The Heart of the Matter

A Swift Current Thankgiving essay and Storycorps The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Vuillard 1895

The things you push away the hardest when you’re young

You end up embracing when you get older…

  I just thought it was too claustrophobic

I had to get away

Now seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness…

 It moves me to tears…

                                                                                           ~Rosanne Cash


…And listen to this, Hallie. The professor said my paper was the best. It was so good–he put a copy in the library– he told the class everyone should read it!

Yes, mama, I know.

You know? How do you know?

You’ve told me that story before.

I have?

Yes, mama, you have…

He said my paper was…

…the best…yes, mama…I know.

We’ve all heard people repeat stories. Sometimes we smile and nod. Other times we change the subject. Often we sigh, stare, and simply

stop listening.

And when a person has dementia, the frequent repetition of unsolicited stories only seems to escalate.

My mother recounted her tales over– and over—and over again. Sometimes she would adopt a theme—the famous term paper but one example—and relive her triumph with every telling.

She could repeat a story for months; each time infusing it with unabashed excitement and exacting detail– as though it had just happened—

as though I had never heard it before.

And then one day, the story would simply disappear. To my great relief, I would never hear it again.

And now

I find myself digging into my memory–

desperate for details.

But I only find vague outlines –general topics, maybe—and the occasional catch-phrase. To my complete surprise, I need to fill in the colors–

what professor–which class—what topic?

But no matter how hard I try,

her stories are lost;

I will never hear them again.

I started writing A Swift Current with the hope that readers would glean insight from our experience. I have tried not to preach nor counsel nor advise. I want you to draw your own conclusions.

But now I am going to break my rule. I offer you one direct suggestion; in fact, it’s a command:

Grab your cell phone–find the “voice memos” app– hit the red button–


And what better time to start than Thanksgiving?

Family stories were the heart of our childhood Thanksgiving dinners. My grandfather sat at one end of our table; my grandmother’s sister at the other. After the last morsel was consumed, my parents would bring out an old dog-eared cardboard box filled with fading family photos. And for the next few hours, we would hear stories of our ancestors– people whose appearance inspired both awe and amusement-what with their serious expressions, funny moustaches and large feathered hats.

…a ship captain on the Great Lakes…

…crossed the plains in a covered wagon…

…elected Sheriff of Tucson…in 1860…

1860?  Somebody write this down!

But we never would. We were lucky if someone scrawled a name on the back of a photo.

But I remember the catch in my grandfather’s voice; the faraway expression in my father’s eyes; the affection in Tia’s husky laugh;

And for a moment, the funny-looking people in the photos would come alive. I learned their names; studied their poses; heard about bravery and sacrifice and determination.

And then I would forget all about them, until the next Thanksgiving.

Every holiday is a double edged sword;

the older I get, the sharper the edge.

Today I cannot think about Thanksgiving without remembering the table of my childhood

and people who are no more;

what I would give to hear their voices again.

This time

I would listen;

this time

I would remember.

And it would not matter one bit that, in her last decade, my mother’s words could be sensible and articulate; fantastical and demented; or confused and redundant–

I would record her voice;

I would capture her stories.

During the last three decades of my mother’s life, she no longer hosted the big holiday dinner. A guest at other tables, she professed to be relieved to no longer bear the responsibility.

But after her death, among her few remaining possessions, I found scrap of paper in her small bureau drawer.

In her handwriting, a shopping list;

from her nursing home bed,

my mother was making plans.

A Swift Current Thanksgiving list found in my mom's last papers

Thanksgiving list-a scrap of paper found among my mom’s last possessions



the richness, the beauty,

the connectedness…

There are some things I will never forget.

This is the story of how we begin to remember

 This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein

After the dream of falling and calling you’re name out

These are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.

