On the table is a puzzle with the funny face of a dog wearing glasses. Even though much of the puzzle is unfinished, it is easy to imagine what the picture will eventually become. Puzzling gives us an activity to share with my Mom who likes to sit, have a cup of tea and move pieces around while we try to build it.

Recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what pieces remain of my Mom, the Mom I knew growing up; the Mom I used to turn to when I needed help. While outwardly, she still looks like my beautiful Mom, there are many crucial pieces missing. Unlike the puzzle we are working on together, my Mom seems to be losing pieces of herself every day. Today, she forgot how to put on her shoes and needed help walking down the hall. Yesterday, she didn’t know how to write her name or even what it was.

In spite of those missing pieces, what remains is her sunny personality, her easy smile and her desire to help. All of her years serving as a missionary in Japan, being a Mom, a Social Worker and a Grandma have left her asking repeatedly, “Can I help you with something?” She says it so often and with such enthusiasm that I eagerly look for a simple chore for her to do but more often than not, she has forgotten the offer before I figure out something she can still manage. Sometimes she can set the table and does it better than Rocky who never seems to get the fork or spoon in the right places. (Jeez, Honey.) Yesterday, she could fold a pillow case but today she can only sit and stare. Maybe tomorrow she will be able to sort the socks in the basket of clean laundry, or not.

Last week, in a study group I’m attending on the Bhagavad Gita, we were encouraged to contemplate our Atman, or Inner Self, asking “Who Am I?”  It is not uncommon for all of us to identify with our physical bodies, our jobs, our marital status, our gender, our sexual preference, our country of origin,  or even our favorite activities. But what is really at our core, our True Essence? What is the part of ourselves that is unchanging, always peaceful and able to witness our choices and how they affect us without reacting?

This personal meditation led me to also wonder what is the essence of my Mom? As she slowly loses the parts of herself that identified her as my mom, what is left at her core? At her soul level she still wants to be of service, even as her physical body and her mind fail her. When she stops talking mid-sentence and stares  over my shoulder, I try to remind myself that she is probably communing more with the Spirit World now and is therefore less interested in what I’m saying or what is happening around her.

Don’t we laugh and tell ourselves our babies are smiling at angels when they stare into space? I want to believe that my Mom is having a similarly sweet exchange with cherubs that only she can see. I’m guessing that what will remain of my Mom as the final pieces drop away will be a smile, as she asks me one last  time, “Can I help you?” And I will be reminded that her True Self, the real essence of who she was, the only piece that really mattered, remained present until the last breath.