My mother turned into a sweet old lady toward the end, which saddened those of us who knew her before she forgot who she was. We remembered her as smart and feisty, with a sharp wit. She was an intelligence analyst in World War II, ran John Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Ohio in 1960 and wrote four books. She was a crusader for prison reform, the subject of one of her books. In her seventies, she served on the city council in Sedona, Arizona, where she and my father had retired. She was always a bit forgetful, just as I am now. But after my father was no longer around to handle the details, she was forced to adopt more and more elaborate stratagems to keep track of her life. Then she couldn't keep track of all her stratagems. She was still reading the Wall Street Journal and The Economist every day but couldn't recognize her grandchildren or even old photographs of her own kids. She had begun writing her memoirs for the benefit of the family but had to stop halfway through as her memory began unwinding in reverse. She started to get lost driving around a town so small it had only a couple of traffic lights, and she began obsessively repeating things aloud to herself so she wouldn't forget. Her life had become a fading dream.
In the final year of her life, my mother sat all day in a recliner watching television programs that I suspect were mostly of interest to her live-in aide. She dozed much of the time, facing a desk with photographs of her children, her grandchildren and her two great-grandchildren. I would point out one or another of these to her as I brought her up to date on goings-on in the family, so she can put a face to a name, if only for the time it took me to tell my tale. The desk also held a framed citation from the governor of Ohio lauding her for her long-ago work in prison reform -- another memento from a life she no longer recognized as her own.
Who are we when we no longer remember who we are? Descartes' formulation didn't apply in my mother's case. How can you say, "I think, therefore I am" when your mind has been hollowed out from the inside? Did this make my mother something less than a person? Objectively, she was less than what she had been but no less a person. As her dementia progressed, it is not just her memory but also her personality that began to unwind in reverse. Layers of old paint and wallpaper peeled away to reveal the fine grain of the natural surface beneath. I could see the person she must have been before I ever knew her. First, there was the adolescent resentful of the reversal of roles that characterized my relationship with her toward the end. Gradually, however, the child in her was reborn, loving and docile in a way she never was as an adult. Is this not a person? To such, Jesus said, belongs the kingdom of God.