Reub's journey

21 June 2011


I spoke with my mother yesterday. Filling in the blank when she couldn't remember the name of a tall blue flower, I said, " it a delphinium? " Rambling on, I commented " I always think of my brother Jim when I see blue delphiniums, the way he used to stake them up and make sure none of them were ruined..."

Botanical illustration by unknown artist
It was as though I had sent an arrow through some portal of her memory; suddenly she was crying, my mother, who only seconds before could barely remember my visit three weeks ago. "I miss him..." she wept. We spoke of Jim for a minute,  his ability to make things grow, and his untimely death in a motorcycle accident 37 years ago. For every thing that she remembers, no matter how sad, I am grateful.
Because my mother, at age 90, is sinking into dementia. "Eventually," said the doctor, "everybody gets this to some degree."

Self Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1967
But everybody doesn't get it to the same degree, nor at the same point in their lives. For example, William Utermohlen was an American artist who lived and worked in London.

Self Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1996, after diagnosis of Alzheimer's
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in his sixties and decided to document his progress by painting self portraits.

Self Portrait, William Utermohlen, 1999

Today I have been examining these, wondering where is my mother on this continuum of forgefulness? Which one is she now?

Self Portrait, William Utermohlen, 2000

Three weeks ago we spent a weekend with her. She was completely lucid on the day we celebrated her birthday. "I've seen 90-year old women," she told me, "and when I look in the mirror, that's not who I am." True enough; I know what she means.

My husband with my mother, May 2011
 But her faltering memory belies her age, even if her natural youthfulness and unrelenting fashion sense make her appear decades younger. Yesterday on the phone she said politely, as though speaking to a casual acquaintance on the street "I don't believe I've met your husband." I assured her that she had met him, but that she had simply forgotten for the time being, that she would remember later. I said I would send some photos taken last month of the two of them together. She laughed, "Well I guess that will be irrefutable evidence." And then she added, "I will remember, because I never forget a handsome young man!"

The animation accompanying this poem is done by Julian Grey, of Head Gear Animation. Check him out to see other super cool examples of his work, and to read his amusing bio.


  1. i am glad for you that you still have your mother at age 90, and that she still has some good days - even if filled with sad memories...

  2. The painter painted his state of mind, his inner self. It's an amazing series, so direct and so drastic.

    Your mother looks splendid for her age and she still knows her words. 'Irrefutable'? There are a lot of people who never know more than 2-syllable words.

  3. wow, that's a very powerful series of portraits.

  4. With my mother and grandmother a form of dementia started around seventy. I am now 63. What lies ahead of me? Well, I was never drinking as much as them, but will that make a differenece?
    Your mom is right, when we look into the mirror, we expect to see our own youthful self, not the old gal who looks back at us.
    Thanks for coming to my blog, Kerry. Yes, the kids don`t know how to dial anymore, haha, can`t lead a dialogue, either. Cheers from Germany!

  5. That series of paintings is most compelling and really tells a tale. I think we all do not fear death, but fear this type of dying. We fear not knowing who we are and being a burden to those we love. You mom even now seems to be quite the charmer.

  6. At age 90 your mother is doing pretty darn well. Although I know the pain of Alzheimer's. My mother started with it in her mid-late 70s and died at 82. But 3 days before she passed away she was completely lucid. An amazing gift to those of us who were with her.

    The artwork that you shared is very powerful.

  7. Got here from Angela's blog.What a poigant post.
    Amazing and sad series of self portraits

  8. twg: I am lucky, and every time I become exasperated I stop myself with this reminder.

    Friko: She is forgetting words more frequently these days, but you're right. She is still very fluent and uses some fancy words. And her appearance is far more splendid than mine is, even on her bad days.

    Ellen: I first saw these in the New York Times in 2006, and I could never forget them. Very powerful.

    Angela: I don't know if drinking makes a difference. Maybe a little wine even helps! But perhaps not.

    Tabor: Yes. The slow crumbling is terrible, the loss of oneself without dying, that is a great fear. I don't want it to happen to her, or to myself. As I age I can't help but feel this.

    Rebecca: Your mother's lucidity was such a gift, wasn't it? My mother drifts in and out of lucidity in a single conversation these days. So strange.

    Fire Byrd: Thanks. I don't, at all, strive for poignancy. But sometimes those are the moments I notice the most.

  9. It's not an easy path to see a parent embark. Or anyone. Enjoy her. She still has many reasons to smile and memories to share.

    Thanks for your visit to my blog, today. You were exactly right. I wondered what I had said then had to go back to look. ;)

  10. What a beautiful and wrenching post. As people age I think they start wandering from this world to the next and back again. Sometimes it's hard for them, though most of the time it seems harder for us.

    she is completely beautiful and youthful. I'm thinking about you today, your graciousness and kindness. You are so good.

  11. whoa - those self-portraits... that photo of john and your mom made me think of a photo we have of john with my grandpa bill from our wedding.

  12. Cherish the time you have left and the memories you possess
    : )

  13. This is such a wonderful post. My mother-in-law is also 90 and suffering from loss of memory. Some days she is much better than others, just like your mother. I wonder if it's more painful for we who are watching than it is for the one losing his/her memory.


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