Just shy of seventy, Alex Witchel's brilliant, adoring, ultra-capable college professor mother began to exhibit undeniable signs of dementia. She became forgetful and easily agitated. She gave the same lecture twice, and was forced to retire. How did her brilliant, adoring, ultra-capable, ace reporter daughter cope? At first with denial: If something was broken, well, with the best medical help money could buy they would figure out how to fix it, and restore Mom to all her former sharpness and glory. Even as medical reality undid that hope, the habit of longing persisted in its most primal form: 'As my mother began the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, I retreated to my kitchen, trying to reclaim her at the stove. Is there any contract tighter than a family recipe?' While reproducing the perfect meatloaf was no panacea, it helped Alex to come to terms with her predicament, the increasingly common phenomenon of 'ambiguous loss', loss of a beloved one who lives on. Gradually she developed a deeper appreciation for all the ways the parent she was losing lived on in her. Her mother's discipline, love of truth, and before-her-time independence, along with her top two Commandments, 'May you be brilliant' and 'Tell me everything that happened today', were destined to breed a crack journalist. Alex came to see, the boundless hope and love with which she was raised allowed her to become a loving wife and stepmother, transcending the essential loneliness that her mother, crippled both physically and emotionally in childhood, never quite shed. When grief and helplessness became overwhelming, it was her mother, her steel-trap mind grasping just how it was coming undone, who helped her to accept the inevitable. 'There's nothing you can do because it's not up to you,' she would say. 'You're here with me now. That's enough.'
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