Saturday, December 27, 2008
(This post was originally a piece I wrote just for myself the week I went home to help my dad move my little mum into the Greenwood Center in May of 2004. Mom had been in declining health for several years as a result of dementia. She was a sweet little thing and a really good mom. She died one year ago today. Thank you for reading. I know it's a wee bit long. I wish I had more of the pictures scanned so I could include them.
I’ve heard it said that when a person is drowning, their entire life flashes before their eyes in a matter of seconds. I don’t think it takes drowning to do it. Sometimes, it just takes watching an 83 year-old woman to do it, too.
After days and days of rain, the sun now shines from behind white clouds in a blue sky. It is my mother’s second day in a nursing home just a mile or two down the road from her home. I watch her as she sleeps. She’s a tiny thing. She seems tinier still as she lies in this bed. She is not aware of her left hand as it finds its way to the usual comfortable spot on her cheek, her pinky finger seemingly separate from the others as it rests across her lips. It’s a position I’ve watched absently for many years, but have only come to realize is “Mom’s” in recent months. Each time I notice it now, I see photographs snap by in my mind as I picture her in this same position, only in my memory she is sitting in a rocker, not laying in a bed.
In my mental photo album, she sits in her rocker holding babies, rocking them to sleep to the familiar humming of a tune of which she’s never known the title. I’ve often contemplated ways to determine its origin, yet I hesitate, wondering if knowing will take away the sweet mystery of it. It’s a melody Mom has hummed while holding her babies, grandbabies, and my own two bundles. It’s the melody she used to soothe them all.
I turn a page of memories. There she is, learning to ride a bike for the first time. I’m about thirteen, my younger sister five or six. Mom must be 49 or 50. It’s my sister’s bike, a lavender one with one of those silly banana seats and elongated handlebars. Somehow, Mom doesn’t seem out of place with her gray hair rustling in the wind and her bony knees jutting as her muscles push hard against the pedals. We laugh. My sister claps in excitement. Mom did it! She really did it! We would experience this same excitement several years later when Mom finally got her driver’s license. “Grandma D” would be her choice of license plate until she felt like a marked woman by the local police department, more her imagination than anything else. That plate would later be changed to something non-descript, easing her mind a bit. My guess would be the Sanford PD still knew when she was on the road. Mom was never comfortable behind the wheel of a car. She drove only a few years, finally giving up after the side of her silver Buick Skylark showed the bump, bump, bump of intimate contact with a telephone pole after turning a corner on her way home from church.
I steal another glance at her sleeping form, my eyes resting on her once-silver hair, now much closer to white. I travel back to the day in 5th grade when Mom came to Notre Dame School to be a lunchtime monitor. Inside a brown paper bag was the lunch she brought me--a tuna sandwich, slightly warm, the lettuce a bit wilted. Had she brought a gourmet meal I could not have eaten, my stomach in knots wondering what my friends would say about this gray-haired lady, such silly imaginings of the paranoid running through my brain. “Is that your grandmother?” “Why is your mother so old?” “Why is her hair that color?” It is funny how the subject of such paranoia—my mother’s gray hair—would turn into such a source of pride. I wear my silver inheritance proudly, giving credit where credit is due—“I got it from my mom!” my mantra. I've loved my silver hair since the first strand visited when I was 18.
Quickly, pictures change to my wedding day. It’s a perfect Maine day in late August. Mom and I are in the basement of the church waiting for the moment we are to move upstairs to the sanctuary. She looks at me, studying my face for a long moment. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” she says to me with all seriousness. I look back at her, realizing that she is speaking it to me, but wishing she’d known to say it to my sister, Suzanne, as well. I love her so much in this moment, knowing she is saying the same to me without so many words. “I’m okay, Mom,” I say as we climb the stairs to where my Dad is waiting. Mom links her arm in mine, Dad takes my hand and the three of us walk together down the aisle.
More quickly now, the pages turn. I remember…the day when I was ten and mom had a big feast for my brother’s friends. Candlelight, spaghetti, and laughter abounded. Mom hurries into the kitchen to find what she smells burning. A glance in the mirror above the sink proves it is her own hair, smoldering with the telltale sign of having bent just a little too closely to the candles on the dining room table. Another feast, Thanksgiving, I think, and I hear my brother Ernie yell once, twice, three times, “Would somebody pleeeezze pass the mashed potatoes?” only to find that this much beloved favorite somehow never made it to the stove top. A temporary pause of disbelief by those at the table is met by the laughing voice of my mother as she roars, “Oh! I forgot to cook them!”
The pictures running through my mind surprise me, that it is these memories which flash by in an instant. So many other memories I think might come instead: the tender moments spent encouraging an insecure teenager; the regard felt as she warmly opened her home to anyone brought there; the familiarity experienced within moments of walking through her doorway; the tears she shed over the unrealized slight of a child or the harsh word of a relative; the agony of watching her child close to death. Her voice comes to me. “Offer it up to God, Jan!” “Oh, it must be mental telepathy! I was just thinking of you!” “Has anyone seen my purse?” These thoughts also come, not in a flash, but in moments lost in thought traveling back over the years.
One more memory comes. It is a picture of my mom sitting on her bed, her Bible on her knees. I want to touch the picture with my finger for the image is so vivid. The Bible she holds is one of those massive Catholic Bibles frequently given as wedding presents in her day. It swallows up her lap. Her fingers slowly skim the page. She is seeking comfort. She is seeking peace, the agony she feels etched in the lines of her face. I know this intuitively as an eight year old. Little children have big ears. We know more than is realized.
The images and memories pause. I sit in the chair beside her bed, brought back by sounds in the hallway, the quiet hustle and bustle of caregivers going about their business. Once more, I look at her face, her eyes closed, sleep undisturbed. A nursing assistant stops in briefly to check on her. She leaves and once more I’m drawn into thought, but this time the memories come more slowly. My heart brims with love for this frail being lying in bed. I see that I am slowly losing her to this nasty disease called dementia. I’m sad, but oh, so grateful. She has been a good mom and such a faithful servant: to her family, to friends, to God. It is from her I received the foundation of a faith deeply rooted. It is from her I learned about God. It is from her I learned to lean on a power greater than myself. It is that gift from her that allows me to release her into the hands of Jesus. It is because of this that I can “offer her up to God”.
Love you, Mom.