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September 30, 2008

Mom: Something to remember

6 If it's true that becoming a mother is one of the most life-changing experiences a woman can have (that's a rhetorical "if," by the way - I don't think most mothers would deny the truth of that statement), I think that one of the things it may affect most profoundly is her relationship with her own mother.

While there are certainly plenty of drawbacks to having a baby when you're only twenty years old, in retrospect there was one really good thing about that timing - my mom was there for it. She was there when I found out I was pregnant. She was there to advise me when I was confused and overwhelmed by the needs of a newborn. She was there to help keep me focused on what was important. She and my dad provided the practical help of childcare and housing that allowed my son's father and me to get through college for our bachelor's degrees. Granted, there were plenty of times when trying to define myself as an adult and a mother while still living with my own parents had its challenges, but I really don't want to think about how much more challenging it could have been if my mom hadn't been there. And in being there, she was also there as a daily part of the life of her first grandchild during his first three years.

Sadly, the grandchild really doesn't remember much about that period of his life - but then again, most people in their mid-twenties don't remember their preschool years in much detail. The sadder part is that just a few years later, the grandmother didn't remember it either.

My mother was in her late fifties, with both her daughters recently out of the nest, when something just began to seem a little bit "off." We began seeing changes in her health, demeanor, and personality  - sudden weight loss, strange sleeping habits, difficulty in speaking, disengagement with her family and surroundings, paranoia and hallucinations - but her long-standing fear of doctors and medications caused her to resist our efforts to get her to seek help. Since my sister and I had both moved well across the country by then, distance and the demands of our own lives limited what we could do ourselves, and my dad has never been a caretaker by nature - he's the one who was usually accommodated and taken care of, so he was at a loss about forcing the issue (when he was willing to acknowledge it at all). By the time she reached the point where something had to be done, there wasn't a realistic alternative to round-the-clock care for her, and the next seven years were spent in a form of limbo by our entire family. At the age of twenty-seven, I effectively became the family matriarch.

Early-onset Alzheimer's was our best guess for the cause of my mom's deterioration, although it was never formally diagnosed, so we can't be certain. By the time she died, on October 8, 1999, we'd already done a lot of our grieving; Alzheimer's doesn't take the body quickly, but it does take the intangibles that make a person unique and special. Her final departure from our lives came in the midst of a pretty dramatic time: my first husband was openly carrying on the affair that eventually led to the end of our marriage, and my sister was halfway through a difficult pregnancy with her first child.

While I'm not sorry that my mom never knew about my divorce, I really wish she could know my second husband. Even more, I wish she could see how that little boy she helped care for over twenty years ago has turned out; I think she'd be proud. And I really wish she knew about my sister's terrific husband and her two boys, the fine grandsons she never had a chance to meet - and sometimes I reflect on the unfairness of her being there for me and my child, but not for my sister and hers. My sister makes sure her sons know about their Grandma Mary Ann, though. Every October, my sister and I participate in our local Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk in remembrance, and honor, of our mother, and the grandsons and sons-in-law she never met make that walk with us. And I think Mom's there too, because even if we don't have her with us anymore, we always want to remember.

An original Los Angeles Moms Blog post

Florinda Pendley Vasquez blogs at The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness.

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