A back tire of her car blew out. I was driving behind her, startled. She kept driving. I honked to get her attention, but she began to drive faster. The tire was flying off in pieces, exposing the wheel rim, and I could see sparks. I honked again. She drove even faster. Sparks turned to flames. The car was on fire and she was accelerating.
Finally I managed to force her onto the shoulder. I unbuckled my two children from the back seat of her car, grabbed their frightened bodies, and told them to get away. I opened the driver’s door and took my mother’s arm to hurry her along. It was the last day that she drove the children. It was the last day that she drove. It was a bad day.
The doctors ruled out everything else and then said: Alzheimer’s.
The day my mother cooked chicken in its plastic package was the last day she cooked. But I tried to keep honoring her food routines: setting out each morning to the market and to her garden for that day’s dinner. So I hired Naomi to come every morning for a few hours to take my mother out — to one supermarket to buy orange juice, to another one for canned soups, and then to a garden center where she could quietly take the dead leaves off plants. My mother wasn’t happy about it. “Who is that woman and why is she always here?” she would say. It was working, but only sort of.
These morning journeys also served to keep my mother away from my father, who was tormented by her constant repetition of “What do you want for dinner?” and, worse yet, her newly found interest in saving electricity by shutting off his reading lamp and throwing a book at him if he turned the light back on. My mother, Adelina Settima, Dolly to all, the seventh child of 10 in an Italian Catholic family raised in a Dorchester three-decker in the 1920s and ’30s, in four rooms without heat or hot water, had been gentle, kind-spirited, and appreciative of everything. Months earlier, I was meeting her for coffee. Now we were here.
I research how students learn, and so I found myself applying what I knew about learning to what I thought was my mother’s unlearning. As I would with kids, I was creating safe spaces for her and encouraging new possibilities. We were saying goodbye to her driving and cooking and crocheting life that was no longer possible and saying hello to new ways of being.
Early one Sunday morning, my phone rang. My father said, “Your mother has escaped.” She and the car were missing. Finding her was my job; he could no longer drive. I found her outside the supermarket, crying in the driver’s seat looking at a fistful of keys. Somehow, she had identified the car key at home but couldn’t identify it again to drive back. I ached as I watched her shaking body alone in the driver’s seat of the car. I hugged her. “I have the keys to my car. I’ll drive you home.”
I didn’t know it then, but those were the easier days. A few days later, my mother got out of bed, fell, and broke her hip.
Rehab turned into long-term care. Everything about my mother’s life was rapidly declining, and she was angry. I had to learn anew how to make life work for her in this new setting neither of us liked. Just as I set up classrooms for students to solve problems important to them, I needed to do the same for my mother. I asked the staff to let her fold towels so she could “do her chores” and stack papers for “filing.” It was working, but only sort of.
One morning, my mother searched through her pockets. I asked her what was in there. “Love, as far as I know,” she said. Hmmm. Love hanging out in her pockets. I was open to it being true. Maybe her cognition was different, not lost. Her mobility was limited and she was losing her memory, but her language for love seemed to be blooming. She rarely knew my name, but one day she greeted me with “You’re a big treasure. You walk in the door and the sun comes out.” Another day: “Do you know how much I love you? You put the whole world in one tiny basket.” She always recognized me as someone she loved. I declared my affections in return.
I also shared special moments with her new neighbors in the rehab center. Abigail, in a geri-chair, petting her white toy cat, would call out to me, “Miss, miss.” I would approach and she would show me her cat. One day I said, “I came to say hello to your cat.” She replied: “Hello to my cat? It’s a toy. Say hello to me. I’m alive.” And so I did.
The days rolled on. So did the months and the years. We reinvented how my mother ate, moved, and slept, just like caring for a child but in the opposite direction. I took notes on her musings, her conclusions, and her professions of love. I looked for patterns. It helped my sad heart open up to gratitude.
The inevitable day arrived. One last kiss. The nurses discreetly closed the doors to the main gathering area. The medics wheeled the gurney out a back exit.
I sat near the nurses’ station. Just sat. A patient named Flora beckoned me. Flora never spoke. I hadn’t heard her voice in four years. I approached. As she moved her lips, I leaned in. She whispered softly: “You gave your mother the best birthday parties I ever went to.” The doors may have been closed but Flora’s mind wasn’t. Silent but ever observant, Flora used her voice to ease my pain.
Having spent a career working in education, I came to see Dolly, Abigail, and Flora as my teachers. They taught me that there is no such thing as unlearning. It’s all learning, at any age, in all directions. The deepest learning is saying goodbye to ideas that no longer work and saying hello to ones that do.
Jacqueline Grennon Brooks is professor emerita at Hofstra University and a project facilitator at the New York Institute of Technology.