Who I Am
– Nonfiction by Sue Granzella –
I never knew how my mom would answer the question that I’d pose to her each morning when I’d call at 6:45. It was the same question every day, a question that a daughter never imagines she’ll be asking the woman who gave birth to her.
She usually answered on the second ring, and I’d immediately identify myself.
“Hi, Sue!” my mom would sing out.
“Hi, Mom! Do you know who I am?”
The question might’ve seemed unnecessary. But with Mom, we just never knew.
When I was a kid, Mom bragged that she remembered phone numbers of clients from the days when she’d worked for a lawyer over a decade earlier. Her powerful memory had a tenacious grip on every family birthday and address, every Catholic prayer and hymn, and every baseball player and statistic.
But now, with the Alzheimer’s having wrested from Mom the control over her memory, everything had been slowly floating away—her sense of time, events, words, and people. Even her kids, my three siblings and I. Little bits of us were floating away, out of her memory, though it felt more like she was floating away from us.
So I would ask her, once each day, if she knew who I was. I hoped that reminding her would let her keep hold of us longer. I’d ask because it was fascinating to hear what she’d say. And I’d ask because I thought it would desensitize me to the fact that my mother, as she was slipping away from us, might forget who we were to her.
I wouldn’t have asked the question if I’d believed it caused her pain. I always told people that my mom had “Happy Alzheimer’s” rather than the tortured kind, dementia’s equivalent of a piña colada instead of a shot of whiskey. People with Alzheimer’s often demonstrate irritability or aggressiveness, but nothing seemed to faze Mom. She radiated serenity. In her Alzheimer’s reality, Mom’s natural sweetness had become concentrated, distilled by the process of her mind slowly destroying itself.
When we moved her into a Napa retirement community immediately after Dad died, I joked that walking down the hallways with her made me feel like I was accompanying the Dalai Lama. All the way from her apartment to the elevator, the faces of residents and staff members would light up when they’d glimpse gentle Mom, with her large dark eyes and friendly gaze. Their hands stretched out to touch some piece of her as she and I would stride along the indoor-outdoor carpet, past vacant upholstered chairs and paintings in shades of beige and burgundy. With our arms interlocked, Mom’s short legs moved briskly in her determined walk, and I’d feel like a giant next to her 5’1” self. She waved cheerily and bestowed a special smile upon each individual, giving them no clue that she didn’t know who they were. She’d reach out, often laughing, patting someone affectionately on the arm as we’d pass.
For a very long time, I felt no need to ask my mother if she knew who I was. I knew that I was as familiar to her as was her own skin. But words that expressed connections and categories gradually began to slip from her. We’d drive to see my sister in Elk Grove, and Mom would laugh at “all those animals,” pointing at cows in the pastures along Jameson Canyon Road. My husband, John, and I would drive her to Twin Pines Casino in Middletown, and Mom would observe, “There sure are a lot of trees out there,” pointing to anything green out the window, whether grapevines, ferns, or pine trees.
John thought that I had exaggerated Mom’s deficits until one afternoon on our way back from the casino. To get there, we’d twisted our way up two-lane Silverado Trail for an hour, past vineyards, over a mountain, through forests. For three hours, Mom had perched between us on a stool, the three of us laughing and punching non-stop the smooth plastic buttons of the nickel poker machines, while curls of cigarette smoke stung our nostrils and permeated Mom’s kelly-green cardigan.
The “ding-ding-ding” of the jackpots was still ringing in my ears as we started back down the mountain, and as John drove, I turned to Mom.
“We sure had fun up there today, huh, Mom!”
Her smooth forehead crinkled, and she asked, “Where? Where did we go?” On her lap, she was holding the Styrofoam box of left-over tater tots, her favorite treat that she always ordered for lunch from the casino’s diner. They were still warm.
I felt the familiar piercing deep inside, and John and I replayed for Mom how we’d just spent the last few hours at a place still visible in the rear-view mirror.
“You were so lucky! You got four of a kind twice, and I didn’t get it once. Not fair!”
Mom burst out laughing.
