I Want My Mother Back

Lisa Solod motherI want my mean, bitchy, drunk mother back. The mother who was depressed and melancholy, who said cruel things about my work and criticized my parenting, who undermined instructions to my kids by saying, “You really don’t have to pay attention to her.” I want the mother back who invited herself to my first apartment and then pitched screaming fits in the streets of Boston. The woman who threatened to pull off my arm and beat me with its bloody stump. The mother who said that if I told her she wasn’t a good mother she would kill herself. I want the mother back who came to my college graduation and could barely stand for all the scotch she’d had. The mother who took to her bed for weeks. The woman who stood eating supper in the kitchen because she couldn’t bear the meaninglessness of the family dinner table conversations.

I want her back.

I want her back in her old, her former, her horrific but real configuration. I want that woman back who couldn’t see me with a new pocketbook or pair of shoes without saying, “Lovely, but I could never afford such a thing.” The woman who asked for detailed instructions as to what my children wanted for Hanukkah and birthdays and then said those requests were too expensive and sent a ten-dollar check instead. The woman who called me on my birthday (when she remembered at all) and said, “I can’t believe I am a woman old enough to have a daughter as old as you are.”), who sent gifts (when she remembered at all) that were unwrapped and showed the mark-downed price she had garnered at Filene’s Basement. Who sent me her old clothes that still smelled of her body and Clinique Aromatics.

I want my mother back.

I want her back to see her grandchildren grown and beautiful and interesting, even if she may still find something wrong with them. I want her to meet my new lover even if she will raise an eyebrow as if to say: is this man better than the ones you left? I want the mother back who careened from man to man herself, always searching for that one true great big movie love, and who then complained about being alone. I want the mother back who always complained about the noise, the food, the temperature of a restaurant and then went to the bathroom when the check came.

I also want the mother back who taught me to love music and art and theatre and books. The woman who showed me how to arrange flowers. The woman who traveled the world and took breathtaking photographs. The woman who was not afraid to leave her husband and start a new life even if that new life began in an institution after a breakdown. The mother who held my babies and wept. The woman who handed me a Valium as I walked down the aisle. The mother who was beautiful and smart, who did the New York Times crossword puzzle in an hour. In ink. Who as an actress was a better Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than Elizabeth Taylor and a better Eleanor of Aquitaine than Katharine Hepburn.

I want the mother back who lived with her pain even if she did not understand it. Who was born sad and could not climb out of her sadness, but who managed a spectacular life despite it. The woman who was born at the wrong time, married the wrong man and had the wrong children. The mother who, despite it all, gathered friends to her like an abundance of autumn leaves and had all my friends convinced she was the most glamorous mother in town. The woman who struggled and struggled to find meaning in her world and railed against injustice and marched and fought for the rights of the disenfranchised. The woman whose house was filled with gifts from admirers, whose portrait serves as the face of the fairy godmother in a children’s book. The mother who wanted to live forever but bought long-term care insurance so her daughters would not have to pay for her care as she had paid for her mother’s.

I want my old mother back. The one I had finally made peace with. The one whose whims and vagaries I understood. Whose moods and methods were familiar.

The mother who said she never wished to be a burden but was far more a burden then than she could ever be now.

Eight years ago, before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, visits with my mother were still fraught with tension: how would she be this time? How long would any mood stand? How drunk would she get before she said something terrible? But at least I knew who she was. She was the mother I had, for better or worse, for nearly 50 years.

Now, she curls up on her bed, recently incontinent. My beautiful and immaculate mother cannot hold in her waste: it flows into a diaper. She must to be coerced into eating. She will stay in bed all morning if she is allowed. On a good day she insists her memory is fine although she can answer no question about herself or the world. On a bad day she gazes at her sister or my sister with confusion; she has already forgotten she has grandchildren. She can no longer write her name.

