow.
In between bites, Mom grinds her teeth like a delayed response, a late synapse connection telling her mouth to chew at the wrong time. How frustrating that it happens when nothing is in her mouth! How frustrating and terrifying this whole damn disease is. I try hard not to imagine Mom waking in the middle of the night confused, not knowing where she is, not knowing who anyone else is around her.
But, that’s not likely to happen anymore. She no longer appears anxious or frightened. She’s in the late stage of the disease.
The nurse leaves and I begin chattering on, showing Mom pictures of the boys from my phone. Pictures of my life in California. Of course, she doesn’t look at the pictures, but at me. Mom sort of chuckles as I try to feed her. I bribe her with a small piece of a warm chocolate chip cookie. It takes three touches on her bottom lip before Mom can open her mouth. I gently push it in. Only half makes it inside. But she smiles. Mom still loves chocolate. She can’t move her hand, but her eyes look down at it briefly, so I place it up on the table and put mine on top. She smiles again briefly, then stops.
And then she begins to stare.
Mom stares deeply into my eyes. I lean forward, forcing myself not to look away. I continue to gaze back just as deeply into those eyes of hers that are a shade of blue I’ve never seen before in anyone else. They are as blue as western corn flowers or a Tiffany’s box. Who knew a color could break my heart.
As I am staring back, I fight tears and remind myself that she is in an infantile place now. She is in a beautiful state of purity, innocence, trust. Looking into Mom’s eyes, I can remember exactly how it felt to stare deeply into my sons’ eyes when they were both newborns. I’d lie with them and stare so deeply that I’d ache. I’d tremble with how remarkable the knowing is. How raw, how powerful it is to be so open, so pure, so trusting.
We are all born in this perfect state. And that’s why I believe in oneness. We divide, distrust, judge, criticize, separate, as we age.
But when we are born, we have this ability to love with abandon. We don’t judge. We love who we love and it has nothing to do with what they look like or wear or own. We aren’t ashamed of our feelings, we embrace them. We scream when hungry, cry when we need to be held—we know we deserve love and deserve to be taken care of. Somewhere along the line, maybe in elementary school, we start to lose that knowledge.
We lose touch with so much as we layer on fears, doubts, judgements, anxiety, hurts, grudges. And it’s hard to be happy, to be at peace, to be creative, to be playful, to give love, to receive love, with all those layers weighing us down.
I adore how toddlers and preschoolers live unabashedly too. They embrace who they are and what they want! A tutu with cowboy boots and a martian mask—hell yes! No toddler cares what another person thinks of them. They’ll grab a jar of paint and just stick their hands inside and relish in the gooey feeling and then paint their arms and legs because it just looks cool. They’ll dance, spin, rock it out, screaming to their favorite Barney tune.
They also trust that the Universe has their back. Have you ever seen a toddler just fall backwards on purpose and giggle as adults scramble and run across the room to literally have their back, break their fall? Those little munchkins know that the Universe will care for them, that the Universe has their back.
We are all born knowing these truths, until sadly, some adult doesn’t show up or doesn’t care for us, or other people hurt us and then we build walls. As I said, we pile on judgement, hurts, guilt, anxiety, fears, grudges, criticism, doubt until there is no room for joy, for trust. It’s like wearing 10 coats on a summer day and wondering why we can’t run freely in the surf.
These thoughts, or some version of them, race through my mind as I am looking into my mother’s robin’s egg blue eyes. So I allow myself to try to channel my inner preschooler. I allow myself to enter into a staring contest like the ones I used to have with my sisters or my childhood bff when I was little. I lean in and tell myself to just go there. Who’s going to blink first? I think, so I won’t cry.
After we stare for what feels like five minutes, although I’m sure it is only two, she smiles. I can see kindness, inquisitiveness behind her blue blue eyes. She doesn’t know who I am, but she still feels, she still tries to connect. Someday I will just get a blank stare in return. So today, I am grateful and I am heartbroken at the same time. But mainly, I am grateful. The same eyes that used to be filled with so much fear, so much anxiety, so much stress, that they would dart around a room, are now at peace. They calmly stare deeply into mine. She is smiling. She is trusting. She is peaceful.
Last year when we did this, our foreheads touched and she said I love you. This year, she can hardly speak. She doesn’t know who I am, but wants to. I ache with the purity, the openness, the trust I see in her eyes that won’t look away.