I often take Momma to the grocery store with me or for walks around the neighborhood. She gravitates toward every living thing that mirrors her own exuberance – babies & children, neighbors walking dogs, smiling people of all sorts. The countless confused glances, the many fear-tinged faces, the thousand ‘whats?’ and ‘excuse mes?’ in response to her, as she babbles unintelligible joy, have jelled my nerves a bit; I am constantly anticipating, shielded and wearing apology, ready to offer my explanation: “She has dementia.”
The responses to this news are varied. There was the woman at ShopRite selling hot dogs, who recoiled when I told her, after Momma babbled at her like a pre-verbal baby. It was as if she imagined my mother contagious, shrinking back in horror and turning her lips into a hard, arching frown. On another occasion, at a different supermarket, when I informed the stranger Momma was making “conversation” with, the woman’s eyes lit up with affection as she engaged my mother in a few moments of chatter, and filled my heart with endurance. I never really know how she’ll be received, but the many cautious glances have conditioned in me a guarded sensibility. This guarding, this protective drive is at times territorial, motherly – a lioness protecting her cubs and her den. It is a necessary and loving ferocity. But there is another protective impulse induced by apprehension and fear – of being rejected, of being misunderstood, of being embarrassed, of pain. This is the kind of protection I have been wielding – though I realize only as I’m saying this, that it has not been for Momma, but because of Momma, and by design, it does nothing to protect her but everything to stifle and deny the terrible fear I walk with daily.