Soon after the diagnosis, when I first went to clean out her house in order to sell it and move her into assisted living, the out-of-date foodstuffs, the empty refrigerator, and the dead flowers told me what I had already known but hadn’t wanted to admit: that the incoherent late-night telephone calls were not the product of the end of a large bottle of wine but of something far more sinister. I had not wished to recognize her disease because it would mean taking care of her, something I resisted deep in my soul: she had not taken care of me, after all. But once she moved and I visited her, I knew that taking care of her was all I could do, the most and least, the best and the worst, I could do. And so I took her on outings, I sat with her while she held my hand and told me she loved me. I sat with her for hours and hours of silence filled only by my chatter. And each time I felt a huge and deafening grief mixed with a profound guilt that I could no do more. But now those feelings have changed once again. Because she is changing once again.

The first several years of her illness she held me and wept every time I left, followed me outside the door and stood waving until I drove away. Now she lets me go with little regret or remembrance, her attention already turned to something else or nothing else. She listens to music that would have made her laugh just a few years ago. She cannot read, cannot think, cannot follow a conversation, can hardly speak. She forgets to put on her bra, goes around all day in her bedroom slippers. Not only is her brain shrinking inside her head but her body is shrinking inside her clothes. Each time I see her she is smaller and smaller. Soon she will be as tiny as Tiny Alice.

I did not know how to cope with the recent phone call which told me she woke in the night, wet the bed, screaming, and was taken to the hospital where they found nothing physically wrong with her. I called her multitude of doctors. Over and over. Finally, she was taken off some of her medications–especially the ones designed to slow the disease as there is no possibility of that now–and put on others, specifically one to ease her pain, even if the cause of that pain remains unknown.

But nothing in my history with this woman who shaped me, who abused me, and who loved me with her own mixture of crazy and brutal passion, has prepared me for the way I weep now, the way I break down when I see her; the way I can’t help but imagine her as she was alone in a hospital room, screaming in pain.

The tears come unbidden. Last time I saw her I began to weep and she watched, completely detached, as though I were something curious. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

Nothing in our long history as mother and daughter or the relatively short history of her disease seems to be able to prepare me for the way from now on she will only go downhill faster and faster like a skier who has lost her poles. Nothing prepares me for the headlong crash into the tree which will be the end of her. Nothing prepares me for the myriad ways all of it makes me feel.

I know she won’t be back. But still I want her so to be who she was, as awful as she could be, as wonderful as I know she wanted to be. Anything, even the mother who was so very, very hard to love, would be better than who she is now. It may be much easier to love her but it never gets easier watching her disappear: To see every vestige of the woman who once was–difficult, demanding, beautiful, cruel and exhilaratingly troubled–slide down and off her old self, like raindrops on a window.

Contributor Lisa Solod is an essayist and fiction writer who writes for the Huffington Post and blogs at middleagedfeminist.com.  Her website is lisasolod.com.

Image via Lisa Solod with permission

  • Joan Haskins

    This made me cry. Happy Mother’s Day, Lisa.

  • Amy S.

    Wow. Such a beautifully written piece. My heart hurts for you — everything you’ve been through and everything you’re going through with your mom. I can relate to the feeling of wanting your mom back. I’ve lost the mother I knew to anxiety and depression. She went from being a strong and capable person and an engaged mother and grandmother to being fearful, detached and completely dependent on my father. Hang in there.

  • Lisa Solod

    Thank you for reading. It makes me cry a lot, Joan. It was hard to realize that nothing would ever get resolved. I had to really let it all go.

    • tinfoil hattie

      Oh, I so,relate to that. And I am so sorry for your loss(es). This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  • Rebecca A

    The timing of this essay couldn’t have come at a better time. My father was diagnosed with the same disease late last year and the progression is much faster than anticipated. He too was a person for which the mood of our household depended on his mood. I had always taken care of him and held resentment for the father he wasn’t. It’s hard to verbalize the love/hate I have for this man who made life so difficult for his family. In spite of it all, I love him and now that he is slowly drifting into a shadowy space, I want the old, belligerent dad back. Thank you for this. xoxo

    • Lisa Solod

      Better the devil you know.

  • I have been sitting for 15 minutes trying to think of something to say. So sad and heartbreaking but so beautifully written.

    I too had a mother that was very difficult to love and like you, I am glad that I was able to forgive her while she was still alive. I watched my grandmother, who practically raised me waste away from Alzheimers. It is so difficult what you have to see now, but one day, you will be relieved that she no longer has to live this existence. Sometimes it is a kindness.

    Wishing you peace.

