When a Mother and Daughter Reverse Roles

An obsession with an orphaned sea otter helps Marlene Adelstein process her grief over her Alzheimers-afflicted mom.

Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | November 2017 | 8 minutes (2,061 words)

Recently my boyfriend and I became completely absorbed in a PBS nature documentary about baby sea otters separated from their mothers in Monterey Bay, and the group of passionate scientists whose mission it was to rescue and rehabilitate them. One particular pup, a bundle of brown fur, dark soulful eyes and long whiskers, whom the scientists named 501, was weak and sickly and couldn’t groom or forage for food, crucial tasks its mother would normally perform. So the scientists took the pup to their research facility to nurse the orphan back to health.

At the rehabilitation lab, handlers wore dark ponchos and faceless Darth Vader-like welder’s masks so the otters wouldn’t become attached to them. Eventually the trainers brought in Tula, an older rescued otter, to act as a surrogate mother. Tula spent months teaching 501 essential otter skills, like how to roll, lick and rub her thick fur to keep buoyant and waterproof. After a few months, the trainers motored out to a protected cove on the Monterey coastline called Elkhorn Slough, a popular otter hang-out, and released 501 into the bay. As the pup swam off without her real mother, without her surrogate, and without her human mask-wearing protectors, I began to sniffle.

“Sweetie, are you crying?” my boyfriend asked.

“Me? No,” I lied as a wave of otter worry washed over me.

“The otter’s been trained to survive,” he said. “She’ll be okay. She was meant to live in the wild.” I knew all this but still, there I was, blubbering over a sea otter. How would 501 manage without her surrogate mother? Would she remember how to lick and roll? Would she find other otters? Would she survive?

I became completely absorbed in a PBS nature documentary. It was about baby sea otters who had become separated from their mothers in Monterey Bay.

Later that night I got a call from my parents. After I’d spoken with my dad he asked, “Want to talk to your mother?” I could hear her in the background saying, “Mother? I’m not a mother.” When she got on the phone Mom had a giggle in her voice as if the very idea of her being a mother was the funniest thing in the world.

My mom has mid-stage Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t really answer questions about what she’d done that day so I simply babbled on about anything I could think of. Although she always signed off by telling me, “Thanks for calling, dear,” she no longer knew where I lived, what I did for work, who I lived with. “Say hello to the family,” she’d say or “Say hello to anyone there.”

My mother and I had never had a particularly close relationship. It was often strained with neither of us really sharing deep feelings, even though I’m sure it’s what we both yearned for. I know I did. Through unspoken signals and example, I’d learned from my parents to keep quiet, to bottle up emotions and not ask for help. I became an independent woman because of this, sometimes to my benefit, sometimes not. But things had clearly changed. Mom needed help, and I longed to protect her. She put on a good show but it was obvious she didn’t remember much of anything.

***

The day I watched the otter documentary, I’d just arrived home from a twelve-day trip to Florida where, along with my two brothers, I’d helped my parents, now in their late 80s, move out of their large apartment into the Windsor of Venice, a regal-sounding assisted living facility that was clean and modern, but far from the grand estate its name conjured. The move was confusing for my mom. My dad, who’d had his hands full being mom’s caretaker, had just been diagnosed with lung cancer and was immersed in his own health problems while living with a partner who could no longer offer emotional support. Besides needing to deal with our parents’ individual health issues, my brothers and I had only days to pack and settle them into a much smaller space, all while repeatedly telling my increasingly agitated mom where she was going and why.

My mom had been a meticulous homemaker, obsessively clean, a good cook, and a warm hostess who’d entertained often. But those days were long gone. Their apartment was a mess, cluttered with stacks of newspapers, mail, and drawers filled with those free address labels that come along with donation requests. I tore through their apartment. I set aside the ‘good stuff,’ fine china, silver, and unneeded furniture for the auction house. I secretly threw out Mom’s bundles of hoarded plastic bags and napkins. I removed musty linens, old kitchenware, and souvenirs from their world travels, and took them out to the garage, hoping my mom wouldn’t find and retrieve them. I filled 18 Hefty bags, deposited them at Goodwill, got back in the car and broke down in tears. What had taken 61 years of a good married life to accumulate — gone in an instant, yet forgotten by Mom anyway. What did it all mean?

The day before the big move to the Windsor, I was with my mom in her bedroom. We’d just gone through her dresser drawers and closet, sorting clothes she didn’t recognize as hers.  “The people who lived here before left them,” she claimed. She’d taken to wearing the same clothing over and over: blue slacks, a few different tops and a white cardigan stained at the wrists — items that were comfortable because they were still familiar.

As I stuffed some of the clothes into a donation bag, I decided to broach a difficult subject. “Do you know who I am?” I asked.

“Well, no. I was going to ask you.”

“I’m Marlene.”

“I know that,” she said, as if I’d just insulted her.

My mother and I had never had a particularly close relationship. It was often strained with neither of us really sharing deep feelings, yet I’m sure that’s what we both yearned for.

“Oh, okay. Do you know that I’m your daughter?”

She scowled, the vertical worry line on her forehead deepening. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

“You don’t believe that?”

“No.” She shook her head.

