In years past my mother taught maternity nursing and took part in the arrival of many babies. As a public health nurse entering the homes of desperate mothers who had become pregnant though they could not feed another child, she was pro-choice in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
After retirement at age 60 in 1976, however, she moved back to Boulder, Colorado, where her church, First Presbyterian, had moved several steps to the right.
The church was showing graphic anti-abortion films that featured discarded embryos among other things. Mom went through a 10-15 year period of being prolife as a result of this input, but after I published a pro-choice book on abortion, she rethought the issue and decided she favored keeping abortion legal.
Anyway, in her illness with Lewy Body Dementia now, many scenes from her past experiences cycle through her mind. One story that I hear every day goes as follows:
"Anne, you know that girl that I saved? She's going to medical school now!" she begins.
"Oh, good," I say.
"Yes, and to think that she grew up out of just that little bit of flesh. They had thrown it out, but I went through what they threw out and looked and saw that there was a baby girl."
"Oh really?" I say.
"Yes, I saved her!" she continues with delight. "I gave her to my brother, and he and his wife raised her. And now she's so smart that she's even going to med school."
"Yes," I say. "Jennifer is hoping to go to med school."
In earlier versions of the story the saved flesh had no further history, other than being raised by Mom's brother or son, but now two of my brother Bill's daughters are taking premed courses, and Mom has them mixed into this story about the bit of flesh.
In the last couple of days, however, Mom has decided that one of her caregivers, Meselech, is that saved girl.
"Hi, Evelyn," says Meselech with mischievous delight when Mom and I arrive in the Reminiscence Neighborhood pushing Mom in her wheelchair. "I'm your daughter, aren't I!"
"Yes," Mom says. "Anne, this is my step-daughter. I rescued her when she was just a little piece of tissue about to be thrown out. I gave her to my brother to raise, and I adopted her so she's my step-daughter."
"So we're sisters, right?" says Meselech, laughing. "Mother, are you going to introduce me to my sister?" Meselech is from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and thinks the whole thing is quite funny.
"Yes," says Mom, laughing at the general merriment. "And she's going to go to medical school at the University of Colorado."
"Oh, I see," I say.
This whole thing is not funny to me--I am so tired of hearing about the saved bit of flesh and what became of her. But it provides Meselech with some amusement; she spends eight hours a day, five days a week in the Rem Neighborhood, and I don't begrudge her any humor she can find to pass the time.
"And to think I saved her!" says Mom.
"Yes, Mother," says Meselech.
The odd thing about all Mom's delusions is that she remembers them in great detail from day to day, and they collect more history like a snowball rolling downhill.
Usually I just nod and listen, but today she began with insisting that we leave immediately to go to Macy's to buy nylons for someone--I'm not sure whether it was for this rescued-tissue girl or one of her caregivers.
"Anne, that girl whose husband died, I promised her that I would buy her some nylons, so we have to go to Macy's right now!" Mom said when I walked in this afternoon.
I couldn't just nod and say yes to this one. Nobody's husband died except in Mom's delusions.
"No, Mom, we are not going to Macy's. We are not buying nylons for anyone."
"But I promised her!"
"I don't care what you promised her," I retorted angrily. "We are not going shopping today. We can go to the dry cleaners and maybe the post office if you want, but that's all."
"Oh dear, I promised her," Mom whimpered as I pushed her wheelchair out the door of her room and into the general sitting area of her floor.
There we ran into Meselech, who said, "Hello, Mother! I'm your daughter, aren't I!"
And Mom cheerfully moved into her story about the little girl whom she saved. She forgot about the nylons.