Many years ago, I wrote a column about my late grandmother's amazing angel food cake.
I wrote then that I wished I'd known when I was eating the last light-as-air slice. I would have savored every sweet, delicate crumb. I would have asked for more.
You'd think I might have learned a lesson, writing those words. But I've discovered, in law school, that I'm a slow learner. It didn't take a legal scholar to show me.
Instead my instruction came from a familiar voice at the end of a far-too-long-distance telephone line. From the side of a bed in a rehab center on Milwaukee's south side. From a room I call 'most every night, to speak with my 87-year-old mother.
My mom is officially recovering from a knee replacement. But she often forgets she had the surgery. After three hip replacements, a pacemaker and two bouts with cancer, her real tormentor is Alzheimer's. The disease torments all of us who love her too.
I spent the first year of her dementia fighting it. Reminding her of what was what, correcting her on the fine points of daily communication.
Finally, I figured out that my reminders only left her frustrated and fretful. Last summer, at the beach, she must have asked me 50 times how things were at the newspaper. The upside was that every time she learned I was going to law school, she was thrilled and delighted.
Yet it was hard not to mourn the loss of a woman who was so sharp, who stayed on top of everything. It was hard to watch her fade away.
I spent a long time last fall and early this year trying to remember the last time I had a real connection with my mother. I tried to place and reconstruct our last desultory conversation about the family. Before she forgot that she has four great-grandchildren.
I tried desperately to recollect the last time we'd shared a laugh.
My sister and I began to fixate on the fact that she no longer called us by name on the phone. Our voices, similar enough, had become "the daughters," we feared. Her questions were just vague enough to cover. "What's happening in your part of the world? How's the family?"
There were nights I cried bitter tears over the living loss of my mom.
Then one weekend, looking for my favorite banana bread recipe, I came upon a recipe card in my mother's distinctive handwriting. It was titled "Grandma's Angel Food Cake."
Holding that card, with its little teapot emblem, reminded me of what I should have learned back when I wrote about Grandma's special cake.
The lesson was so simple: Relish every moment.
And yet it was a revelation.
Reminders of the past
When we talk now, I try to take my mom away from the here and now, which can be so deeply confusing and sometimes very upsetting. I remind her of the day she heard a caller on talk radio ranting about defense spending and thought, "Lord, that man rants like my husband" - then found my dad on the bedroom phone.
I remind her that she seldom gave advice but when she did, it was unfailingly wise: "Never learn to clean a fish. Never learn to run a snow blower."
I remind her that on her 50th wedding anniversary, she disabused me of the notion that a long and happy marriage is all about romance and flowers.
"There were lots of times we didn't like each other very much," she said.
I tell her these stories and the most remarkable sound comes over the line.
My mother is laughing. Not because it is what her brain still tells her is the polite thing to do. She is giggling. She is snorting.
At the end I know she is mopping her eyes, the way she always did when she got a good laugh going.
In a few minutes, I realize, she will not remember that I have called. She will not remember what is happening with me, or my sons. She will be surprised, yet again, that I am no longer with the newspaper. "Law school? How nice!"
I know this disease will only get worse. But for just a moment, she and I shared a piece of what we had for the first 44 years of my life.
I, slow learner that I am, have finally learned to appreciate what I have. To savor every sweet delicate moment. To relish every light-as-air conversation. To ask - and hope - for more.