Whether our prompting helped her to actually remember wasn’t important. She was happy in that moment, and all day she’d had happy present moments. John was still taken aback by the realization that the whole day had already disappeared for her. But my mother was laughing as we headed down the twisty mountain road.
“So, Mom, do you know who I am?” It wouldn’t be my opening sentence, but it would come early in my every-morning phone call. I’d tell her I was Sue, I’d ask how she had slept, I’d ask what she was wearing. And then I’d ask if she knew who I was.
“I sure do!” It was always with certainty, her musical voice clear and strong. “You’re Sue!” Triumphant and proud, she punctuated this declaration with a laugh.
“Yup, I am! And do you know who I am to you? Do you know how we’re connected?” This, said in a relaxed way. No pressure.
That’s where it could get interesting. For a long time, she always said, “You’re one of my daughters!” On a day of great clarity, she might even specify, “You’re one of my four children,” or “You’re my second daughter.”
Then, as descriptors and connectors started slipping away for her, her answers became more convoluted, more cryptic, more curvy. I wonder if it’s strange that some of my favorite answers came after she’d lost her grip on her label of herself as my mother.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure, but we’ve known each other for a very long time.” This she answered very thoughtfully one morning, trying hard to be precise. Another day, her response was, “Are we in the same family?”
I affirmed that we were, continuing gently, “Do you know how we’re related?”
A moment’s pause, and then her response: “I think maybe we’re cousins.”
Gradually, Mom’s confusion over time and age stopped surprising me. But I still found it unsettling when her words would spell out just how lost she was inside. On that day I was her cousin, on another I became her sister, and then I was a very good friend. I realized that in her mind, I’d gone from the generation below her to her own generation.
Not long after that, either I hopped up another generation, or she hopped down. I think she was the one who moved, because when I’d ask her how old she thought she was, she’d gradually de-aged from “in my sixties” to “forties” to “twenty-two.”
On the day that my eighty-four-year-old mother proudly declared that I was her mother, I thought I’d finally heard all the answers there could be to my question. I heard that one a few times, and I always clarified the actual connection. But as I did, I knew I was doing it for myself, not for her. She was happy either way, mother or daughter.
A few months passed, and with them came another of my favorite answers: “I don’t know exactly, but I know you’re one of the really good ones.” I could live with that. It was better than the alternative.
And then it was December twenty-third of 2009, and I was sitting next to my mom in the lamplight of her studio apartment. We were at the peaceful assisted-living place where she now resided, very near to my sister in Elk Grove. Mom was a bit under the weather, so we were resting quietly in her room. She was in her beige corduroy recliner, nestled cozily under the puffy flannel quilt I’d made for her a few years earlier, her short legs propped up on the footrest.
Since the day I’d given it to her, every time she’d seen me and the quilt in the same room, she’d said the same thing.
“You made this, didn’t you?”
After I’d respond that, indeed, I had, she’d continue. “All the work! This must have taken you a long time!” And she’d pat it lovingly.
But today, she didn’t say it. Her cheeks were rosier than usual, and she was quiet and a little sleepy in the middle of the day. I sat in a folding chair at her side, just stroking the soft skin of her forearm, letting her drift peacefully in and out of her nap.
When she woke fully, I just couldn’t resist. My right hand was holding onto hers while I traced a path on her arm with the fingers of my left hand. I asked her: “Mom? Do you know who I am?”
Her calm gaze was especially tender, and her smile was its sweetest. Her eyes warmed me as she answered quietly, “I sure do.”
“Who am I?” I couldn’t stop brushing my fingers against her skin. I needed to touch her.
Her answer was just: “I love you.”
That was all she said. And that was the last time I ever asked her that question. She had no more answers in her. But I probably didn’t need any answer other than that.
Less than twelve hours later, she slipped into a mysterious, semi-comatose state. As she drifted in and out over the next six days, speaking a few words here and there, we hovered over her. My siblings and I knew that the last few bits of Mom were floating away from us, and we were in agreement that we wouldn’t stop her from going. For those six days, we stayed with her—talking to her, kissing her, visiting with each other in her presence, touching her. Slowly bidding her good-bye. I’m grateful that she gave us that time.
