This last weekend was my mom's birthday. She would have been 100 years old. Or maybe 90. It was hard to tell with her. What my mom had told me when I was growing up was that she married at the young age of 18 - straight out of high school. I had no reason to doubt it since she was my mom and, of course, she told the truth.
When my Uncle Irving, a mean spirited, bitter man, was at a family event he said to my brother, "...And another thing I resent about your mother is that she always said I was the older sibling and she was the younger one." Now there are plenty of things that are up for grabs in a family - who was the favorite, who was better looking - but usually you know who was already there when you were born.
Now a few things made sense. My father was a Judge and he had a few documents changed to make my mom younger: her passport, her driver's license, her social security card (you could do that back in the day...well, back in his day). As I looked at her age on some documents, I realized she could have been my older sister; on one, my twin.
Soon after my uncle's revelation, my mom started her gradual descent into the chasm of Alzheimer's. The last time I took her to lunch, on her 67 th or 77 th birthday, she looked as stunning as ever. My mom was a fashion plate, always wearing her trademark pearls and chic hat, this one a wine-colored fedora. Losing words here and there, she was still coherent and charming. Ordering her favorite apple pie with cheddar cheese on top, I figured she was in a non-resistant mood. I asked her how old she was, gently dropping that Irving had said he was younger than she. Not even bothering to contradict that statement, she asked why it was so important for me to know. Age was, she pointed out, just numbers.
No, I argued, I needed to know because she was my mom and I would naturally be a reflection of her in so many ways, including any illnesses, and I wanted to estimate how old I would be if anything happened to me. I should have known, I suppose, that that possibility was too much to handle. Was she responsible for what happened to me? Was her mother, who suffered from senility - that generation's Alzheimer's - responsible for the illness that was engulfing her mind now? A dark cloud washed over her face. It was too much for her to even consider.
"Oh, who cares? You're right, only numbers. What I know you have given me is endless love and security."
She smiled, relieved. A burden was lifted from her troubled mind.
In the years to come, I watched my mother vanish into the unforgiving abyss of Alzheimer's, and her secrets and her memories went with her. All the things I should have asked - Did you go to college? What, really, was your relationship like with Daddy? Did you have chicken pox, neuropathy, allergies? How old were you when I was born? What kind of a kid was I? She probably told me most of this when I was growing up, but like most kids I didn't listen.
As you watch a parent suffering the indignities of Alzheimer's, it is often impossible to remember the good times. But as for me, I still remember so many of them. That much this killer has not been able to destroy.
So happy birthday, Mom. Whether it's 90 or 100 or 110, who cares? I still remember your fierce devotion, your caring, and your endless love. Those qualities are ageless.
Photo courtesy: Trish Vradenburg