                                   ~Paul Simon


A Swift Current Thanksgiving essay-and StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen

Pierre Bonnard Grande Salle a Manger Dans Le Jardin 1934-1935

THE GREAT THANKSGIVING LISTEN: As I was writing this post, I discovered that the day after Thanksgiving, November 27, 2015, has been designated the StoryCorps National Day of Listening. Or in their words, “Make history with us: interview an elder for the Great Thanksgiving Listen.” StoryCorps provides a special app; recordings made with the app will be housed in the oral history project of the Library of Congress. The StoryCorps website explains this project in detail, including sample questions. Here is the link: and I am grateful to my friend Lora, who originally introduced me to StoryCorps a few years ago with the gift of a book called Listening Is An Act of Love.

Family History: I was not surprised to learn that family stories have real value for future generations. Children who know their family’s history, including hardships and failures, are more likely to be able to weather difficult times in their own lives. For more information, see The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feller, the New York Times, March 15, 2013

The opening quotation is from the singer/composer Rosanne Cash, interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep– broadcast on January 13, 2014 with the release of her recording, The River and the Thread . I recommend entire interview:

The closing lyric is from “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon, copyright 1986 Paul Simon Music all rights reserved.


A Swift Current Interlude Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing...

Woman in the Countryside by Vuillard 1897-1899 Private Collection

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing,

     of just going along,

listening to all the things you can’t hear…

                                                                  ~ Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne

During the last few weeks, several people have asked: Did you write this summer?

The answer is yes, and no.

I wrote– but not about my mom. Of course, I thought about her every day. Some memories brought smiles; some brought tears.

But I didn’t commit any of it to paper.

I gave myself the summer off.

When I started writing A Swift Current, I wanted to share my experience with dementia and the death of an elderly parent—personal revelations which, at the time, I hadn’t seen discussed in any other forum.

And so for the last three years and 40 essays, I have shared our story here– the ravages and grace of dementia; our renewed and strengthened bonds; my searing grief over the loss of her.

My grief shocked me. I had thought her death would be a welcome relief—she was, after all, 95 years old. She had dementia. But after her death, the numbness of the initial months blossomed into an unexpected anguish.

I missed her–dementia or no dementia.

And while the intensity of my emotions has evolved, I still stumble. Five years later, I feel an unrequited longing I never imagined. I frequently replay scenes from our lives-the teenage years; the career years; the dementia years—

I see it all so clearly now.

We have so many expectations of our parents. When we’re young, we want them to be different. When they’re old, we want them to be how they always were.

During my mom’s decade of dementia, I slowly grew in my understanding—and even acceptance– of her illness. Despite her confusion and fantasies, turmoil and anger, I still saw the core of my mother in her fading and fragmented being–even near the end of her life. I wish I hadn’t been so frightened of her disease in the early years. I wish I could have accepted who she was, and who she was becoming.

My friend Kathleen Novak captures my hard-won perspective in her poem Clarity, written when her father first began to show signs of confusion. As I resume writing future essays for A Swift Current, I offer you Kathleen’s thoughtful, generous, realistic view of an aging parent—with remarkable Clarity.

He is ninety after all, so

not everything is in bright focus, like a photo snapped mid-afternoon,

not everything looks as clear as that, for example,

he may not know whatever day it is today,

possibly a Thursday, unless that was yesterday

and today is Friday, or he may not know exactly

when he is to fly out to visit his son

though he wrote it down somewhere and he will find it

because he remembers having that piece of paper

along with the monthly bills and statements, the insurances and taxes

he has those written down too, the amounts paid and due

but there is this blur of dates and times, of numbers and facts


He is ninety after all, though

certain particulars still remain in bright focus, for example,

a great good game when he wins, the memory

of everything important that ever happened in any decade

and the way it all stacked up, the rises and falls, the girls

he left for other girls, the time he got meningitis in Africa

and later when his daughter smashed the car,

when his son became a doctor, the first time he saw his wife

and asked her to dance and the night his father-in-law died during a storm,

and years before, when he looked for the babies’ graves with his old mother,


there’s no blur when it comes to the pure blue of an afternoon sky

or the threat of snow again, those hovering white clouds,

who is true and who is not, whose heart is open and whose is not

at ninety you have a different kind of clarity

at ninety, after all that,

you know what you know.