Two nights before she died, I was sitting on her bed next to her, watching her face as she lay back, resting. My husband was in a chair behind me, seated near Mom’s feet. I don’t think I was crying. I was just touching her arm, holding her hand, the things I’d done for days as Mom had gradually become weaker and more inside herself.
Her soft brown eyes were open, and I saw that she was looking straight into mine. By that night, she’d become too tired to speak, but her gaze looked so awake, so alert. So—Mom. Just then, she began pulling up both arms very slowly from where they rested at her sides. Inch by inch, she raised them up toward her head until finally her hands were on top of her head, with her elbows pointing at the ceiling. Her eyes remained locked on mine.
I had no idea what was going on. She’d hardly moved for days, and this maneuver looked so strange, so intentional. Was she having a weird precursor to a seizure? I felt a little nervous.
But Mom knew exactly what she was doing, and she wasn’t done yet. Her hands went a little higher atop her head, still moving so slowly. Then I watched Mom lace her fingers together, and now, with her hands joined, she continued raising her arms higher and higher, until they were straight over her head, in the air, aimed at the ceiling.
Next, she extended her reach further out, toward me, now stretching forward as far as she could reach. Mom reached out in slow motion until she could slip her locked-together fingers over my head and rest them behind my neck. Then she slowly pulled me down, down, down, and the thought flitted through my mind that maybe her muscles were going to jerk and lock. Was she about to have a stroke?
And then somehow I felt on my right cheek a whisper, the papery wings of a butterfly, fluttering. It wasn’t until then that I realized what was happening.
My mom was kissing me, over and over and over again, her lips brushing my cheek with impossible softness. My mother was hugging me. It was my mother, saying good-bye to me, her daughter. My mother. She was here. And I knew that she knew who I was.
I needed someone else to see the miracle. Without pulling back or taking my eyes off of my mother, I choked out, “John? John! Are you seeing this?” His whisper from behind me assured me that I had a witness. Mom continued kissing me, and I remained still, not wanting to break the spell. I think I held my breath.
Mom’s silent kisses brushed me again and again, until I felt that my heart would burst. Then I lowered my face slowly and we rested against each other, cheek to cheek—mine, covered in the tears that I was by now sobbing. I lay on her, crying, for minutes, forever. I don’t know.
At some point, I raised my head so that I could see her. Mom then loosened her hands from behind my neck, and I felt them moving behind my head. Then I realized that she was moving them with purpose. Her hands were now gently smoothing the loose strands of my hair back away from my face, tucking them into my ponytail. She was still staring directly into me, her face like the sun. My mother. Her loving gaze poured into me, and on her face was the most exquisite smile I’d ever seen. Was there ever a face more lit up, more serene, more tender, or more beautiful than my mom’s was at that moment?
I hope that the picture of her in that moment never fades for me. That night, when my mother kissed me good-bye forever, I knew that she was there. And I will always believe she knew that I was there.
I was also there less than thirty-six hours later, when the butterfly fluttered away for good. I’m glad that I was there when it happened, when the softness of her features was molded into something else, something I’d never wanted to see but could not tear my eyes away from, because it was my mom.
But that’s not how I remember her face, because that wasn’t really my mom, just as I really wasn’t her sister, or her cousin, or her really good friend, or her mother. I will always be my mother’s daughter, even though for her last days here, she couldn’t always remember that she was my mother, that I was her daughter.
But it’s okay. I can remember for the both of us. I know who I am.
About the Author – Sue Granzella
Sue Granzella’s writing has been recognized as Notable in Best American Essays, and has won the Naomi Rodden Essay Award and a Memoirs Ink contest. She judges the Humor category of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing has appeared in Masters Review, Full Grown People, Gravel, Ascent, and many other journals. She recently completed a collection of essays about teaching, and is searching for a publisher. Sue teaches third grade in California’s Bay Area. Contact her at www.suegranzella.com.
*This piece was previously published in Hippocampus and Down in the Dirt.
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