“You don’t have children?”

“No, I don’t.” She was certain about that.

I swallowed my emotions. After all, it wasn’t really a surprise that Mom no longer knew who I was. I’d read books and watched documentaries about Alzheimer’s and had learned that you can’t argue with someone who has this form of dementia. They are firm in their beliefs, whether they are right or wrong. I’d never change her mind. “Well,” I told her, “think of me as part of the family,” and that seemed to satisfy her. I’d stumbled onto the right answer, the one she could accept. From then on, whenever the question of who I was arose, I stuck with that explanation.


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Settling my parents into the Windsor and telling Mom where she was and why over and over again was exhausting. She cried, she yelled, she swore. She didn’t want to move, didn’t understand why they had to, or why no one had told her it was happening, despite the fact that she’d visited the place numerous times. How could this difficult woman be my mom? She wore her snow-white hair in the same pixie cut she’d worn for years but her sparkly, sapphire-colored eyes seemed to have become even more intensely blue. She looked at me for help. “Where is this place?” she asked repeatedly as she sat in the living room of the new apartment clutching her purse in her lap.

Back home the next week, recuperating from the move, I stepped out of the shower and looked at myself in the mirror. There was my dad’s straight nose and similar lips, my mother’s forehead worry lines. A wave of sorrow and emptiness enveloped me as the trip and all its emotional content caught up with me and suddenly I was sobbing. My parents’ tossed-away possessions, the hoarding, constant questions and repetition, the bickering, my mother shadowing my dad, her not showering or changing her clothes. Then an image of little 501 being tenderly carried about in the water on Tula’s belly flashed before me, and it became clear: my mom needed a mother.

It had happened gradually but there were clues. Starting back at the house my parents had built when they retired to Florida, she had become very good at diverting conversations away from herself, away from questions she couldn’t answer. I’d found numerous handwritten lists stashed in drawers. They all contained the same vital information: her name, address, birthday, social security number. There were grocery lists where she tried to figure out the spelling of simple food items: lettice, lettus, letis. And there was the time about three years ago when I got a card signed by her. It looked painstakingly executed, as if she’d been holding the pen very tightly, maybe even copying her name from something else, each letter jerky, not smooth or fluid. The new reality sunk in then as I stared at her signature: “Connie” not “Mom” as she’d always written in the past.

I went back down to Florida a few months after the move to see how my parents were settling into the Windsor. My dad was not happy. He hated the food, and that the staff barged in on them unannounced with a pass key. My mom seemed content. The smaller apartment was probably better for her, fewer rooms to have to look through when she lost things, which was often. My parents fought a lot now. My dad was not good at making up stories or lying to her, something that had become a necessity. Intellectually, he knew he couldn’t win an argument, but he felt more comfortable telling her the truth even when it ended in her getting very upset.

I had a call from my parents. After I’d spoken with my dad he said, ‘Want to talk to your mother?’ I could hear her in the background saying, ‘Mother? I’m not a mother.’

I tried to give my dad a break from the draining frustration of being with Mom, so I’d take her down to a shady area in the courtyard with two rocking chairs. We would sit together, rocking, gazing up at the blue sky. She was fascinated by the clouds. “How do they stay up there?” she asked each time. We peacefully colored in a coloring book. I gave her manicures. She happily hummed a tune she now sang daily, one I recognized from Prokofiev’s symphony, “Peter and the Wolf,” and I’d sing along. I was forming a new relationship with my mom. Any unresolved feelings of disappointment or resentment no longer mattered and were replaced by my desire to care for her. She trusted me and I could get her to chat, make up stories and be content. I’d learned what made her happy in the moment and that was gratifying.

***

When it was time to say goodbye to my parents at the end of the visit, my eyes welled up and so did theirs. I hugged Mom tight, feeling the unfamiliar smallness of her.

Back home once again, my dad phoned and told me about an argument he’d just had with Mom. He’d been trying to explain to her yet again who I was.

“Marlene is our daughter. Your daughter,” he had said.

She’d have none of it. “No, she’s not.”

“Yes, she is.”

No,” my mom said adamantly.

“Then who do you think she is?”

“I don’t know,” my mom had said. “She’s sweet and kind. But she’s not my daughter.” She paused for a second, then said, “But if I did have a daughter, I’d want it to be her.”

That night I lay awake in bed, my mind bouncing from Venice, Florida to Elkhorn Slough, from worry over my mother to thoughts of 501, each of them alone in a wild world. The next day I felt a strange compulsion to view the otter documentary again, so I ordered it from my local library. It arrived a few days later and I watched it once more on my laptop. When I got to the part where the scientists released 501 into the cove to fend for herself, I felt the tug in my chest that I’d felt before, and suddenly, it hit me. I’m 501, the motherless orphan. I’m also Tula, 501’s adoptive mother. And I’m the faceless handlers too. I’m all of them rolled together: orphan-surrogate mother-caretaker. And that explained the trio of emotions that were churning within me: grief, compassion, gratitude. If I did have a daughter, I’d want it to be her.

I’ll take it, I thought. I’ll take it.

* * *

Marlene Adelstein is a writer and freelance book editor. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley and is at work on a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton