By Michael Levin
Took my oldest daughter to London as a graduation present, and I gave some photos of the trip to my mom, who is 81 and suffers from a stroke and dementia.
The next day, I called Mom just to say hi.
“I don’t know who the young woman is in the photo,” my mom began, sounding happier than I had heard her in a long time, “but she’s so sweet, and the two of you look so happy together! It looks like you finally found the one!”
Um, mom, that’s my daughter…I’m 40 years older than she is…and I’ve been married to that girl’s mother for almost 18 years…
Of course, I didn’t say any of that.
I just told her I agreed.
It’s heartbreaking to witness the mental erosion of a loved one.
It’s even harder to realize that all of her memories—and what are we if not our memories—are clicking off, one cluster of brain cells at a time.
I have four children, ages 9 to 16.
They are vaguely aware that the sweet old lady who sits immobile, watching old movies on her wide screen all day long, escaped Europe with her family in the horror of World War II.
She was born in Belgium in 1936, and her family was on the run by the time she was three and a half.
Her baby sister was born in occupied France in June, 1940.
Two months later, the family escaped France into Franco’s Spain…in a hay wagon.
My mother still remembers, or at least she did six months ago, fighter planes overhead as they made that dangerous and illegal crossing.
From Barcelona they sailed to Havana.
My grandfather bribed someone and they were able to stay in the infirmary instead of below deck.
The family spent six years in Havana, initially living in an apartment where different families used the same beds during day and night shifts.
By 1946, their papers were in order, and they made the 30-minute flight—their first—from Havana to Miami.
My mother, then 10, was the family’s only English speaker.
Just six months older than my youngest, she stepped up and answered the questions for the immigration and passport officers while her family waited, frightened, a few steps back.
I don’t know how much of her own story she remembers today.
Five years ago, I hired a freelance writer—I run a book ghostwriting company—to interview my mother and draft a short book about her early years, from Belgium to France to Cuba to New York.
At the time, she was quite lucid and remembered events in great detail.
We published her story as a short book.
It cannot be found on Amazon and we’ve never sold a copy.
Of course, that’s not the point.
My children are growing in age and wisdom, even as my mother slips further into the fog of Alzheimer’s.
It’s likely that the time will come, sooner than later, when she no longer recognizes us.
But because we took the time to get her story down, we will always have it.
Even as my mom loses the knowledge of who she is, my children will always know who they are and whose they are, thanks to her book.
You don’t have to do it as a book – just get a recording app running on your smart phone and get the stories from your aging parent.
Video may be most desirable, but it can feel like an intrusion, so audio alone may be best.
Get the stories transcribed. Get them down on paper.
If you haven’t taken the time to interview, record, and one way or another capture the recollections of an aging loved one, this is truly the time.