For more than five years, my mother and I have shared a weekly ritual: Sunday brunch, just me and Ma, or Mumsie, as I sometimes call her.
I wish I could say that our ritual was born out of pure love for the woman who gave me life. But that would be a half-truth. The full truth is that I was like a lot of us humans, guilty of taking time for granted.
A session with a professional executive coach opened my eyes. We were getting to know each other over coffee. During our conversation, she showed me more than I expected about intentional love. As we talked about our families, she expressed gratitude for having scheduled regular outings with her mom before her passing. We talked deeply about the value of time and the reality that we tend not to value it as we should. These were all things I’d heard before, but somehow the words landed differently this time. My coach’s intentionality around time with her mom sparked a sharp awareness of my lack of it.
I saw instantly that my love for my mom wasn’t being reflected fully in the time that I gave her. When I paused to think about why, the reason was just as striking. I’d convinced myself Mom would always be here, and I refused to let myself accept anything different. I credit my former coach, now friend, for my Sunday brunches with Mom and the important window they gave me into her life at a critical moment. Our brunches are how I first began to see that pieces of Mom were already beginning to depart. This truth surfaced slowly and somewhat comically one Sunday, as Mom passionately declared herself a vegan.
While I was raised to respect elders, I had no apprehension about challenging Mom on this counterfactual. To her credit, frankness was woven into the culture of our household and included periodic family meetings where household concerns could be aired, but only in a way that was honest and respectful. With six headstrong daughters, it was a very wise move on Mom’s part. Having a space and time to call each other out meant fewer skirmishes. Directness over diplomacy was how we rolled and how we still, to this day, relate to one another as adults and mothers ourselves.
"Ma,’’ I began, “I’ve heard you tell the server that you’re vegan and in some of our conversations you’ve said, ‘when I was a vegan.’” Without interruption from her, I continued, “You were never a vegan; you’ve always eaten eggs and some form of meat or seafood."
I went on to explain the difference between vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian. She listened, then laid out the facts as she believed them. Not only had she been vegan for about 30 years, she believed the fact that she has been eating poultry for at least the past 25 years did not revoke either her vegetarian or vegan card. When my sisters and I were in our twenties, Mom stopped eating the pork that we enjoyed growing up, everything from hogshead cheese and pig ears to chitlins and pig tails.
Since neither of us wanted to keep introducing a point of disagreement into our Sunday brunches, the topic of veganism and vegetarianism faded. But from that day on, my attention to Ma’s words increased. Over subsequent Sundays, I began to see things that can only be revealed by time spent.
My sisters were seeing signs, too. Together, we did as Mom taught us. We faced our fear. We started during a private family Facebook meeting. We didn’t include Mom. I don’t recall which of my sisters scheduled the truth session.
We compared notes and discovered enough of a disconcerting pattern emerging to prompt an appointment with a neurologist. None of us used the “A” word as we talked about instances of Mom’s forgetfulness. But I know my sisters well enough to know what we were all thinking: Alzheimer’s. The fact that we never said the word in a discussion about a pattern that clearly indicated memory loss confirms that we were all dangling between denial and hope. Mom enjoyed hanging out with her daughters for any reason, so it didn’t take any convincing to get her in for testing.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would come after a battery of tests over a few months. Within less than a year of the diagnosis, we found ourselves facing new challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic. Weekly brunch was replaced with a weekly video call that included four generations, ensuring that Mom could see us
all and keep her memory engaged. Even now, when we can visit in-person, we continue the weekly video calls. Mom says that it is one of the highlights of her week. We all agree that it’s her short-term memory that has taken the biggest hit, but some of her long-term memories are fading as well. The ones that have remained are powerful. I’m thankful our Sunday brunches seem to have made the cut.
Recently, Mom reminded me of another enduring memory and lesson. It happened when I finally faced the fear of telling her about my own health challenge with my vision. As I told her, she grabbed my hand, and she prayed for me like only a mother can. She said the Devil is a liar. “You’ve been through this before,” she declared. “You'll come through this.”
Even though the memory of what I told her faded an hour or so later, I’m holding on to what Mom showed me in that moment: She’s still here. No doubt there are fears, suffering, and regrets for each of us about the easy ways we become blind to the fleetingness of now. I’ve experienced a strange mix of emotions, including denial. But I’ll continue to welcome it all if it gives us another year, another day, another hour to hang on Mom’s every word. Time is the greatest love.