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Sherri Edwards Headshot

My Mother's Unlikely Gift of Dementia

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The most meaningful present my mother gave me wasn't the Mickey Mouse watch I wanted as a child. Although she did ensure the watch was under our Christmas tree and I loved it. Thanks, Mom. It was the gift of walking with her on the path of a progressive illness, and I want to share the blessings from that.

Yes, the blessings. It's hard to see any positives from such a journey, so really I'm shocked to admit this. A few years ago, my mother was diagnosed with vascular dementia. It's not Alzheimer's disease but is similar. For her, it's seriously progressing. No one would ever wish for this.

Being the oldest daughter, many tasks have fallen to me -- medical care, living arrangements and personal needs. I share decision making with my siblings, but sometimes I've been the sole bearer of bad news, like taking away her car keys.

Often it's unbearable to focus on the sadness at the loss of the mother I knew. I used to push that reality far away in my mind. It was easier to focus on the busywork, like helping her with errands or paying bills. Those tasks distracted me and gave me hope that we could cope.

Eventually, I would struggle under the weight of increasing responsibilities. I felt despair and guilt when I neglected the rest of my life, including my children, my husband and more. Despite my best efforts, her memories keep fading and her lack of stabilization is clear.

So what, if any, benefits could occur from this situation? This holiday season, it helps me to appreciate the positives that accompany my mother's condition. Gifts can appear despite tragedy. Neither of us expected this would happen, but it remains my privilege to accept what my mother still offers.

My mother gives me time. Many friends have lost parents years ago. Yet here is my mother, who has survived several serious illnesses plus dementia. Her face lights up when she sees me. Her hugs are warm and sincere. I am growing older with my mother right here, and I am grateful.

My mother shows me I am strong and can do anything. She starts the same conversation a hundred times, but I always can respond in a new way. I can help with her personal hygiene and not be embarrassed. I can balance her finances and navigate a complicated human service system -- both real accomplishments.

My mother imparts effective advice. If she hears anyone disagreeing, she frequently repeats tried-and-true instructions. "The best way to end an argument," she says, "is to say, 'Perhaps you're right.'" Trust me, I have relied on this phrase many times with teenagers in the house.

My mother makes me a role model. My children see me take my mother to the doctor, help her button her coat, and respond to that midnight call. Without thinking, I am setting an example on caring for family. Maybe I'm a parent with less time, but because of my mom, they will know the little moments count.

My mother brought my sister and I together. We are close in age, but different in everything else. Because of my mother, my sister and I now talk frequently and share everything. We laugh, sometimes inappropriately, but with a great common bond at this challenge and our family circumstances.

My mother encourages me to find patience and joy in every situation. While waiting in line at a store, my mother may jump up and dance to the music piped into the room. Despite great physical pain and mental confusion, she always responds, "I'm doing great," when someone inquires.

Throughout her life, my mother has been a teacher, a counselor, a friend. Incredibly, she still is giving to me. She now lives in a facility, but every day finds an opportunity to laugh, care about others, seek peace, and practice forgiveness. I can only hope to pass these gifts on to my own children.

Even though now my mother can no longer buy me anything, what she does give is more precious. I treasure her smile, the squeeze of her hand, her expression that shows she remembers me. She has looked up at me from a hospital bed and said, "I will love you forever." For this, I am lucky.

So on Christmas, I will help my mother dress, serve food on her plate, and make her feel comfortable and loved. Then one day when she is no longer aware that I am here, I will be her memories. I will celebrate her wonderful life and the profound effect she has had on mine. Thank you, Mom, for your generous gifts.