Deloris Belton, pictured at her home in St. Louis in the 1980s.
Belton family photo

Now, are you someone I’m supposed to know?

She’s nice enough on the phone. Pleasant, even. So pleasant that it could be normal if you wanted to pretend. But then, she’s always been nice, always liked to talk, even if she had nothing to say. This was no different, although these days she has good days and bad days. Before my father put her on the phone, I asked if she was in a good mood. Today was one of the good days, he said, so he gave my mother the phone, and there she was.

Just happy to be here. Laughing at nothing.

“Hi, Mommy,” I said, like I used to say it when I was little. High-pitched and chipper. Youthful and hopeful.

“Hi, Mommy,” she chirped back to me, parroting my tone.

That wasn’t the right response. My heart fell. It was a “good” day, but she’d gotten worse. Just a few months ago, she could still recognize my voice, sometimes. But now the memory of my voice, of me, was finally gone.

“So you’re one of the people I’m supposed to know?” she said, chuckling.

“This is Danielle,” I said.

“Danielle,” she repeated to me, as if she were thinking about it.

“Your daughter,” I said.

Our conversation was brief. She laughed, a lot, at nothing in particular. When I told her work was good, she laughed. When I told I was in good health and the weather was nice, she laughed. She asked me where I was and I told her Washington, D.C.; she laughed.

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“Oh,” she said, laughing. “Well, I’m sure you’re busy and I don’t want to keep you.”

My mother is still here with us, but her mind left us long ago. Dementia has robbed her of her memories and personality, leaving behind a woman who looks exactly like my mother and sounds exactly like my mother but is no longer my mother. She’s also no longer my father’s wife, her mother’s daughter, a sister to her many siblings, a niece to her surviving aunt and uncle, a grandmother to her only grandchild, or any of the things that made her just her, that made her Deloris—or, as her family called her, Babyray, the person we all loved.

It’s a testament to how good she was as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, niece, grandmother and friend that everyone still calls, everyone still visits, everyone still wants to see her even though she couldn’t care less who we all are. My father and sisters look after her back in St. Louis while I’m just a voice on a phone, hiding from everything.

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My father tells me, repeatedly, to live my life because that’s what he wants, that’s what she would have wanted if she were still herself. He has been telling me this since 2009, when I left home for the second time in my life to move to D.C. Even though she wasn’t sick then, I felt bad about leaving my parents because they were getting older. I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. I wanted to take care of them. But there also wasn’t any work for me as a writer in St. Louis.

So I left.

When my friend Toya passed away almost two years ago from colon cancer, the thing I lamented the most was that when she went, she took all her memories with her. All the things that made her who she was were lost to the world. It’s the same with my mother, only she lives on, oblivious of what she’s lost, and of what she continues to lose every day.

Who is the keeper of your mother’s memories when she can’t remember them?

My mother comes to me in my dreams. In the dreams she is always leaving me, us, our family, and I’m angry with her because she is cold and unforgiving. But at least in the dreams she is herself. Not the side of her that I liked, but she is “Deloris.” In the last dream I had about her, she was divorcing my father, to whom she’s been married for more than 40 years. She was youthful-looking, clad in a stylish gold dress, and her curly hair was immaculately laid. She looked beautiful—cold and distant—but beautiful. And in the dream, she yelled at me the way she used to when I was a teenager, when we used to get into these terrible fights where she would badger me until I was in tears, utterly destroyed. In the dream, I told her how angry I was at her for leaving us, but it made no difference. She was still going.

I honestly would have preferred a world where my mother still possessed her mind, even if it was only the side of her that I didn’t like. I wish she had just abandoned all of us like in my dream because the greatest tragedy of losing her, of dementia, is that she is lost to herself. If she’d just been like how she was in my dream, she’d still be Deloris and all the things that made her, her.

Deloris, who liked arguing politics and was once labeled a “militant” parent because she pushed so hard for the better education of black children in her neighborhood.

Deloris, who was talkative, outgoing and friendly, but at her core, still a shy Southern girl from Arkansas.

Deloris, who liked to be No. 1 in your heart even as she was pissing you off.

Deloris, who never said a curse word, but whose favorite comedian was Richard Pryor and loved the raunchiest, dirtiest blues music known to mankind.

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Deloris, who wore high heels everywhere and wore makeup to everything, who was a voracious reader and thinker, who loved children, holidays, pecans and shopping malls, who talked to everyone as if they were her best friend even if she had no idea who they were.

She has no idea who I am now, but on the phone and in person, she still pretends. She still tries to sound as if we could be the best of friends, and I want to be best of friends, but she forgets our friendship now, mere minutes after it’s been forged.

“Are you someone I’m supposed to know?” she asked me the last time we spoke.

Today, to my mother, my sisters and I are kind strangers. Our father is “that guy.” Her grandson is some “handsome young boy.” She forgets to call her mother, who is dealing with the horror and indignity of having your own child forget you while you’re still living. My sisters, father and I try to find humor where we can. We’ve all come to accept what has become of her in our own ways. Mother’s Day is still Mother’s Day even if she’s forgotten that she was a mother. We remember for her. Remind her. Love her. We are the keepers of her memories now. We’re the ones who tell her story.

We’re the ones who celebrate her while she’s still here, even though she’s gone.