Nonfiction by Marion Agnew

Let d Be the Distance Between Us

a = My Favorite Paper

            I’m leaving my parents’ house after staying with them for the Christmas holidays. My mother hugs and kisses me. “I’m so glad you came. After all, you’re my favorite paper.”

            I beam. “Of course I am. And you’re my favorite mother.”

            In recent days, my mother has turned to me with childlike trust when she feels overwhelmed by all the strangers in her house, strangers who are her own grown children and her young grandchildren. Her guard is down; she is vulnerable. At last, she needs me.

            She has Alzheimer’s Disease.

b = What Did You Miss?

            My mother was once that parent, the one who says “What did you miss?” when the child scores 99% on a test. That happened to me, only it was a 97 in 8th-grade algebra.

            It wasn’t just tests, either. At age eight or even eighteen, I’d sit at the dining room table, hunched over my homework. My mother would pass through the room, and I’d cringe because I knew what was coming.

            “How’s your long division?” she’d ask—or perhaps it was algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or calculus.

            “Oh, fine,” I’d say. “Just finishing up.” Then I’d sit back and try to close my notebook, but I was never quick enough.

            “Let’s see here,” she’d say, standing behind me. And then it was over. The Teacher had appeared, and that meant The Daughter had become an Idiot.

            She’d sigh. “Well, that one’s not right. And the rest of these are all wrong, too. Look, first, you need to sharpen your pencil. I don’t know how you can possibly think properly with a pencil that dull. Never mind erasing here, just start on a fresh piece of paper. Yes, start over completely. Now, why did you think this was the right way to begin? You’re like my students, just copying what I write on the board without really stopping to think. I don’t know how you’re ever going to learn if you insist on doing that.”

            The notebook page would blur as my eyes filled. I’ll never get it right.

            Now I understand what my mother explained then, that what I didn’t know was important, that spotlighting what I missed is how a test or homework showed me what I still needed to learn. Even at the time, I understood this concept, intellectually.

            But I also understand now, as I felt back then, that there’s a lot to be said for celebrating what’s right before focusing on what’s wrong, for recognizing competence and achievement before searching out and analyzing mistakes.

c = What You Have to Do

            Ever since I can remember, I’ve flipped through photos from my mother’s childhood in an effort to know the woman beyond the Mom who so dominated my early life.

            I’ve tried to imagine what life was like when my mother was the little girl in bloomers and woolen stockings with a hole at the knee, delightedly cuddling a newly hatched seagull.

            The brilliant young woman graduating with a university degree in mathematics in the late 1930s, listening with her father and sister to war news on the radio.

            The glowing newlywed, reunited at the end of the Second World War with her naval officer husband after a few weeks together and then 27 months apart.

            The new mother whose first baby died the day it was born, who handled her grief by taking a teaching job the next week.

            These women in my mother lived before I was born. Each continued to live, frozen inside white borders and secured between thick black sheets of scrapbook paper, but her experiences had long been assimilated into the composite woman, the Mom I knew. The woman who taught graduate students and pursued her own research interests, ran a strict household, and raised my four siblings and me.

            When I’d find a photo of something from my mother’s life that I thought might bring up a sad or difficult memory—perhaps a picture of Grandma in her later years—I’d linger over it. How would Mom see this picture? When I felt particularly brave, I’d show it to her, and she’d tell a story of her mother’s dementia, of clearing out their family home, of Grandma’s funeral.

            I’d ask, “Were you afraid? Was it hard for you?”

            She’d think for a moment. “Well, you just do what you have to do. Then you go on.”

            Yes, okay, I would think. But was it hard? Were you afraid?

d = My Darling Girl

            My grandmother used to call my mother “my darling girl,” but my grandmother also developed dementia. By the time my mother was in her early 40s, Grandma no longer knew who she was.