    • Lisa Solod

      I forgave her long before the illness, but the illness helped in the ultimate forgiveness. I hate, as I say in the essay, to see her this way. It isn’t fair to her or us. I will be both sad and relieved at the end. it has been a very long road.

      • Lisa, you will also remember that you forgave her and that will mean the world to you. By doing so you’ve broken the cycle, which is oh so hard to do. Happy Mother’s Day.

  • Joellen P

    Lisa – A wonderful essay. My mother died of stroke-related decline about 4 years ago. After a lifetime of being victim and recipient of what I came to call her “fierce love,” her dementia somehow took the edge off of her anger and unhappiness. She was the mother I always knew was in there. I mourn the years of pain, the years that could have been something else, and the sweet, angelic, shrinking woman she became. Thank you for reminding me of all of this this Mother’s Day. Take best care.

    • Lisa Solod

      Yes…. I learned complete forgiveness, which is a tough thing to learn. Thank you.

  • I’m so sorry. There is nothing quite like watching someone you love leave us while they are still somehow here. My grandmother suffered with dementia in the last few years of her life and it’s still painful for me to think about. After she died, though, I was able to remember her from when she was her true self and let go of that other shell of a person she was at the end.

    Thank you for your beautiful essay.

  • Hi Lisa. I cannot imagine your anguish. At least my parents, crummy as their unexpected terminal hospitalizations were, were functional and independent until them. As I’ve pondered end of life issues since, the primary question that has arisen for me is “is protracted dying the necessary cost of extended living?” I’d be curious about your thoughts on this. Your conundrum brings to mind Katy Butler’s NYT article and forthcoming book chronicling her father’s 8 year alzheimer’s demise (lengthened by the insertion of a post-stroke pacemaker).

    • Lisa Solod

      Been trying to sell a novel about Alzheimer’s for 2 years now. I think it is the definitive novel about the disease but I can’t seem to find an agent.

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    Amazing. both wonderful and awful. Hope you have a great mother’s day and that over time, the good memories will far outweigh the bad ones.

  • Mindi

    I cried a long time over this. My grandmother raised me until I was 4 years old and my next youngest sister was born, and I went home to live with my mom, dad and new sister. I always loved my grandmother. She had her little crazy quirks, being terrified of thunderstorms, and being a hypochondriac to the extreme, but I know she loved me without question. She also disappeared because of Alzheimers. I went from being myself, to being my mother, to being my daughter in her eyes. The worst day was the day I became nobody. I miss her everyday, but mother’s day and her birthday are always the worst. Now, I watch my father struggle with dementia (they say it isn’t Alzheimers) and I watch the big, strong, retired cop I knew, sit in a wheelchair all day and mess his diapers. Time is cruel.

    • Lisa Solod

      I am so sorry I made you cry. But I get it. It is very hard becoming no one to your mom.

  • Mothers and daughters … so often a volatile combination. Your beautifully poignant piece was meaningful and no doubt grasped as a lifeline to many women going through the pain of parent grief. I say grief because that process began when your mother was diagnosed and will likely continue long after she has found ultimate peace. I have heard that a daughter never gets over the death of her mother. I believe that is true.

    Thank you for writing about your relationship with your mother, then and now.
    Cappy Hall Rearick

  • Er

    Thank you, Lisa. A beautiful essay. Painful and sad and honest and true.

  • Lisa
    I read this knowing all the angst and anger towards my mother has grown immensely as she reaches the midpoint of her eight decade; we communicate via Facebook — how sad. Yet, I’d give anything to be able to reconcile in words and behavior what you put forth in this essay. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • Lisa Solod

    Thank you for reading, all. And for writing me.

  • I have had to forgive my father who caused a lot of hardship for me and my entire family in my life, especially my mother, and it’s so hard to watch him get old. He’s dying and my feelings are very conflicted. Happy mother’s day. What a beautiful read for me during a time where I am doing my own healing.

  • Maud

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.You put words to our feelings about our mothers, and fathers who we miss and keep after, and miss and , write to and visit and pray to. We, that have aging parents with all forms of dementia, from mild to extreme want them back. They had wisdom and wit. The were chiseled. They were talented, and,they could recite poetry that we were never even invited to read. Thank you. I want her back too.

