I lost my cool when I was visiting my parents over Christmas. It was after 11 pm and when I went into my room to get ready for bed all my dirty clothes were gone. My mom had folded them and put them away in my dad’s dresser. “Mom, you really messed up. I just wanted to go to bed and now I have to deal with this.” She immediately started trying to fix the mess she’d caused. She grabbed random objects asking, “Is this what you’re looking for?” which easily could have been sweet, but just ticked me off. My mom had no idea what was going on, but she knew I was mad and she knew it was her fault. She looked so sad and my dad just hugged her and said, “Ginny, I love you so much. You are so kind and you didn’t do anything wrong.” I felt like garbage.
I calmed down, sat at the dining room table, and read 1 Corinthians 13: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind… is not easily provoked.” I hadn’t been kind and I had most definitely been easily provoked. The next morning I apologized to my mother for being unkind and she had no clue what I was talking about. She just told me she loved me. It then occurred to me that I could measure my integrity by the way I treat someone who would have no memory of how I treat her.
I made a commitment that I wouldn’t be unkind to my mom again, that I would be as patient as I previously thought I was. I spent two weeks at home in May and I did an excellent job (if I do say so myself). The two weeks I was home in July were a little harder. She kept taking my stuff and “putting things away.” Even some of the stuff I hid she found. It was a losing battle that I just gave up on. She’d come into my room wearing my clothes and I’d say, “Oh mom, that’s my shirt.” She’d then change, hand me the shirt she’d just been wearing while wearing a different shirt of mine. I mean, I don’t blame her. I have some rad t-shirts. But it was still maddening. And I’d say to myself, “Be kind, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s just a shirt.”
My mom loves to help so much so I’d give her any tasks she can still do. I asked her to fold my laundry last week (which had been washed this time) and she was thrilled to help. She then dumped it all on the dirty floor. I said, “Mom, why’d you put my clothes on the floor?” And immediately I had the thought, “What’s more important? Your clothes or your mom’s feelings?” I then self-corrected and said, “Thank you so much for folding my laundry, mom. You’re so kind and helpful.” She smiled and said the most genuine “you’re welcome” a human being could utter.
I’m sure most parents have learned this lesson years ago, but I’m just learning that feelings are more important than my stuff. I told myself this a lot whenever I would start to get frustrated. “Mom’s feelings are more important than your clothes, Ben.”
When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s on September 1, 2016 I started to wrap my head around the reality that she would forget me and that we would have the same conversations over and over again. And for some reason I knew I could handle those moments. What I was completely unprepared for was that she would lose her ability to make any sense. The way my mom talks now is like if you repeatedly press the predictive text button on your phone. All the words will run together and flow, but they make no sense. That’s how my mom talks. I generally have no idea what she’s talking about because she uses so many pronouns without ever giving the antecedent.
On the 4thof July my mom mentioned wanting to do something so we went on a walk. Since we had just been on a trip to the beach I decided to talk about future trips while we walked. “Where would you like to go on our next trip?” Gibberish. “If you could see any place, what would you like to see?” More gibberish. “What places would you like to visit?” Completely unintelligible response. I almost began to cry right there on the sidewalk realizing that my mom, though present, was unable to have a conversation with me about vacations.
I pulled out my earbuds and put one in each of our ears and I played John Denver’s “Country Roads” because my mom loves that song so much. As usual, she tried to sing along, but mostly just mumbled with a huge smile on her face. I love that song now, too, because it says Virginia (my mom’s name) and momma (no need to explain that word). I played some more songs and she would make comments, laugh a lot, and we did a bit of dancing as we walked down the street. When we got back to the car she said, “Already? I want to keep going.” She just really loves being with me even though she can’t explain where she wants to go on vacation.
I’ve come out to her a number of times because I think it’s fun. But it also makes me nervous because I don’t know how she’ll react. “Mom, I’m gay.” “You’re… gay…,” she says the words slowly trying to understand them. “What do you think about that?” I ask. “Well, as long as you’re happy and you get to do the things you like to do.” That’s what she always says, “Do the things you like to do.” She just wants everyone to be happy and do the things they like to do. “How was your day, mom?” “Well, it was a lot of fun. I just did the things I like to do.”
A few days ago we were on a walk at the marina. Since she’s not so good at answering questions I’ve started to just tell her things about her life and she’s always so delighted.
“Mom, did you know I’m your son?”
“Really?! My son?”
“Yep, you actually have four kids. I’m your baby and your favorite.” (If there’s one thing I’ll go to hell for it’ll be constantly messing with my mother and tricking her into saying that I’m her favorite child. I’ve only done it a few dozen times.)
“I didn’t know I have children. Wow!”
A few minutes later we’re back in the car. As I drive she puts her hand on my arm and says, “Thank you for telling me what you told me. I didn’t know. I’m just so lucky to have you. You are so nice and so kind to me and just an amazing guy. You are a great son and there’s no one better.” That’s Ginny Schilaty. The most affirming woman in the world. Alzheimer’s has taken so much from her, but it hasn’t taken that.
Now I’m back in Utah with a mix of emotions. So happy to get back to regular life. Missing my parents and wishing I was home to help out more. But also relieved that I don’t have to. And I feel guilty that I feel relieved. But I know exactly what my mom would say if I told her that. “Don’t feel guilty, Ben. You are such a good son. Just go and live your life and don't worry about us. We’ll be fine. Do the things you want to do.”