Maternal instinct.

[From December 5, 2018: This was written the last time we were in Tulsa, four years and a day ago, before such travel decisions would become all the more complicated by the pandemic. Chelli hadn’t been traveling in a couple years at that point, but her mother’s swift decline into dementia had become severe enough that she knew she needed to see her mom in person, maybe for the last time. It was a difficult, but important, trip.]

A lot of mother/daughter relationships are complicated, so in many ways, their story is not unusual. When Chelli was first diagnosed and started this battle of/for her life, though, her desire to fully repair the relationship with her mother took on a new urgency. Serious, chronic illnesses have a way of brutally reorganizing one’s priorities like that, prerogatives all suddenly shifted & reordered by the harsh realization that our time here on earth comes with no guarantee. Unfortunately for my wife, her own illness came at the same time that my mother-in-law’s symptoms of dementia were no longer able to be excused away. Almost overnight, Chelli’s window of time to work on her life’s most important female relationship seemed to evaporate.

It’s been two years since Chelli has been able to physically be with her parents. Our usual week together after Christmas wasn’t possible last year, since neither Chelli or her parents were physically able to make the 900-mile journey between us. Still, Chelli talks to her parents nightly on the phone, so she had some idea of what to expect when we arrived for this week’s visit, her nightly telephone conversations with her mom having long ago transitioned from “no, Mom, we live in Ohio, so we can’t come over for dinner” to “Mom, I’m your daughter. Chelli.” Still, it’s difficult to ever adequately prepare for the first time a parent looks you in the eye and has no idea who you are.

We’re staying at a friend’s condo here in Tulsa this week, an intentional bit of physical separation meant to give Chelli a “safe space” to rest… and me, a place to breathe. We invited Chelli’s parents over to the condo for dinner tonight to celebrate our anniversary with us, twenty-six years to the day since we said our I dos. Even though the entire context of the evening was our anniversary, Chelli’s mom didn’t seem to comprehend what was being celebrated or who, exactly, was supposed to be celebrating. When I showed her a picture of our wedding day, she said it was lovely and she’d like to “have a print of that,” even though she clearly didn’t know it was us.

It was an evening full of misfiring synapses, interwoven with commentary on Stella — described by my mother-in-law as “the most beautiful dog that ever was” — and a string of questions that bounced between trying to ascertain how long we’ve lived in this “lovely home with the turquoise plates” and suggestions that it was nice to have dinner together so we could “get to know each other a bit better.”

Prior to this experience with my mother-in-law, my biggest frame of reference for dementia was watching my grandmother’s slow decline. When my grandmother was in the early throes of Alzheimer’s, I remember how tenuous she knew her lucid moments were, how she was often keenly aware that in a matter of hours, everything would again become a cognitive blur. This meant that her lucid days — later, only moments — were often filled with a deep sadness (and fear, I’m sure) about the darkness she knew was lurking just around the corner. My sweet mother-in-law, by contrast, has never seemed to have any such self-awareness during her own descent into dementia. As I talked with her tonight, trying to make sense of her blissful confusion, I kept thinking that having been spared any late-game awareness was probably a small blessing.

As my in-laws were leaving the condo this evening, my mother-in-law pulled me aside. She said she didn’t know when or if she’d see me again, but she wanted to let me know that “the woman with the dog” and I seem very happy, so she sure hopes we are able to make things work.

Me, too, Mom. Me, too.

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