My mother’s hands are cool to the touch. Cold hands, warm heart, she likes to say. For her that is true. She has dementia, and though memories continuously erode away, her gracious spirit seems to expand to fill the crevices that remain.
Today when I arrived to visit my mom, I wheeled her past a sitting area where residents were gathered. A visitor called out, wanting me to know she had asked my mother about me earlier. She carelessly added that my mother had looked confused, “as if she didn’t even know who you were.”
“That was a terrible thing to say!” my mom responded.
My mother often tells me she comes across folks who behave as if they should be familiar to her, but she does not know them. This concerns her; she does not want to hurt feelings. I have been with her in many of those situations and can honestly tell her she does an amazing job of convincing others she recognizes them. It is a testament to the keen social intelligence she has honed throughout life.
Someone reporting to me that my mom did not remember her own daughter is one of the more hurtful things I can imagine my mom overhearing. Maybe early in the day she was unable to recall my name; I do not know. What I am sure of is that my mom knows me.
Often when I visit my mother she greets me with an exaggerated release of air, as if she had been holding her breath waiting for my appearance. Before I can even say hello she gushes with gratitude about my being there, about her being lucky to have a daughter (her five other children are sons), about my living close enough to visit often.
What my mother can no longer comprehend is that I, the Gayle who is with her in the present, am also the person who visited a couple of days ago and the person who oversees her care. She tells me that Gayle decorated her room the other day and if I have a question about her situation I should ask Gayle because she handles all of that. If I ask her who I am she tells me not to be silly—I am her only daughter. I feel fortunate that in her eyes I am twice the person I used to be.
After the upsetting encounter with the visitor in the day room I wheel my mother out onto the patio where it is warmer and more humid than typical on this early day in May. I arrange her wheelchair to face away from the sun so there is no glare in her cataract-encased eye.
My mother asks how my husband and two daughters are doing; every conversation must contain the latest details of her granddaughters’ lives. She mentions some things she has been thinking about. She tells me how happy she is; how grateful to have lived the life she has.
I clasp her hands in mine, knowing how powerful touch can be in communicating love. She gives her quintessential sigh of pleasure. I lift her hands to my cheeks and feel their refreshing coolness on my heat-flushed skin.
Suddenly she clamps her eyes shut, tightly, as if keeping something out. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says, “I’m just feeling that . . . (she struggles to find the word) . . . romantic feeling. You know, not the kind between a man and a woman—the other kind.”
I do know. And I feel it too. It is the love between a mother and a daughter. Cold hands, warm heart.
Gayle Florian, B.A., Psych.; writer and speaker; offers encouraging lessons on caring for ourselves and others during periods of stress, illness, loss and other challenges. She is passionate about promoting mindfulness as an easy-to-learn practice that reduces suffering by increasing our capacity for compassion and changing our response to stress. You may contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org