            I was in my late 30s when my mother’s diagnosis came—a grown woman, as my mother had been—but not old enough. Then again, perhaps no age would be old enough.

e = Write Down What You Know

            Not every homework session ended with me in tears. She taught me how to approach “word problems,” those difficult scenarios that made you apply concepts.

            “Start by writing down what you know,” she’d say. “A train is travelling at an average of 60 miles per hour. That means the speed—call it s—is equal to 60. Write that down.”

            I’d write s = 60.

            “Another way to say it is ‘Let s equal 60.’ You might see that in other problems. Okay, now look at what else this says. It takes 5 hours for the train to go from one town to the other. And that means…?”

            With a little more prompting, I’d let t be the time—5 hours. So t = 5. And I could read that what we wanted to know—x—was how far apart the towns were. Using s and t, the speed and time, I could solve for x.

            “We use x generally to mean something we don’t know,” Mom pointed out. “In this case, you could also call it d, for distance.”

            Little by little, I learned to see how mathematical symbols could replace English to represent what happened in the problem. A translation, of a sort.

            “It’s all in how you set up the problem,” Mom would say. “After you get it set up correctly, the rest is just work.”

            It’s taken me many decades to understand a little of her symbols, her language. Now I try to remember that her nagging came from her belief that I could do anything and everything, even though she never just said so. Instead, she let me know by telling me that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t measuring up.

f = The Meanest Mom Ever

            When I was in junior high, I talked with a friend about a substitute teacher. “She’s really mean,” I said. “I sure would hate it if she were my mother.”

            My friend turned to me in surprise. “Oh, we all think your mother is the meanest mom ever.”

            I flushed with shame. “Meaner than this teacher?” I knew the answer but couldn’t believe it until I heard it.

            “Oh yeah,” said my friend with cheerful sympathy. “We don’t know how you stand it.”

            I didn’t know what to say. She was my mother, so of course I loved her, however “mean” she seemed, however much I might not like her in any particular moment. I never found a way to explain that. Or defend her, for that matter.

g = Egg Whites + Sugar

            I know in my head that my mother has Alzheimer’s disease, but somehow I’m still surprised, and my heart hurts, when I see these changes in the take-charge woman she used to be.

            Earlier during those Christmas holidays, I’d noticed that she doesn’t understand the words she’s reading aloud.

            “Mare-in-gyoo,” says the woman who studied French for years, looking at meringue on a menu. Suspicion curls her upper lip. “Well, I don’t know about that,” she huffs, as if egg whites and sugar are conspiring against her.

            She can’t follow a recipe. They have too many steps, and she gets sidetracked while cooking. She can’t follow the thread of a narrative, so she can’t lose herself in her beloved mystery novels. She needs to be entertained, as a child does, because her own thoughts can’t keep her company anymore.

            At our weekly phone calls, I have to add “This is your younger daughter” after I say my name, to try to make my abstract presence more real to her.

            Those tiresome “stages of grief,” though applied far beyond their original context, remain my familiars. Sometimes I feel them all at once. Anger at the disease, the horror of it. Denial that Mom has moved abruptly from “mild” to “moderate” Alzheimer’s and requires more care than my 81-year-old father can give, though he won’t accept help. Bargaining that if I do the right things, if I can just channel some magic, she’ll get well. Depression, at imagining life without her, which congeals into a stark, black envy at seeing two or three generations of mothers and daughters, talking together.

            And fleeting moments of acceptance, when I can see the changes in my relationship with my mother as a reprieve—not by any means a “gift,” but a chance to close a little of the distance between us.

            Because at last, her expectations of me have changed. It’s enough, for her, that I’m there with her at the holidays, helping her plan and put together meals, my familiar face helping smooth her interactions with our extended family.

h = Solve for x

            The Christmas holiday when I am christened her “favorite paper” serves as a beginning, of a sort. Throughout the next months, as Mom continues to change, I try ever harder to stay connected to her. The concept of email is incomprehensible to my parents; however, they appreciate receiving mail. My father reads letters to her after supper. It’s a highlight of their day.