      ~Kathleen Novak

A Swift Current Interlude

You Know What You Know…Madam Vuillard and Her Daughter by Edgar Vuillard 1893 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Clarity, copyright 2011 by Kathleen Novak

Winnie the Pooh
, by A. A. Milne Copyright 1961 the Disney Corporation; original copyright Dutton Books

A Day in the Life

A Swift Current A Day In the Life--the power of the calendar

Beach Heart (a discovery on an otherwise ordinary day)– Photo by Hallie Swift


Every holiday– every birthday–

every year;

my mom was giddy with excitement.

In anticipation

I’d send a reminder to

cousins and friends;

her photo with a note:

hugs and kisses welcome here!

Year after year,

flowers and cards and visitors and candy

descended on the nursing home;

just the thought of it

made me giddy too.


A Swift Current A Day in the Life--the Power of the Calendar

They Say It’s Your Birthday–Photo by Hallie Swift


Now that she’s gone,

holidays and birthdays

stare at me

from the calendar page;

each promising to deliver

its own private havoc.

Standing in a checkout line,

(is it Mother’s Day already?)

I avert my eyes from

the greeting card display

but it’s too late.

I swat away tears

fumble coins

bungle amounts;

the customer behind me


with New York impatience.

I want to tell her

(this has never happened to you?)

it doesn’t take much to rattle me–

Father’s Day-

Easter baskets-




I know

I’m not the only one

upended by the innocuous.

(Facebook reminds me)

there’s no such thing as an ordinary day;

it’s always someone’s



or even

death day,

for that matter.

And these extraordinary

ordinary dates


on the page and

in our minds;

none of us escaping

the silent struggle

no one else can see;

more of us

in mourning

than you would ever know.


an ordinary,


winter’s day


(would have been)

my mother’s 100th birthday.

I proclaim her milestone

on Facebook

–the new village square–

a photo from our cross country drive

only months after my father died;

a widow at the age

I am now.

My mother turns toward the camera

a quintessential tourist pose,

the Grand Canyon behind her;




(or do I detect a rueful shadow in her half smile?)

Happy 100, Mama!

I hit post

and discover instantly

I am not done.

Suddenly galvanized

by the facts of her life,

I continue my exploration;

one by one

photo by photo

hour by hour

I recount the twists and triumphs

of 95 years.

With each addition,

a forgotten woman emerges,

my Mama.

And I realize:

until this day,

her last decade–

the decade of dementia–

had dominated my memories and

belied her life.

I had allowed the confusion, pain and grace of our final years

to become her whole story;

our whole story.

But she was so much more.

As I unbury my dead,

a chorus of cousins and friends

cheers my revelations–

helping me strike back

at a calendar filled with dread.

Dates loom large;

on the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth

her story challenged my grief;

my sorrow finally tempered by



and yes, even

giddy excitement.

That evening

my husband took me to dinner;

we raised our glasses high in the air

the end of an extraordinary ordinary day

Here’s to you, Mama

what a life—

happy 100!


nothing she did
or said

was quite
what she meant

but still her life
could be called a monument

shaped in a slant
of available light

and set to the movement
of possible music

(from “The Grandmother Cycle” by Judith Downing Converse Quarterly, Autumn)


A Swift Current A Day in the Life The Power of the Calendar

It’s My Birthday Too Yeah– Photo by Hallie Swift


They Say It’s Your Birthday, words and music by Lennon & McCartney, All Rights Reserved.

The excerpt from The Grandmother Cycle is from the opening pages of one of my all-time favorite books, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which explores the life of an “ordinary woman”…

Double Take

You say you will love me
If I have to go
You’ll be thinking of me
Somehow I will know…


A Swift Current Double Take whenever i see an owl, I see her

Halfway Through the Wood… Photo by Sylvia Ferrell-Jones

A quiet winter Sunday–

a charming photo on Facebook—

an owl peaks out from a tree.

