Forgiveness: A Relationship Transformed

BY ANNE VON OEHSEN/SUZY LAFORGE

“Please let me do it, so I can call it my own,” my mother spoke emphatically after I made the mistake of taking hold of her paintbrush.

Sitting at my kitchen table, she was putting the finishing touches on a painting of a cerulean blue butterfly as she studied a similar image on my iPad. It reminded me of something my daughter might have said to me. I tried to be supportive and encouraging about her colors and composition.

“I like your use of the green in the leaf against the blue butterfly,” I said, without trying to sound condescending. I could feel she appreciated this time together, something she had always yearned for.

This tender scene would have been hard for me to imagine just a few short years before. That day, she was deep in her dementia, and I knew that it was not unusual for those with Alzheimer’s to slowly regress. I was working on striking that delicate balance of maintaining her respect and dignity even as she acted more childlike. But what was most surprising about this scene was the contrast to our past relationship, which had been so complicated and tumultuous.

Growing up as the oldest of four siblings, I felt keenly resentful of her lack of attention. It felt like her focus was on what was going to make her happy—going back to school or a new career—but not necessarily her children. Our relationship continued a painful push-pull dance as an adult, each of us wanting something from the other we weren’t able or willing to give. She had an insatiable need for time and attention, and it seemed whatever I did give was never enough.

After moving to Houston from New York, my husband and I would use a major part of our precious two weeks of vacation time to visit our families in New York each year. As we left, instead of saying “Thank you for coming,” my mother would invariably ask, “So when are you coming back?” At family dinners when we were all together, we would take note of how quickly she would change the subject to be about her. Whether it was my daughter telling about her first day at camp or the latest play she was in, or my son talking about his lacrosse game, the conversation would turn into stories about how miserable she was at camp when she was just six, how she wrote and directed the Junior Show at college, or reciting a cheer from her cheerleading days. We’d all lock eyes with one another or kick each other under the table in recognition of her “all about her” stories, and smile. Despite knowing that her childhood with a depressed mother had contributed to her self- centeredness, I still longed for her to be a doting mother and grandmother.

In 2001, when she was recovering from small cell lung cancer, my father, who had been a successful marketing executive at an international pharmaceutical company, started showing signs of dementia after having a triple bypass. He was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a type of dementia that affects executive function. A brilliant executive, he had now lost his ability to plan and organize. But, even more diff