What Is Certain

It was over.

I would never again experience her mischievous sidelong glance; her resolute will; her unmitigated joy when I walked into the room.

A few days after her death, I came across these words by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; his perspective sustains me as I think again and again about the loss of her:

The more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. We bear what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within; a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

I realized that, except when dementia clouded her recognition, my Mother had always expressed abounding joy each and every time we were reunited.

With a huge smile and beaming eyes, she would throw her arms up in the air for a hug. 

And while we often would engage in a mother/daughter dance of wills, our greetings and partings were always imbued with a deep, poignant stirring.

When I left her side for the last time, I told her I would be back soon.

What if I die before you get here?

Her eyes were focused on me. She was not clouded by confusion. She meant every word.

I don’t think that will happen.

Oh…why won’t it happen?

Because it hasn’t happened before, so it probably won’t happen now.

Well, OK; if you say so.

I never saw her again.

It was over. 

But it will never be over. 

I have hidden treasures; about that, I can always be certain.

9.10 on 10.11.10

A few minutes after 9 PM.

We were enjoying the NLCS championship game.

The phone rang.

I rose from the sofa and walked to the desk.

The caller I.D. said: Nursing Home.

For the last decade, as my eyes focused on that caller I.D., I rapidly drew my breath. My pulse quickened. My shoulders stiffened.

For a decade, that caller I.D. was a flashing yellow warning light.

And the charge nurse would always say,

Hello Hallie this is the nursing home your mother is fine.

Well, not fine really, as the call could be about anything; from her angry mood; to the need to change her meds; to a fall.  So she was never really fine, but in the opening moments of these calls, fine meant not dead. I got that.

In the weeks leading up to 10.11, the calls were more frequent and more dire.  She was spinning into the last phases of dementia.  She wouldn’t eat. They called. They had to move her.  They called.  She fought with everyone.  They called.

They called so many times in the last month of her life that I stopped holding my breath and steeling my shoulders.

The disease was winning; she screamed and hollered and cried HELP. The nurses explained it was my Mother’s primal self fighting as the disease took over her brain.

My Mother was screaming to get out.

And yet, in the weeks before my Mother’s death, they warned me that after this final siege, she likely would live for a few more years.

They called it the quiet period.

That is a euphemism.

At 9.10 on 10.11, the caller I.D. said nursing home.

It was not the charge nurse.

The voice belonged to the Chief Nurse.  The Chief Nurse does not call.  It could only mean one thing.

I drew my breath.  You have bad news, I said.

Yes, she replied, I have bad news.

She told me my mother had eaten her entire dinner; cleaned her plate.

My mind froze.  (You’re calling me to tell me she ate her dinner?)

The Chief Nurse continued:

…and then she quickly faded away.

(Faded awaywhat does that possibly mean?)

There was silence.

Is she dead?

Yes.

My hand flew to my heart.

Such a cliché…but there it was.

I saw my hand go to my heart.

And then I knew what you do when hear that your Mother has died.

I grabbed my heart.

And I haven’t let go.

Letting Our Parents Go

I lost my Dad to cancer when he was 63.

I lost my Mom to Alzheimer’s when she was 95.

You could say he was too young.

You could say she was too old.

But you don’t say these things because we simply don’t talk about them. 

Losing a parent, of course, is the natural order of things.  You are an adult; you bury your parents. And you are supposed to move on.   

But do we?

I was 22 when my Dad died. I have spent 35 years convinced he was not ready; convinced he had more to do; convinced my life would have been better had he been here to guide me. 

Twenty-five years after my father’s death, my Mother’s mind and personality started to evaporate into an unpredictable mix of confusion, anger, fear and childlike sweetness.  As she slowly disappeared, we formed new bonds. As I grappled with the issues of her care, our roles reversed.  I became my Mother’s mother.  And if that is a cliché, then let’s say at the very least I was her quarterback; her protector; her advocate; her lifeline.

During the last ten years of her life, every time I saw my Mother I was greeted by a different version of the woman who loved me.  Sometimes she was funny; sharing stories of the past, wry observations, candid disclosures.  Then, as though a switch had been flipped, she was full of rage; angry, abusive, demanding.

And then there were the times she didn’t know me at all.

But whatever version I found, the bottom line was she was my charge, my responsibility, my challenge. 

I spent more time with my Mother in the last ten years than in the previous thirty. I was intimately involved in almost every aspect of her life.  And each thread of this new bond made her sudden death in 2010 an equally heart-wrenching journey; new, different but just as profound as the grief I have been grappling with for 35 years.   

That is the reason I am writing this blog. 

Our parents are living into their nineties. We need to talk about the myriad of issues we confront on a daily basis; the stress, the cost, and the exhaustion, as well as the renewed bonds, dependence and discoveries revealed during those final years together. 

I will write about the loss we carry with us; the comfort we give each other; the legacy we create for our families.

Our parents are a part of us.  

How do we let them go?