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Slices of Life... The sandwich years

Less than a decade ago, we made a habit of talking on the phone nearly every day. We'd chat for way too long about everything and nothing. She doesn't call me at all anymore, and I have to remind myself to make sure to dial her number at least a couple times a week.

When we do talk, conversation is labored. It's becoming harder for her to find the right words. Pronouns get confusing. She talks around ideas, using general terms. Sometimes I can't figure out what she is trying to tell me and we move on to another topic. She asks the same questions over and over and I work to be patient, because that's what a good daughter should be.

Sometimes when I call, she doesn't answer, but I am pretty sure she is home. I figure she must be having a bad day. "It's just the Alzheimer's," I tell myself.

* * * * *

I remember waiting anxiously for her first word. It was "ball," not "mama" like I'd anticipated. "Mama" came shortly after, though, and it wasn't long before her words filled all the open spaces between us. She was full of questions and I had the answers.

That was well over a decade ago. Nowadays she spends a great deal of time in her room with the door closed. Her friends are her confidantes and keepers of her secrets. I am the one to go to for lunch money or new shoes. Occasionally, she'll seek me out to talk about an issue with friends or a problem at school, and I am glad. I try to be patient with her ongoing, youthful dilemmas because that's what a good mother should be.

Sometimes, she is so preoccupied that she doesn't answer my knock on her bedroom door. I figure perhaps her music is too loud. "She's just a teenager," I tell myself.

* * * * *

Back when I was busy changing diapers, her life was a whirlwind of visiting friends and meeting them for lunch. She doesn't see many people anymore. Most of her friends and family have passed away or are no longer able to visit. She still drives, but just to the grocery store down the road. On some Sundays, she and my dad go to church, but not when it's too cold. They used to go out to eat, but the restaurant changed its menu, and now she can't find what she wants to order.

Her world is shrinking.

* * * * *

At the other edge of the spectrum, there are school dances, boyfriends and driving class. The college flyers and pamphlets arrive in the mail almost daily. Each institution is bidding for her attention: pick me! She reads every one carefully, noting features and class offerings. She shows me a couple that have caught her eye, "Can I send for more information?"

Her world is growing.

* * * * *

She works hard to hide her limitations. When I visit, she shows me beautiful pieces of crochet work. She tells me they are very difficult to make. I admire them and know what she says is true. I also know that she completed the intricate work years ago. She brings them out now, in hopes that I will believe that she is still able to do such complex tasks. I never let on that I'd consider thinking anything other than that.

* * * * *

Her bedroom door may be closed, but on the other side she is singing like no one can hear. Her voice is beautiful. I wonder what will become of it and where it will take her. She loves children, art and writing as well as music. She works hard to build on her skills so they will be ready for the world at large. She believes she can accomplish anything that she desires, and I'd never consider letting her think anything other than that.

* * * * *

After a long day, she is tired, but finds it difficult to sleep. We sit around the kitchen table and talk about things from long ago. Some of the old memories make her laugh - eating raspberries from the vine, the sheep that thought it was a dog, our white poodle, Princess. Other memories are new to my ears. When she and my dad were dating and he lost his leg and she spent time with him at the hospital. A happier occasion, when as newlyweds, they fell asleep at the drive-in and woke up at dawn. The day she found out she was pregnant and knew without question that she'd leave teaching to be a mother.

Typically, Alzheimer's is a disease that takes without restraint, but these memories are unexpected gifts. Even at this difficult time of her life, my mom is giving me her best. I can't ask for anything more than that.

* * * * *

After a long week, she is tired, but it is Friday night, and that's no time for sleep. I wait for her at the kitchen table, remembering her first steps, first day of kindergarten and first piano recital. We have more memories to make, ones that will make us laugh when I am old, and the two of us are sitting around the kitchen table at the end of the day.

She comes home, well before curfew, and is in a mood to talk. This is an unexpected gift. She sits with me; I learn about her night and she asks about mine. As we chat, I look in wonder at the beautiful person sitting across the table and realize how connections with other people go a long way toward making life worthwhile.

Typically, the teenage years are trying, but small gestures, like talking to your mom on a Friday night, come across as generous and kind. My daughter is giving me her best. I can't ask for anything more than that.

* * * * *

Mothers, daughters, fathers, neighbors, sons: Our lives are intertwined. We hold one another up when we can and lean on others when we must. Life is hard. Life is good. We can't ask for anything more than that.

Jill Pertler is a syndicated columnist and award winning freelance writer working with graphic designer Nikki Willgohs to provide writing and design and other marketing services to businesses and individuals. You can check out their Web site at http://marketing-by-design.home.mchsi.com/ or e-mail Jill at pertmn@qwest.net.

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