Growing up, I didn’t think my mother liked me; I know she loved me, but she didn’t know how to handle me. Mom was quiet and melancholy; I was brash and angry. Melancholy and anger were the mechanisms we each used to cope with the family’s dysfunction. But we had little in common. Well, except for the dysfunction.
But I did know my mother loved me. She said she worried about me, she wanted me to be happy; she wanted me to know Jesus. And she prayed for me every day. Every morning as I got ready for school, I passed the den and caught a glimpse of her reading her Bible and praying.
Maybe she wasn’t close to me, but I saw with whom she was close: God. Over time I saw what that friendship did to her. It made her good and kind, even in the face of disappointment and sorrow.
As an adult I tried to get closer to Mom by sharing the things that mattered to me. The first attempt didn’t go so well. I gave her a copy of my MFA thesis screenplay, which was a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family. She never read it.
“I just don’t get it,” she flustered. I think she didn’t understand screenplay formatting.
I got better at sharing things with her. I told her about idiots I’d dated and made her laugh. I told her some of my deepest regrets and made her cry. We loosened up around each other. Even my sister noticed. “When I go see Mom she talks about ‘Susan this, Susan that.’ I feel left out!” Mom didn’t share a lot in return. She preferred to listen.
Eleven years ago my mother had a stroke. It affected some of her motor skills but mostly her speech. She’d had a great vocabulary to start, so she simply circumlocuted around the blank spot. And she still spoke fluent Spanish, which was fun when we took her to Mexican restaurants.
But then she got vascular dementia, in which the brain suffers lots of microscopic strokes. (Dementia runs in mom’s family. Her mother and an older brother died from it). Mom hasn’t succumbed yet, but she now lives in a convalescent home. She’s lost a little bit of herself every day – her words, her health, her memory.
Dementia will eventually claim one’s internal editor—the super-ego that governs the infantile id. I had an uncle (unrelated to Mom) who, after he had a stroke, took to blurting tasteless jokes and threatening to cross-dress. I’ve seen a lot of ugly ids at my mother’s convalescent home: suspicious, inconsolable, tantrumy. They’re like kindergarteners.
My mother has no super-ego left, either. And her unbridled id is pure sweetness. She is kind, joyful, delighted. The activities coordinator says Mom is one of her favorites. “Whenever she comes to Activity, she is eager to help. Even if she has no idea what she’s doing.”
Sometimes Mom is lucid but can’t make the right words come out of her mouth. Other times she’s foggy and childlike. Too much stimuli can trigger her oddities.
One weekend my aunt came to visit her. Mom got to go out to a restaurant one night and spend the day at my sister’s house the next. On Monday my sister drove her to three doctor’s appointments.
“Well, Mom,” my sister commented, “You’ve had a busy weekend.”
“Yes,” my mother replied. “And there was no nudity involved.”
Two summers ago, my 14-year-old cat died and I was inconsolable. I flew to Denver to see my mother and brought C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed to read on the plane. When I visited Mom, she asked me to read from the book. I was on Madeline L’Engle’s foreword. L’Engle commented on what a secure relationship Lewis had with God, that he could curse and rail against Him in his grief, and still know God was there to listen.
My mom blurted out, “Yes. We can talk to God like that! It’s okay! We are okay … And Susan, you and I have that in common. Not everyone does. But we’re alike… we know we can have that with God.”
I sat, stunned. My mom had uttered a profound statement in nearly flawless sentences. And she had put me in her camp. She said I was like her.
Last summer there was a wedding on my mother’s side of the family. My cousins commented on how much they missed seeing my mom, their Aunt Marian.
“Your mom is pure sweetness,” my cousin Sherrie said. “I’m so worried if I get dementia, I won’t end up like her.”
“Me too!” I cried. “If God takes my super-ego I’ll be a total bitch!”
“Me too!” my cousin Dee Dee jumped in. “I’ve prayed, God if I get dementia, please don’t let me be like my mom. Let me be like Aunt Marian!”
“Get working on your prayer life,” I told myself. I knew what made my mother who she was. She was close to very few people. But she was close to God. Whatever character defects my mother started out with, they’d been burned off like dross in the fire of prayer.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I want to be like you.
Susan Isaacs is an actor, comedienne and author of the memoir, Angry Conversations With God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir. She identifies herself as “Lutheran on the inside.”