By Caroline Murphy
“Oh, my God,” Mom cried when she saw me.
She clutched my wrist with a bony hand. Tears ran down her wrinkled, hollow cheeks onto the starched white pillowcase beneath her head. “Oh, my God.”
Tears welled in my eyes too. Mom was glad to see me. I hadn’t expected her to be.
“Look,” Mom said to my older sister Helen, who stood on the opposite side of the bed. “Look. It’s my mother. I knew she would come.”
Every time I visited, my 82-year-old mother assigned me a different “persona du jour,” a character she plucked from the tattered memories in her dementia-warped mind. Sometimes I was her sister or one of my own. Other times she saw me as a nasty (but memorable) aunt, or a helpful store clerk, or a childhood friend. Often during my visits, I was a conglomerate character, a fictional patchwork of people from her youth stitched together from the semi-remembered threads of her life.
This was the first time I’d ever been her mother. It was quite an honor.
Mom adored her mother—or at least her idealized version of her mother. My grandmother, Irene Murphy, died of kidney disease when Mom was 10 years old. Grandma passed before adolescence jaded her daughter’s opinion of her, while her daughter was too young to notice her flaws, her failings, her humanity. In my mother’s mind, her own mother remained a beautiful, smart, kind, generous, mythological mother-heroine.
Within minutes of my arrival, Mom subsided into silence. She curled into the fetal position facing me, one skeletal hand clutching my wrist, the other grasping the edge of her favorite green wool blanket. I pulled the blanket over her shoulder; I thought she looked cold. She immediately shook it off and resumed twisting the blanket’s frayed edge, now with both hands.
She was mute, but awake. Her cloudy, dark eyes stared into a far distance only she could see. Her pale, withered lips hung, slightly parted, gently pulsing in and out over toothless gums with each ragged, shallow breath.
I stroked her soft, white hair, running my fingers through its wispy strands the way she used to comb her fingers through my auburn hair when I was little and I’d sit on the floor in front of her chair while the whole family watched Emergency and Adam-12 on TV together.
“You’ve given her a gray fauxhawk,” Helen said.
My sister’s voice brought me back to the Pepto-Bismol-pink living room of Mom’s condo, back to the two tatty couches with their huge blue and purple flowers, both sofas now pushed to the walls to make space for the hospital bed Mom occupied the center of the room. Back to the boxes of pain and anti-anxiety medications on her rolling bedside table. Back to the smell of antiseptics mingled with flowery air freshener intended to mask the smells of age and illness.
I sought refuge on the nearest couch as my sister retrieved a comb from among the medications and meticulously rearranged Mom’s hair.
We were settling in, Helen and Mom and me, putting on our armor and preparing for Mom’s final battle. I was grateful for that shred of peace before the salvos of pain and morphine and fear and sorrow began, glad for a lingering fragment of summer before we had to face the chill of autumn and the bitterness of winter.
I could be a daughter for a little while longer.
Sitting there on the couch, I pulled my knees up to my chest and thought, Parents are supposed to care for children, not the other way around. Parents are supposed to do the hard stuff. Kids are supposed to be able to play.
But roles reverse when the time comes for a child to shepherd a parent through the season of dying. Life turns upside down. Touchstones of logic and order tumble.
I felt like I’d been knocked off my feet by a huge wave that forced me underwater, scraping me along razor-sharp rocks on the bottom of a turbulent sea. I’d been in that undertow before, when Dad died, then again two years later when my mother-in-law passed. I knew the waves would eventually toss me back to the beach—battered, sore, and bruised, but alive. I knew I’d heal and life would go on. I’d recover from my mother’s death.
But once she was gone, every time I looked in the mirror, I’d know that I had joined the oldest generation. Knowing she was gone meant knowing I was next.
What will I remember about my mother 30 years from now, when I am the one laying in the bed? What scraps of my life will remain with me to the end? What memories of me will others carry forward with them when I am gone?
How will my daughter remember me?
Vividly, I hope.
About the Writer:
Caroline Murphy is a writer and editor who spent nearly a decade ghostwriting middle school science textbooks. She has worked as a blogger, a journalist, and an advertising and marketing copywriter. Recently, Caroline has forayed into memoir and creative nonfiction, where she spends much time seeking the optimum balance between revealing too much and too little.