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What My Mother Can't Forget

Through the Haze of Alzheimer's, a Persistent and Unanswered Question

October 08, 2000|JIM HUBBARD

THROUGH A CRACK IN THE DOOR I SAW MY MOTHER, LOIS, standing in front of her antique mahogany dresser, her face reflected in the faded mirror. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she was clutching a framed 8-by-10 photograph of my brother, Paul, her firstborn son.

At the time, my mother lived in a tiny bedroom of my Venice home. It contained a lifetime of memories stored in the five U-Haul boxes she had saved after we sold the Detroit house where she had lived for more than 50 years. As her Alzheimer's advanced, the boxes became my mother's touchstones to the past. She spent days sorting their contents.

That was not the first time I'd watched her grieve over the piles of letters, photographs, birthday cards and condolence cards noting the deaths of her father, husband and her first grandchild. But she grieves most for Paul, who severed all contact with us more than 30 years earlier. His reasons, and his fate, remain a mystery.

I eased just inside her bedroom door. "What are you doing, Mother?"

She lowered her head. "I'm going through my stuff and deciding what to get rid of. I just can't throw anything out."

Deep inside the boxes were unmailed letters she had written to Paul, address unknown, halting attempts to reconnect with her lost child. I'd found more than 100 of them hidden in drawers while cleaning out her house. Many were unfinished. They sometimes trailed off into shopping and to-do lists.

Those letters are remarkable for reasons that go beyond my mother's disease. My father was an angry and sometimes abusive man, and my mother often withdrew deeply into herself during his outbursts. At the time, my brothers and I felt abandoned, because our father would then focus his abuse on us, especially Paul.

His anger detonated in all of our lives. My brother Mike joined the Army at 18 and did three tours of duty in Vietnam as a Green Beret. I abused drugs and alcohol and, as a news photographer, was drawn like a moth to the flames in Detroit's chaotic streets during the 1960s. Paul simply walked away from it all, without looking back.

My mother has scars of her own. Back then, she sought refuge in odd routines. She washed clothes in the basement at 3 a.m. and sat in the bathroom for hours. In her recent behavior I sense long-buried emotions bubbling to the surface of her eroding mind: regret, anger, guilt, fear. Her torment about my vanished brother surfaces again and again, in memories real, imagined, or a mixture of the two.

"Why did Paul do this?" she asked one day when I found her sobbing in front of the bathroom mirror. "It must be my fault, something I did or said."

Last Christmas, after she'd moved into a group home, my mother asked if I ever thought about trying to contact Paul.

"Sometimes. Do you?"

She told me that she'd tried. Mike once enlisted a private investigator and found what we believed was a working phone number for Paul. We were never able to reach him, and my mother never saw the number. Still, she insisted that she'd called him late one recent night. "I just said hello and there was a click on the other end. I guess he doesn't want to hear from his mother."

In fact, she'd called me three times that night, but couldn't remember why.

A few weeks after that, she called me again. She was upset, claiming that Paul had called her and hung up before she had a chance to hear his voice. "I told the operator that we haven't talked in so long," she said. "I should have been more excited about hearing from Paul after all these years. He finally decided to call, and when he reached me, I said something stupid."

"Are you sure he called?" I asked.

"Yes, and I said the wrong thing. I should have been more loving. After all these years he finally calls and I said something stupid. I prayed for him to call. Why didn't I say something nice? I blew it. He'll never call me again. I'm so confused about what I said."

The next morning, I found my mother sitting by the window in her room with a Bible in her lap. I sat on the side of her bed.

"What are you praying about, Mother?"

"Forgiveness. For letting my family down and not being a better mother to my three sons. I could have done more but I wasted my life, my time. I could have done so much more for my kids. I have been praying for my three sons, especially Paul, who has taken a path I don't understand, and that hurts me so much."

I asked if she remembered calling me the night before. She did not. "You called me and you were crying and said Paul had just called you," I told her.

"Last night?"

"You were very upset and said you'd just received a call from Paul."

"Well, I sure don't remember," she said. "I must have been dreaming."

Alzheimer's is like that, and it's easy to overlook its benefits. As my mother's memory disappears, so does her emotional baggage. She can spend hours enjoying flowers, trees and the blue sky. She is keenly aware of the beauty of the moment, and that inspires me. She often bathes with my toddler daughter, Sofie, and in the closeness of their relationship I see a woman reborn.

But it takes only a fleeting thought of her vanished child to puncture her mood.

It's the one thing my mother cannot forget.

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