    • Lisa Solod

      You made ME cry. Thanks for getting it so eloquently.

  • This essay is a moving and unshakeable testament to the completely irrational nature of a child’s love for a parent. You’d rather have her — roaring and destructive but whole and mighty — than this softer and gentler but diminished, fading shell of herself. That is the way we are made.

  • Sheila Reep

    This was written so beautifully as to make anyone relate. My own mother died years ago, and yet I want her back with all the flaws I know about, just to hug her one more time. I remember the last mother’s day with her…she was in the hospital lucid but unable to speak.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    oh, Lisa, hugs. There is no relationship in life more complicated the the mother/female child dynamic. You captured the angst and uncertainty and horror and tears beautifully; your writing is amazing. I wish for your sake — and for your mother’s sake — that this did not have to be written. Peace to you and Happy Miother’s Day. Amy.

    • Lisa Solod

      Thank you. And thanks for posting it. I so appreciate your sharing my work.

  • Maya North

    Oh I so get that complex and anguishing blend we get from difficult mothers. Mine was not ostentatiously difficult — she did it with quiet and cold and long-suffering looks, with the clear statement, most often made without words, that I was everything a daughter should never be. She proceeded to try to remove from my own daughter every trace that was like me, although that did not succeed. To the surprise of both her and my daughter, my daughter’s favorite parts of herself were very much like me. But this is also the woman who would hand me the clustered, tangled lump of gold chains that she could never manage to keep separate and watch admiringly as my dextrous little fingers slowly disentangled them, who played board games with me, who told excruciating puns just to get my father back. It’s never that straightforward. Melanoma in my mother’s brain took her relatively swiftly. I did not have to watch the slow, terrifying, heart-destroying slide, but still, I get it. Big hugs. And yes, I am sharing this.

  • Sally Swift

    Your writing is raw and stunning and cuts to the bone. This was my grandmother, which I only say to let you know I get it. The more they abuse us -because they are broken and sad- the more we want their approval … and to comfort them. Angry tears, cleansing tears, you gave me both. I wish you peace and comfort in knowing what an outstanding mother you are. Somehow you got some of that from her, no matter when or why. Happy Mother’s Day to another mother who knows pain and perseveres.

    • Lisa Solod

      I DID get lots from her, as I say. And I lost a lot. But whatever happened is so long over. Thanks for understanding.

  • Adelina


    I loved your essay. Your mom was in my reading group for awhile. I saw her as this very intelligent and caring women. She loved to talk about her children and grandchildren. She was also a good writer, I remember when she spoke at the Temple.

    • Lisa Solod

      She was both extremely intelligent and caring. She just had a very difficult time with her demons.

  • Incredible and touching at so many levels. This piece strikes me deeply for many reasons.

  • God. What a powerful story that you’ve shared with us, Lisa. I can relate as my father was claimed by Alzheimer’s ten years ago. It’s always difficult to see the parent whom you both love and detest slowly disappearing from your life before your very eyes.

    It’s a balancing act all parents must task – – being the strong disciplinarian and loving caregiver isn’t easy and is at times contradictory. It’s particularly difficult if that parent wasn’t lovingly parented themselves….when they don’t have the tools to do right by you.

    Thanks for so eloquently sharing the pain, anguish and love that we feel for those who brought us into this world.

  • Jennifer Higgins McDaniel Littrell

    Open, honest, full of pain well hidden that is forcing it’s way out in a form many can not convey as you have here. Love, with it’s many complexities Enjoyed and understand much more.

  • Thank you for writing this essay. The complexities that a mother torn by extremes can tear us daughters apart but then if by chance and much work we don’t get caught up in the victimhood, if we continue to build ourselves back up and if we can get to the point where we step back and try to understand why the one person on earth designed to take care of us and support us doesn’t, at least not reliably or consistently or in a traditional way, then we become survivors with a depth of humanity that isn’t present in those who were raised by loving mothers. We have the potential to become healers, and in some ways that’s the most generous gift a mother can give, and it seems that that is what your mother has given you. Much strength to you at this time. Dementia is most certainly the cruelest finale.

