Old woman buttoning a sweater

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SLIDESHOW

This Magic Moment
Years into her mother's long battle with dementia, Carla Power succumbed to a fleeting hope.

I had never been to the third floor before that afternoon, though my mind had wandered there many times. Just a floor below, residents still clung to normalcy, greeting visitors, raising frayed voices for "This Land Is Your Land" sing-alongs. But the third floor had an air of resignation. The third floor was for patients who, while there in body, were usually gone in spirit.

The head of the facility had called to tell me it was time. Now, walking to my mother's room, I passed a row of wheelchaired women, their heads nodding against their chests. From one bedroom, I heard a muffled cry.

My mother's head snapped up as I walked in. "With whom did you consult before consenting to have me moved here?" she said, her voice cutting.

"Shhh, Mom," I whispered. My chest tightened; I felt wretched and guilty, but also a distinct sense of hope. "This is absolutely ludicrous, being put up here with these...people."

Since my mother had developed dementia at age 70, there'd been occasional glimmers of the sharp-witted, warmhearted woman who had taught literature in Afghanistan and Iran, chaired a university women's studies program and revered what she rather quaintly called "the life of the mind." But her own mind had become clogged with tiny protein deposits that unsteadied her sense of reality. She hadn't been entirely present in years.

"Oh, honestly, Carla," she said. "This is just...humiliating." I was speechless. Could she be getting better? "Bingo and potpourri!" she crowed. "Is this the promised end?" On the second floor she'd baby-talked through reruns of '70s sitcoms. Now she was quoting King Lear, Shakespeare's exploration of senility and daughterly loyalty. Her eyes weren't filmy; they sparkled. Her words weren't slurred, but crisp. I stroked her head. Mom was back.

"I'm so sorry," I said. I'd failed her. "I'll ask. I'll see if we can turn this around."

I wheeled her to the TV room and switched on a Rita Hayworth movie, remarking on the cut of the dresses, the dialogue's double entendres—details she once would have caught before me. "Your father loved this scene," she said, as Hayworth vamped in a black strapless number. But by the commercial break, her eyes were glazing over. She said, "Do you know where Daddy is? I haven't heard from him for months." My father died in 1993.

I turned away to hide my distress. She soon forgot her question. By the time a staffer took her to dinner, she was pliant and distant. Silent through her meal, she pushed her veal Parmesan and cherry pie around her plate.

"How are you?" I asked gently.

"I fine!" she said, oblivious to the fat splodge of cherry filling on her chest. Leaving later, I met her former caregiver Carsanders. "I thought she might be getting better," I stuttered. Change can temporarily fire up the brain synapses, Carsanders explained. For a time, a person can seem like her old self.

But she'd never seen it last.