Mom is 90 now, and it’s an indisputable fact that Alzheimer’s disease has taken its toll. She rarely talks; she barely eats. I wrote this piece in happier times, although even then I was already trying to cope with a fading away of the mom I once knew. In retrospect, I am so very glad we seized these moments; I am so glad for our “”moveable feasts,” as detailed below. I am sharing it as a bit of a cautionary tale, I guess: time slips away for all of us, but in such a ruthless way with dementia.
Mom had a salvo of fender benders in the supermarket parking lot, and we blamed distraction, or perhaps vision changes that come with aging. One afternoon, a kind stranger called me from Guilford, more than an hour away. Mom’s car was pulled over on the side of the road. She couldn’t figure out how she got there.
Mom started typing shorter and shorter emails, all in capital letters. Then she decided she didn’t like the computer any more. You’d think our family would have picked up on the encroaching dementia, but it’s actually quite common to miss it. It has a way of sneaking up.
It’s been about five years since Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. On the one hand I feel great gratitude for how Mom is faring — she still knows who I am, she still asks how everyone is doing. In fact, she asks repeatedly, since she can’t remember what we just discussed. But I mourn the deep and meaningful conversations we used to have. Mom has become a woman of few words, something I never could have imagined. Her sentences are simple and predictable, lacking the richness they once held.
I was raised on words. Mom was an English major and a teacher. Among many other books, Mom read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to me when I was small. She admired how Hemingway conveyed robust detail with lean, staccato sentences. So, as Mom and I sat at the Penny Lane Pub the other day, with plans to go next door to Harbor Books after lunch, I thought about how all of her sentences are now staccato. I mused about another book of Hemingway’s: A Moveable Feast. On an English language Web site, Edwin Ashworth helps to decipher the title’s meaning: Feast — “something delightful one can dip into, whether memories or remembered practices” — marries beautifully with moveable — “you can take it with you wherever you go.”
A sense of comfort came when I realized that Mom and I still have a meaningful way of relating, although it’s a vast departure from how things used to be. We come together over our own moveable feasts.
At Penny Lane Pub, there isn’t much conversation — not like there once was. But Mom shares the hunk of cheese from her lunch platter. She practically inhales the lobster bisque and the warm rolls. She doesn’t finish her salad but we share a hot fudge sundae anyway. It’s a small but meaningful moment of shared bliss.
Another day, when we go to Zhang’s, the waiter greets us with a kind smile of recognition, and a question: “Pinot Grigio?” He brings our wines, then a plate of salty edamame. We silently shell the beans, popping the contents into our mouths and savoring the warm treat. Each lunch or dinner recalls countless lunches and dinners, including those when Mom was young and healthy and talkative. We toast the same toasts and pore over the menu together, weighing the pros and cons of each choice.
I have started to come to terms with the loss of my mother as I once knew her, finding a new kind of delight in how she is doing what something so many of us strive for — truly living in the moment. Her senses still relish variety. Her eyes light up at a new taste or something especially colorful, and we now converse in an agreeable shorthand about temperatures and textures — the scalding soup, the oily garlic knots, the pit to watch out for in the olives, and the biting wind or beating heat as we walk from the car to the restaurant.
I don’t know what the future will hold for Mom and me, or for the way we relate, but our many moveable feasts are graced moments during an otherwise trying time. They are small, shared adventures in the good taste of now. Our meals are memories that I may have to hold for Mom, but they are also memories that I can take wherever I go.