I had been cleaning the floor under the kitchen table after Friday night's dinner on my knees, which I sometimes did with my son's baby wipes. As I expected, my twenty month old son hugged me from behind, then laid his head on my back. He held a half eaten apple in one hand and a pacifier in the other and said, "Ima" for "Mother" in Hebrew. He smiled. I stopped what I was doing and looked at his tender sweet face.
It was just me and him that night. My husband was working. Mom's presence was everywhere but yet nowhere. I was thousands of miles away from her, living on a kibbutz in Israel for the last sixteen years. She had been living with Alzheimer's for the last ten years. Way before her diagnosis, she was a concert pianist. Every Friday night, I put on her concert tapes. I hear her say, "Dorit! Go to your room! I need to practice!" in her own nervous way. For years, Chopin mazurkas lulled me to sleep. As a child, I twirled in front of the full length mirror, on a parquet floor in an artist loft in Greenwich Village hoping my mom would notice me.
I will never forget the day we separated at the airport. I could see the deep fear and worry. She wanted to accompany me through the checkpoints and when she saw she couldn't, I quickly grabbed my things and pecked her withered cheek. When I felt I was far enough from her, I turned around. She wildly waved her hands. "Don't forget to wear a sweater!"
It would be seven years until I would see her again. I had come back from my settled life in Israel. She was already stumbling over words and sentences, trying to make sense of a tabloid and asking me questions. She squinted in front of the television. She couldn't sign her name. There papers all over the floor, bills were left unpaid and letters remained unopened. Her hair was unkempt, she didn't cut her toenails and had scabs all over her body. In a panic, I took her to our family doctor who knew me since I was a child and whispered in my ear, "She's showing signs of depression. Take her to a neurologist." It was then I realized that she wouldn't be the same mom. Alzheimer's had taken over.
In a matter of weeks, I sold the 1920 Grand Steinway piano to pay for bills and in its place was a twin size futon bed. The downstairs which she used for piano playing, now was her home. Her home health aide played her mazurkas on a tape recorder. I hoped to hear her say, "Honey, bunny, I love you," but I didn't. I thought that maybe my long absence had something to do with her depression.
In the middle of one night during a visit back in 1998 when my mom was still in the early stages of dementia, I saw her wandering in her corner downstairs. It was after midnight. It was now or never.
"Mom, I'm sorry I left you. I know it's been hard for you. Please don't be angry with me," I said.
"Oh," she said in one big laugh. "Honey, don't worry about that," she said. For a moment, I felt as if she was my mom again.
"It was my right and privilege to be your mom," she said emphatically.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Her love, once confirmed through music, was now directed to me.
I didn't know what to say. She had never spoken to me like this. Hugging her felt good. The sound of the mazurkas came back. It felt good to be home.
Those sentences are the last real connection I had with my mom. Sadly, she doesn't know she is a grandmother and she can't say my name anymore. But at least I know that night back in 1998 will go down as the day I found home and my mom.