“What’s wrong?” my mom asks. “You sound sad.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
“But you don’t sound fine,” she says.
“Ok, I guess I am a little sad,” I say.
“Why?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, because I’m not about to tell her the real reason, that it’s her descent into Alzheimer’s that’s making me sad. “I guess I just had a bad day.”
“Oh,” she says. “I hope you feel better tomorrow.”
And I think to myself, “Who are you, and what did you do with my mother?”
Before Alzheimer’s, my mom never encouraged me to acknowledge bad feelings, let alone express them. “Think positive,” she would say every time I was feeling down. “Tell yourself you feel happy,” she’d say other times.
My mom was never equipped to handle bad feelings. Raised in an alcoholic household, she for some reason chose to create her own family with a controlling rage-a-holic (he was “dad” to me). Denial was second nature to her; she imposed it on others’ feelings as well as her own. I think she thought feelings were dangerous, and denial was a form of protection.
But now, her complex, age-old defense mechanism is breaking down. As her mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s, her emotional life — including sensitivity to the emotions of those around her — is taking a primary place. After all these years, my mom is finally there for me emotionally. But now that she wants to know my feelings, I can’t possibly share them with her.