Dr. Vincent Muli Kituku: As memory fails, Mother’s Day becomes bittersweet

May 11, 2013 

Neither I nor my mother knows when these moments will occur. It is their increasing rarity that has made all other moments painful for a son whose mother is losing her memory. Then there is an element of uncertainty on whether to suffer quietly, as many people do, in fear of violating a loved one's sorrow or to use your own way of finding strength (share your experience with others) that seems to disappear when you can't help your mother.

My hesitation or dislike to call my mother in Kenya is a new development. What I didn't like in the past were phone calls from Kenya that came after midnight. They were to inform us that someone, a close family member, had died. It was before the current affordable telephone communication. The caller wasted no time in preparing you for instantly devastating news. "Tata ndambia nikwie Ngana ni wakwa." "Dad told me to tell you that Ngana has died."

That was it. And I was expected to call back immediately, even before processing what I just heard, to learn what killed my young brother, how long he had been sick and what measures had been taken to extend his life. When you have lost several siblings, you want to hold on to the surviving ones even more. The calls ended with my promise to send money for funeral expenses.

I now fear to call because my mother may not recognize me. She has those moments when she has no idea who she is or who anyone else is. I have been in her presence in several of those moments. You see this beautiful, strong and peaceful lady just gazing at you with an empty focus. It's an image of someone mentally searching for an elusive answer. Tears, a lump in your throat or sympathy doesn't help you. In those moments, you grieve for losing a living mother.

For me, the loss of my mother's memory is a disconnection with a part of who I am. She introduced me to God, taught me to read, write and do multiplication tables. It was her "faked" wonder of how I did chores that called for my extra efforts. "Ngumbau yakwa ko nutethasya wia wavata!" "My warrior, you do a valuable job!" Inspired by those words, I would thatch our mud house, harvest more corn, or fetch water with speed not common for a boy who would rather be playing with friends.

The sincerity of her appreciation for my family's support for her upkeep has been a force that can open any wallet with the owner left thankful for the opportunity to give. "Mwana wakwa, we nue mwaitu na nau. Keeka ti vaku, nithwa nathelile!" "My child, you are my mom and dad combined. Had it not been for you, I would have died!"

Not all lessons were taught with love, based on my judgment. When she found my brother and I stealing her sugar after climbing through a small passage between the wall and the roof of our locked house, we were given tea with no sugar for weeks. She once demanded that the principal spank me more, after he had already spanked me for playing bingo, which was forbidden in my primary school. That was before Dr. James Dobson popularized the concept of "Tough Love."

She told me stories whenever there was an opportunity, whether while cooking, washing clothes or rethatching our house. That introduced me to unsolved mysteries of life, such as where death came from or how weaklings defeated their tormentors with wit or simple physical maneuvers. Those were great sources of hope. But the role eventually changed as she joined my audiences, watched and listened to part of her intertwined with Western culture.

But in recent moments, when she doesn't know who I am, I ask her questions and write down her responses. She thinks her first born (me) is her young brother who died years ago and she was brought to America by one of my dead brothers. A few responses like that naturally take away the desire to ask more questions. I put the phone down, cry and hope the next moment will be meaningful.

Moments when we can cherish our shared journey have become rare and precious. The moments may not be on a Mother's Day, thus making any day my mother can remember that I am her son, my Mother's Day. God bless every mother and every day is a Mother's Day!

Dr. Vincent Muli Kituku is an author and speaker for business organizations, schools and Christian groups. Contact him at (208) 376-8724 or vincent@kituku.com.

The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.

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