Lynchburg, Virginia, USA
“Mom, one day I’m going to write a story about you. I’ve already picked out a title: “My Mother and Proust,” I laugh.
I look at her face, hoping for a smile. Before my eighty-six-year-old mother developed Parkinson’s dementia a few years ago, she would have laughed with me. Instead, she reaches for the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past that rests by her arm.
“It’s a terrific book,” she says, without emotion. “You should read it.”
Mom quickly flips through the pages, as though there were pictures to see. The book falls on her chest as she falls asleep.
I reach through the rails of the hospital bed to tuck in her sheets. Wisps of white hair cover her forehead. I brush away a small cornflake from the corner of her mouth.
Looking at the big book on top of my mother reminds me how much she loved to read – books about France, yes, but also mysteries, classics, and the New York Times. She talked enthusiastically about everything she read. She would send articles to my sisters and me in college.
“You should read this, Dean.”
If I scoffed at the idea, she would exclaim, “Afraid you might learn something!”
There were many articles I threw away and never read. However, one I saved until the paper turned yellow – an article about a literary physician named Robert Coles, and his medical student experience shadowing a physician – poet, William Carlos Williams.
I wake up from my musings about poetry and turn to Mom. Our “conversation” has not changed in several years.
“Wake up, Mom, how are you doing?”
“Wake up, Mom!”
Many days I forget that she cannot hear well. In my frustration, I sometimes forget to stop shouting.
“Oh, it’s you!” She says.
She does not call me by name anymore.
“Where have you been? We haven’t seen you in weeks!”
“Yesterday, Mom, I was here yesterday.”
She dozes off again while I pull up a chair next to her bed. Dad wanders in from the den. I stand up and put my arm around him. He has dementia too – Alzheimer’s.
“How do you think she’s doing, son?”
“Not so good,” he says, before I have a chance to respond.
“She’s doing okay, Dad. She’s doing okay.”
“That’s good,” he says, and sits down on the club chair by the window.
“Mom, wake up just a minute.”
I gently shake her arm.
“What are you reading these days, Mom?”
She wakes, but does not answer.
Louder, “Mom, what are you reading these days? Proust? How’s Proust?”
“It’s a terrific book. You should read it.”
I smile to myself. As teenagers, whenever my mom said, “you should do this, or you should do that,” it became a family joke to respond “should your should” – in other words, don’t tell me what to do!
Yes, I probably should read the book since I am writing a story about it. I have tried. I have picked up Proust more than a few times. I am usually asleep by page twenty. There are three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, each over a thousand pages.
It is no secret why mom reads Marcel Proust. My Greek mother is a Francophile. She loves the civilized aura of Paris and all things French. When she could read Proust with comprehension, I suspect she loved reading about the lives and thoughts of French aristocrats. As a child, I remember Mom listening to cassette tapes and practicing French phrases with my sisters. I remember the uncomfortable French loveseat in our living room. Dozens of French cookbooks in the kitchen cupboard. Impressionist art books on the coffee table. Later in life, she took trips to Paris and Provence with Dad.
Sitting beside her this morning, I look and reflect on her with clinical eyes. I watch her breathing start and stop, identifying the Cheyne- Stokes pattern. Her fatigue and sleepiness: is it the disease, depression, or the medicines she takes? The restless leg movements under the blankets are not restless legs syndrome, but dyskinesias from her Parkinson medicines.
I look around her bedroom. Her wheelchair is in the corner. Another volume of Proust on the bedside table, along with her cereal bowl. Through a large window next to her bed, there is an amazing view of the Blue Ridge mountains. The morning light shines through the white plantation shutters.
As an adult, I understand why Mom embraced everything French, and minimized her Greek heritage. She grew up in a blue collar steel town near Pittsburgh, where Greeks and other ethnic groups experienced prejudice and exclusion. She wanted to forget the pain of her childhood. She wanted a better life for my sisters and me, one informed by a liberal arts education, and an appreciation for civility.
“Mom, it’s a beautiful day. I love you, Mom.”
Louder, “Mom, I love you.”
No answer. I straighten her sheets again. I bend over the rail and kiss her forehead.
As I walk out the bedroom door, I pause and look at Mom one more time. She is resting comfortably; at peace, and so am I. Though I have tears in my eyes, it is a joyful sorrow. Gone are the French tapes, French conversations, and trips to Paris. Gone is almost everything but Remembrance of Things Past that rests over her heart, a joyful reminder of what Mom passed on to me: a passion for literature, learning, writing, and a zest for life; and, ironically, a passion for rediscovering my own Greek heritage and faith.
- My mother died December 13, 2016. The three volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past rest on my bookshelf, a remembrance of wonderful things past in the life of my mother.
DEAN GIANAKOS, MD, FACP, is the Director of Medical Education at Centra Health in Lynchburg, Virginia. He also teaches internal medicine in the Lynchburg Family Medicine Residency. He frequently writes and lectures on the patient-physician relationship, end-of-life care, and the medical humanities.