The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood
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In the Dementia Center by Tammy Haaland

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Today when I visit my mother at the dementia center, one of the residents convinces several of her companions there is a cat on a nearby roof. She can see it, she says, and I assure her that I can see it too, though I’m pretty sure she’s talking about a dark vent that stands out against surrounding gray shingles. Others say they see it, and then they begin to worry about the poor cat. I tell her that cats are resourceful and this one surely knows a way down.

Later, one of the women shows us something on her shirt. She often makes motions as if she is winding yarn into a ball. Sometimes she takes chair cushions or bedding and carries them around. I recently discovered she was an artist in her former life. One of her paintings, a forest scene from the Olympic Peninsula, hangs in the hallway. Her words are always unclear, and the next time she comes through the room, her shirt is gone.

Things are changeable in my mother’s new world, but since everyone forgets, dogged consistency is unnecessary. Meals are regular and I’m grateful to the young caregivers who go beyond simple cleaning and feeding to wrap their arms around the residents, tuck them in, kiss them goodnight. My mother’s caregivers tease her, which is perfect. Mom is full of wise cracks. She rarely fails to see the humor in a situation and is pretty happy to be kidded out of any bad mood she finds herself in.

This was not the case when I brought her here. My brothers and I juggled to keep her in her home for as long as we could, then she stayed with my family, and I became the one who helped her into bed at night, held her hand, kissed her forehead just as she must have done for me when I was very little. When things fell apart, I moved her to the dementia center. When we arrived, she was interested in this new place, but when I wheeled her into her room and she saw her things, it became apparent to her that she was to stay, and she was angry. She turned away, refusing to talk, then told me it was a “raw deal.” I could see she felt betrayed.  I told her I couldn’t take care of her anymore, that she needed more than I could provide. Despite forgetfulness, her emotions are intact. And her imagination. That day when I left, she followed me as best she could, yelling for me to bring her car.

But now she has mostly adjusted, and the busyness of her fellow residents provides her with the comfort of other people nearby as well as a variable, dependable world. Everything seems new, so there’s no time to move obsessively into agitation, though here I oversimplify. Some days are harder than others, and I’m still wondering if there’s a way to do more for her.

Recently, my mother’s imagination allowed her to create this story to explain why she arrived in this place.  She was running and running during a storm. She was so tired but she kept going, and when it was over, someone found her in a ditch and brought her here. It’s nearly a miracle, she says, that she survived.


Tami Haaland’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including 5AM, High Desert Journal, Letters to the World, and Poets of the American West. Her collection of poetry, Breath in Every Room, won the Nicholas Roerich First Book Award. She teaches English at Montana State University Billings.

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