I close my eyes

take in my breath


I want to thank my friend for

this fleeting moment—

this unexpected gift


“my mom LOVED owls”

is all I can muster.

I don’t add

her small collection of ceramic owls

was the first thing you saw

as you walked in the door of our childhood home;

or that my sister and I wore

owl pendants on our lapels

at the funeral.

And now

owls are


pillows and wallpaper and tshirts and stickers and notecards and calendars and ornaments and

A Swift Current wherever I go, I see owls

Oh My…Radish Moon creations by Sarah Nicholas Williams


And every single time,

I see her–

like a spark,

catching me off guard;




And it’s not only the owls;

–that would be too easy—

but again and again

just when I least expect it,

–there she is!–

tracing the shadows

just out of reach.

My eyes fall on a solitary figure

a half block away;

her coat–

her gait–

her hair!

I quicken my pace

but just before I call out

she turns her head.

Well, of course-

of course,

I knew that!

(you didn’t really think I’d call out, did you?)

But just for that instant…that flash of an instant…

(thank God I didn’t call out!)

A woman sits next to me in the theater;

she smiles, adjusts her wrap, studies the program

while her perfume takes me to your room

I sit on your bed feel your nervous tension my excitement too as you put on your party dress the babysitter arrives my chicken delight too my face nestled against your cool neck your sparkling earrings my goodnight kiss I promise to be good you look so pretty mama so very pretty please

don’t leave!

I duck into a diner–

a quick bite–

tuna fish salad on wheat toast please and yes, I want the potato chips;

there’s a catch in my throat

but this time I knew you were coming.

I can never order a tuna fish salad sandwich (on wheat toast)

without a catch in my throat

we pile into a booth at DuPars near the Broadway Wilshire or Hody’s at Hollywood & Vine back to school shopping I’m giddy your feet hurt we’re starving! and yes we want the potato chips and maybe even a root beer float…!

And now, mama,

my feet hurt too.

And maybe I understand, if only just a little, what it was like for you.

And how I never told you

all I meant to say.

I stare at the table;

the waitress sets down my plate

you need anything else, hon?

A woman walks down the street;

her perfume

her coat

her hair–

she turns away;

I smile.

Up the block

across the table

in the next seat

an owl peaks out from a tree.

You’ve been gone four years, mama

but you do not fade.

You ease my longing

dampen my sorrow

shelter me.

I still cry, mama

but not as much;

after all

how can I be sad

when you’re


just one




A Swift Current  Double Take I see owls everywhere!

Walking Down Lex…Photo by Hallie Swift


Opening quote from the song “Things We Said Today” words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney Copyright © 1964 Northern Songs All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured

Halfway Through the Wood photo by Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, copyright Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, all rights reserved. Used by permission. I entitled the photo with a not-so-vague reference to Stephen Sondheim’s No One Is Alone from Into the Woods…the song was the impetus for this essay.

Owl pillows and t-shirts are part of a line of products by illustrator Sarah Nicholas Williams, Radish Moon, all rights reserved. Used by permission. To view the magical Radish Moon creations (drawings and dishes and dolls, oh my!) see

And to readers who love the artist Vuillard as much I do, rest assured that I looked…but I don’t think he painted owls, or at least I couldn’t find one!

Thank You For Remembering Me!

A tall thin woman slowly edged her walker into my mother’s room. Her long silver hair was pulled in a braid, revealing bright blue eyes and high chiseled cheekbones

Are you Hallie Swift?

Yes, I’m Hallie.

She reached into her pocket, grasping a shiny gold lipstick tube

I’m Dorothy

She raised her arm high in the air;

giggling as she waved the lipstick back and forth;

her voice light, melodic

Oh Hallie, I just love my lipstick. Thank you for remembering me!

Merry Christmas!

In her monthly newsletter,

the head nurse had issued a plea—

she needed

Secret Santas

for residents with no families;

she wanted everyone in the nursing home

to find a present under the tree.

My friends and I discussed our gifts

…chocolates and sweaters and books with large print and stuffed animals and baseball caps and comforters and…

Lipsticks for the ladies!