  • Susanne Freeborn

    My mother died eleven years ago. She had a stroke and lived for a few years with the effects. Loss of autonomy, loss of much of her memories, she did not remember much of our childhoods, but remembered her own, including addresses. She didn’t remember ever being a terrible mother, which was just as well. There wasn’t any humane purpose in my remembering that part either. Still, I miss her ferociously sometimes. My grandfather also suffered Alzheimer’s. it sucks, it stinks, it hurts everyone. I am sorry about your mother.

  • Gorgeous. Reminds us how the familiar – however revolting or disturbing – can still be more comforting than the strange and new. Also, though every human is flawed, being a parent holds us accountable with much higher stakes.

    Thank you.

  • Thank you for this beautifully written piece. I loved knowing that she cried when she held your babies. And I am sorry that you have to live through this terrible illness. Wish I could read your novel. It sounds fantastic.

  • Lisa Solod

    Thank you, Nancy. I wish you could, too! Soon, I hope.

  • GabbyAbby

    Should we have opportunity to share our Alzheimer family stories in one place, I believe they would be alike in many ways. I’ll add this to my collection Lisa – so many told by OS writers – in addition to my own. It’s interesting what you said about your book. It’s a subject I’m also very passionate about. I felt Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, has written one of the most readable and identifiable stories out there about her observations, feelings, and the course of her father’s decline over the years after his diagnosis.

    I wish you luck in your search for a publisher and would really like to know if you put any portion of your writings on Alzheimer’s up in blog posts. I’m working diligently to review as much as I can get my hands on b/c the disease seems to be pandemic.

    To know it’s in my family, and possibly my genetic makeup is devastating enough, but to receive the diagnosis myself would require me to take definitive steps. We have a first generation of Alzheimer’s caretakers now and I believe that after experiencing it through to the end, many of us won’t wait for our children to go through it with us in the event of a personal diagnosis. I hope people will start exploring their thoughts and feelings about that aspect of the disease as well as sharing the memories of what we have lost to it. Thanks for your story.

  • Lisa, I don’t know you. I have never read any of your work before. You words seared through me like a blazing poker. Your mother sounds as if she was very much like my partner’s mother. When I met her she was the prickly, oh so difficult drunk, who felt that her whole life had been wasted. It hadn’t been but she couldn’t see that. She was a smart, funny, talented woman who was bitter and angry at the world. I don’t think that even she knew why she was so very angry but she never let that lack of insight slow her down. When Alzheimer’s hit the impact was like a freight train. She got lost very quickly and went from being fastidious to throwing tissue covered with nasal discharge on the floor in restaurants. She forgot what toilet paper was for and most of the time she was clueless as to who her daughter and grandchildren were. The final descent from independent living to being in a nursing home to less than five months with the last four weeks being a time of near total decompensation. After a few weeks in the nursing home she stabilized to a degree. I think the structure served her well although she started to physically “vanish” as you described with your mother. The rest of you story about your mother could have been hers as well. During her last months we just tried to keep her comfortable. You are right…when she passes on there will be a sense of relief but it may well be colored with sadness at all that could have been but wasn’t. I am writing this to say that I have seen what my partner went through. I traveled much of the road with her…one thing I learned was that if you can, cherish every minute you can even when it seems like the visit or interaction is for naught. It really does count for something in the end. You may not see it now but down the road I think you will.

    I hope that you don’t think I am trying to lay some crazy guilt on you. That is the furthest thing from what I am saying. There is still a thread that connects you to your mother. That thread is in the shell that once vibrated with your mom’s crazy existence. Hold tight to that thread if you can.

    Deep Peace with much respect and understanding.

  • Lisa Solod

    Thank you. GabbyAbby. There are so very many of us….. my story is odd in that my mother became a nice person once she succumbed to the disease, for a little while, that is, until she became almost nothing at all. It is very hard to know that this runs through my family. I try and live as though it won’t get me, but I am honest with my children. I will not let them be caregivers to me. I don’t resent my mother for it at all, it was her choice. It just isn’t mine.

  • Sheila Luecht

    A piece which strikes at the very heart of what love between mother and child is and can be.It does hurt to read how painful your life has been and the course it has taken now. There is such a emotional brush painting this past and present. I know you are a talented woman and I am happy that could express this deep pain, to release it, in some way I hope it can be a catharsis of the past pain too.

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