            And so almost every day, I mail an inane note: “Dear Mommy, I saw two pelicans on my way to work today. I didn’t know they lived in the middle of Colorado. They were on the pond where I’ve seen the duck family.”

            The trivial, the mundane are now the substance of our communication. I hope that by babbling about my own genuine delight in sunny days, beautiful snowfalls, and mountains that appear from behind clouds as if by magic, I can share her return to a life of “this moment.” A form of childhood.

            Our phone conversations stretch my imagination, because I can’t rely on her words. She’ll say, “We have the most beautiful picters, one over…by the, at the, there, and the other a good ways, maybe, oh, half a one, or a three, a third of the way down the octer, and it has one, two, three on it.”

            Solve for x. It helps that I visited at Christmas. “Three blooms on the begonia, in front of the window? That’s great, Mom; you must be taking good care of it. And the geranium, by the door—how is it doing?”

            As time passes, I have to listen even more carefully. I picture myself standing where she is standing in the house. What could she be pointing at? A new picture by the clock? New placemats on the table? Is it something that’s really new, or something that simply caught her attention at that moment?

            I search the tones of her voice for clues—sadness or worry or pleasure. Although she almost always has trouble with nouns, sometimes she can still pull out entire coherent phrases or sentences, usually social niceties. “It’s good to see you.” “I enjoy talking with you.” “That’s just great.”

            “And what are you doing these days?” she sometimes asks.

            Oh boy, today is a good day. “Well, I work at a publishing company, editing books. They’re kind of like the ones you wrote on number theory and linear algebra.” Our conversation feels so stilted, but I can’t help myself. I want to remind her of who she was, to see if anything triggers memories or even just enjoyment.

            She responds, “Oh, and I expect you’re good at that.”

            I smile. A compliment! “You know how it is, Mom, they never turn out the way I want them to. I always see something I could have done differently.”

            She laughs. Laughs! “Well, I’ve been trying to, like that, for, a long time. I…it’s….” She wants to say more but can’t seem to get started.

            I help her. “I know, I know—when I figure out how to make it perfect the first time, I’ll give you a call.”

            Amusement bubbles in her voice. “Yes, thanks, you do that,” she answers.

            Sometimes, of course, I can’t decipher her meaning (let d be the distance between us) and we’re both frustrated.

            But always when we end the conversation, she says, “We’ll have to get together soon, and I’ll enjoy that a lot,” and I bless those phrases that remain. I try to remember that the love stretching between us isn’t as tenuous as our ability to express it.

            I admire her courage in staying on the phone, valiantly trying to participate in a conversation she can’t fully follow, to be with people she knows must belong to her somehow.

i = It’s Just Work

            After I hang up the phone, I sit for a moment, letting the tears come—one for each of the women she’s been, the ones I’ve known and the ones I didn’t get to meet.

            Sometimes I even wish for math homework, just so she could teach me again.

            I also want to thank her, though I’m not sure exactly what for—for believing in me, in her own way? For being the meanest mom ever? For telling me that I’m her favorite paper?

            Those last thoughts make me laugh, but then the knot in the pit of my stomach grows again. There’s so much ahead that I don’t know how to handle.

            So, I’ll start by writing down what I do know. Maybe then I’ll be able to frame the problem correctly. After that, it’s just work, and I’ll do what I have to do—accept even more changes in my mother, until all the women she ever has been exist only in photos and in memories. Solve for d, the distance between us, for as long as I can.

Marion Agnew lives and writes in Shuniah, Ontario, Canada, in an office a few metres from Lake Superior. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in literary journals in Canada and the US (and cyberspace), been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and anthologized in Best Canadian Essays. She is collecting essays about her mother’s illness into a book-length manuscript, which has received support from the Ontario Arts Council. More about her is at

Kristi DiLalloComment