Yes, my friend urged

after all, you never lose your vanity!

But let’s not give just one lipstick–

let’s get lipsticks for everyone!

So we asked friends coming to our Christmas party–

Please bring a lipstick for the ladies!

And with that, a tradition was born.

Year after year

we were showered with

Estee’s gorgeous reds, Chanel’s shimmering corals, Bobbi’s hot pinks;

small rectangular boxes adorned with bright paper and festive ribbons;

our own Christmas cornucopia–

we collected so many lipsticks;

I needed an extra suitcase for

the lipstick express!

On Christmas morning

each resident received

a beautiful little package–

Santa’s surprise!

A Swift Current Christmas lipstick for the ladies!

Lipstick! Photo by her granddaughter

The head nurse was effusive:

my residents are so happy–

And when my residents are happy, my nurses are happy–

And when my nurses are happy…

Well, girls, what can I say?

you made our Christmas!

And they made ours.

For many of us, the trip to buy lipsticks became a defining moment of our holiday season. One friend told me she and the Bloomingdale’s saleswoman shed tears as they selected the colors, then added every powder, polish and perfume sample in the department!

A small box;

a simple gesture;

the electricity of Christmas morning;

a gift

under the tree–

bright colors;

big smiles;


Silver braid

melodic laugh

she waves her lipstick high in the air

Are You Hallie?

Thank you for remembering me.

Merry Christmas!

A Swift Current Christmas Surprise-Lipsticks for the Ladies

Thank you for remembering me! Photo by her granddaughter

A reader in Arkansas has decided to be “Hallie’s Lipstick Girl” (her words) for her local eldercare facility. Thank you for spreading the cheer! And Merry Christmas!

The beautiful woman in the photos is the mother of a friend from grammar school.  Thank you for permission to use these wonderful photos and thank you to my friend’s daughter for taking such gorgeous pictures.

What A Tale My Thoughts Could Tell

A Swift Current What A Tale My Thought Could Tell

Vuillard Young Woman in a Room 1892-1893 The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

When you reach the part

Where the heartaches come

The hero would be me

But heroes often fail

                    ~Gordon Lightfoot

Saturday night

New York City;

jazz on the stereo;

the nursing home on the line:

-she’s agitated the doctor’s coming the meds aren’t working we need you to know her meds stopped working the doctor’s on her way we need you to know-

Sinking into the sofa,

I asked my husband

Why do people live so long?

As the words crossed my lips

I shuttered;

I had spoken the unspeakable


Years earlier,

my mother had written a living will;

in her own hand

she spelled out what she wanted.

She was unequivocal;

she believed in

quality of life

not quantity of years.

No extraordinary means,

she wrote,

but it had little meaning

when her mind disappeared.


her words could guide us

through end-of-life decisions–

but we never got that far.

Our decisions resided in the land of

of the grey;

how do we care for our demented mother
when we know
she would not want to live like this?

At the beginning,

the head nurse had proclaimed

Dementia patients in skilled nursing

live longer–

they have no worries…everything is done for them…!

Her words–meant to instill confidence–

begin to haunt me;

and I start to see

the nursing home itself as

extraordinary means;

bestowing years

my mother did not want.

During my visits,

people would say

Your mother is so proud of you!

and I’d wince–

I could not escape

the beating drum

the insistent rhythm

the irrefutable fact

I failed you.

Even after her death

I could not let go

(I should have taken you home, mama–

in the beginning,

when we had the chance—

home, mama

like you wanted–

no extraordinary means,

no unwanted years!)

And now

I see my friends

enter the fray;

doing battle

for their elderly parents.

One by one

I watch them struggle

with the same unmerciful choices.

From the sidelines

I see heartache; confusion; doubt.

And I realize

it’s the daughters and sons who try to do it all

who feel like they are doing it all wrong.

Where my friends feel gnawing frustration and guilt,

I see only unselfish grace and goodness.

