Something was wrong. I was playing Words With Friends with my mother and I was winning.
We'd been playing the game together … at night … in our separate houses … 11 miles apart … for more than a year. It was always the same. I would come up with words like “Pro” for six points and she would counter with “Pyxes” for 104 points … and then she would send me a note over the game's little messaging system with an apology.
She always felt bad about winning.
She'd often joke that I'd taken so long coming up with my plays that she'd had to let the game select strangers for her to play with as she waited. She liked that she could juggle 12 games at once.
For a few days, though, her plays were taking longer and resulting in smaller scores. It. Was. Here.
She told me she'd been having trouble finding words in her letters, but I'd just assumed she'd gotten a load of vowels and no consonants … or something like that. It's an excuse I've used all the time to explain my pathetic strategizing.
I wanted to believe her because the thought also crossed my mind that she was letting me win.
Some things we leave unspoken.
When she called on the phone and told me she was having trouble writing an email to a relative, I just assumed she meant that she didn't know what to say. She hated email. She felt self conscious writing sentiments.
We. All. Do. That.
But that wasn't it.
She confessed she'd started putting the tiles into spaces and letting the game tell her if she'd made a word or not. I've done that so many times, I now know that “Qi” is life energy – the central underlying principal in traditional Chinese medicine, thank-you-very-much.
But. Not. Her.
These. Were. The. Words. She. Had. Been. Guessing. Words she could have spelled in her sleep.
It had taken me four days to understand that my mother, who did four crossword puzzles a day, who had the best vocabulary of anyone I knew, couldn't spell simple words.
Oh. My. God.
“Mom, you need to go to a hospital. You may have had a stroke.”
She tried to dismiss it. “I haven't had a stroke,” she said, worried she'd spend all day in an emergency room only to have a smiling resident confirm her worst fear: This was the beginning of dementia.
But she was also a nurse. She knew that stroke doesn't always come with severe headache, unilateral weakness or slurring of speech. It can be silent, too.
My father took her to the emergency room.
Turns out she'd had several strokes all over her brain.
Still we thought the news was good. No one could have known she'd had a brain injury. When she left the hospital a few days later she was in good spirits. She was walking, talking and conversing rather normally.
She still played Words With Friends.
But it was frustrating. Words didn't come any easier with time. She worried that it was getting worse. I joked that the only reason I was winning was because she'd had a stroke. I assured her things would improve.
I never imagined it would get worse. She'd already stopped playing strangers and now she couldn't read the buttons. She kept resigning games instead of submitting plays. The buttons confused her.
Eventually she stopped playing all together.
Her decline was so precipitous, it was as if she had slipped away as we were talking and someone only vaguely familiar took her place.
But hope persists. My father kept saying “it could be worse” even as it was getting worse.
I searched the Internet, I spoke with family and friends who’ve had similar experiences or who work in medicine. We had some success in finding root causes of her worsening condition, treated them, but nothing turned around. Not the way we'd hoped.
Doctors spoke of new baselines and tough roads ahead. Long-term care was something we, like many families, couldn't have predicted. Not even a few months ago.
I just kept thinking about that first diagnosis, and how the doctor had remarked no one who didn't know her would have noticed the difference.
Now she doesn't recognize me until I tell her my name.
Sometimes I think this is the saddest moment of our lives together. Me and my mom.
But then she smiles at me with her familiar crooked smile …
and she tries to spell something.
And I realize:
She's still in the game.
She's still my mother.