A friend checks her watch; it’s time to call her dad. He’s lost after the recent death of his wife-his sweetheart. Every evening my friend patiently encourages him as they select his TV programs for the night. With tears in her eyes, she gently cajoles him (You’ll love Bob Newhart, Daddy…) as she lifts him up again and again.

A friend’s father will not let his favorite jacket out of his sight. After much searching, she purchases a similar jacket, slips it into his room and secretly launders his treasured garment. He might not be fully aware of her resourcefulness and ingenuity, but I’m sure he knows her love.

A friend joins me for a quick bite at the end of a long work day; our visit is brief; her 95 year old mother lives with her now, and will be despondent if her daughter doesn’t return home soon.

And this summer, on the 5th of July, a friend tells me she spent the entire previous evening on the phone with her 90 year old mother. Her mom was upset by the sound of fireworks. Mother and daughter talked long into the night.

You spent your entire 4th on the phone?

Well, yes…she needed me…

But you gave up your celebration…

I did…but…you know…

you do what you can do.

You do what you can do.

And with her words,

I let go.

Four years after my mother’s death,

the 5th of July, 2014;

my independence day;

my absolution.

You do what you can do.

The nursing home or

moving her home;

the choices were perilous.

We chose the nursing home.

It was not the right answer.

It was not the wrong answer.

It was our answer.

It gave us

long years.

It gave us

each other.

Your mother is so proud of you.


she is.

You do what you can do.

Everybody loses the thing that made them. That’s how it’s supposed to be in nature. The brave stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.

                                                              (Beasts of the Southern Wild )

A Swift Current What A Tale My Thought Could Tell

Madame Vuillard and Annette, 1920, Private Collection

The title and opening lyrics are from the song If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot, copyright 1969 by Early Morning Music (SOCAN), all rights reserved. One of my all-time favorite songs, Lightfoot has stated “it’s about peace through acceptance” (Gordon Lightfoot Songbook copyright 1999 Warner Bros Records Inc. and Rhino Entertainment Company).

The story of the jacket can be found on the WordPress blog Let’s Talk About Family. When I first started writing these essays, I avoided other writing on the topic; however in recent months, as exploration of my mom’s story approaches a conclusion, I have found several probing, poignant blogs by people who share their unfolding experience with dementia. Here is the link for Lori’s writing:

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a 2012 Oscar nominated film, screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Bittersweet Symphony

A Swift Current Bittersweet Symphony

Vuillard– Child at the Door, Yale University Art Gallery 

I listened to her message;

the social worker’s voice

–always calm, friendly, familiar–

now imbued

with anxious insistence

Please call


Your mother is fine but

We need to speak with you today!

I knew my mother wasn’t fine

but I didn’t expect the latest twist:

Hallie, I have upsetting news–

your mother is screaming

night and day.

She is disrupting the other residents. No one can rest. They need their sleep so they can get better!

We have no choice, Hallie—

we need to move her—


My warrior mother was back.

But they were moving her–

and I knew

this call

was the beginning of the end.

From the day she entered the nursing home,

my mother had lived in the same bright, cheery room

right by the front door.

For more than a decade, she waved to visitors and watched the activity–

with her prime vantage point,

she even thought she was a member of the staff–

but I haven’t seen a paycheck yet!

And now she was losing her post.

We are moving her to a different wing where her screaming won’t bother the other patients.

I don’t understand. It won’t bother them? Won’t she still upset people?

They won’t notice. They are too sick to notice.

I’m confused. They are too sick to notice a screaming woman? What am I missing?

I’m sorry, Hallie; but this is not up to you;

We are not asking you;

We are telling you.

Until that moment,

I had done everything I could

to avert a move from her room.

I knew

for dementia patients,

routine is paramount–

every day; every thing;

exactly the same.

And I knew my mother;

right or wrong,

I believed

a move would kill her.

For more than a year,

the prospect of a move loomed over us

for one simple reason–

my mother was running out of money.

I had paid the nursing home bills from her savings, then a small inheritance, and finally from the sale of her house.

At first, I didn’t worry;

I thought the proceeds from our family home would sustain her for the rest of her life.

And it did—for close to a decade.

But as the balance steadily declined;

I grew uneasy.

I stopped opening bank statements. I knew what they said.

And what they didn’t say.

Where will we get the money?

The obvious answer; we wouldn’t. We would spend her assets; apply for state assistance. Some people call it welfare. In California, it’s called Medi-Cal.

But Medi-Cal would not pay for her bright, cheery room; she would be moved to another location on the premises—

her routines–

her modest little corner of the world–


I had already taken away her beloved home. I could not do it again.

My solution:

I paid the bills

from my savings;

negotiating with myself

over and over and over again;

what is fair–

how much is enough–

her welfare vs.

my future.

Night after sleepless night

I battled my conscience–

If she moves to get Medi-Cal

and doesn’t survive


I could not bear it


she paid for my education–

bought my first car–


if I move her


and she dies


I’ll look into Medi-Cal…


NEXT year!

But I can’t


move her







we are moving your mother;

we are not asking you;

we are telling you.

And Hallie,

her new room is Medi-Cal eligible;

I am sending the forms.

Please Hallie,

you’ve done enough.

It’s time to fill out the forms.

We will help you any way we can.

Now hold on, the charge nurse needs to talk to you…

When are you coming?

In a few weeks–right after jury duty.

Good. You need to come.


No, but your mom has entered the last downward spiral. That’s why she’s screaming.She has entered the last phase. Then she will go into the quiet period.

The quiet period?

Haven’t we had the quiet period?!

No. In the quiet period, she will lose everything—

eating, speech,


How long will this quiet period last?

Well, your mother is very healthy. It could be two to three years.

(Oh, please God, no!)

I have my plane ticket.


It’s a bittersweet irony;

despite sleepless nights,

willful determination and sacrifice

to keep her in her room;

at the end

money had nothing to do with it.

Her disease had taken her to a place

where no bright, cheery room could camouflage the horror in her brain.

We were descending down the spiral of disease—

entering the years of quiet hell.

They had no choice;

they moved her.

But still

I was not ready;

those Medi-Cal papers became

another envelope I could not open.

A few weeks later

I finally studied the forms.

We were allowed to spend her remaining money on certain essentials;

a burial plot, for example.

We would be allowed to keep a small amount in the bank;

And I would need to find her original Medicare card (copies not accepted).

(Wow, the original card… I know I’ve seen it somewhere…).

The next day

the phone rang.

The caller ID

nursing home.

For years, I had eyed those words with trepidation. But they had called so many times during the last few weeks

I did not hesitate as I lifted the receiver.

And then I heard her voice.

It was not the social worker. It was not the charge nurse.

It was the new head nurse;

the new head nurse

who had never once called.

And in that moment

I knew;

my warrior mother was dead

(oh please God…).

Minutes later,

the phone rang again:

the charge nurse–

Oh Hallie! We always get a text when someone dies. I almost fainted when I saw the message. My husband had to hold me up. Your mother! I can’t believe it! I saw her– just a few hours ago–she was the last person I saw before I left. I know what I told you…I believed what I said…I am so deeply sorry…

It was my turn to be the rational one.

It’s alright. I know you did everything you could. It’s time.

And here’s the catch:

I believe it.

Looking back, I realize,

I spent a decade

trying to orchestrate the impossible.

I was tormented about her care; a move; no money;

And in my shattered vision

I lost sight of the most basic tenet of this vicious disease;

I could control nothing.

Dementia had eviscerated my mother;

it promised only bitter years of quiet hell

with no more sweet moments to assuage me.

And even the most compassionate, experienced professional could not anticipate its path nor ease our fall.

Only three weeks after the move,

the phone rang;

my worst fear;

my urgent prayer;

my mama–

a warrior to the end.


A Swift Current Bittersweet Symphony

Vuillard, The Artist’s Mother– Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The title Bittersweet Symphony comes of course from the song of the same name by the Verve. I leave it to you to research the lyrics and determine if they apply…