Bookends

I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.

                                                                Stephen Colbert on the death of his Mother                                                   

Stephen Colbert stole my line.

Well, actually he stole my Mother’s line.

Of course, he didn’t steal our lines; not really.

But with the phrase that began, I know it may sound greedy, Steve Colbert captured better than ever I could the deep sorrow of losing an elderly parent.

I know it may sound greedy…

In the years since my Mother’s death, I have wrestled with that word:

Greed–

It is one of the seven deadly sins, or so I was taught.

And I have asked myself repeatedly

Was I greedy to want more time with her?

Because I did.

Because despite her infirmity; despite her confusion; despite her suffering, I was simply not ready to let her go.

I know it may sound greedy…

And as I struggle with that word, I remember that my Mother had used it first, many years ago.

We were sitting in a car outside the home of a close family friend.  I was back in Los Angeles for a rare vacation from my adopted Midwestern home.

But from the moment I walked off the plane, I felt smothered.  My mother enveloped me. She treated my every phone call, every friend, every dinner out as the enemy intruder. I had lived away from home for years; suddenly I had a curfew.

I was anxious; she was disappointed.  Neither of us was happy.

Sitting outside our friend’s home, I leaned my head against the steering wheel.

Mama, I can’t take it. 

What can’t you take?

Every time I leave the house, you make me feel guilty. When I go out with my friends, I feel like I am hurting you.

I just want to see you.

Mama!  I live in Minnesota.  I never see my friends. Can’t I spend some time with them?

I want to see you too.

Mama, I do see you.  I am staying with you!  But it is never enough!

Well, I guess I am just greedy.  I can’t help it. I just want to be with you. I’m not going to change.

Her words did not bring us together.

For years I felt the weight of her longing.  Though I lived thousands of miles away, her determined expression and insistent words reverberated in my memory and underscored our interactions.  I called weekly.  I wrote occasionally.  But she was not the only one who wasn’t going to change.

I guess I am just greedy. 

I can’t help it.

I want to be with you.

In fact my Mother had been instrumental in shaping my strong sense of independence. Within months of my Father’s death, I moved across the country to participate in a graduate fellowship.  It was a rocky road.  I didn’t like my classes; didn’t like the East; didn’t make new friends. One day I called her and announced:

I can’t take this anymore; I am dropping out. 

And without hesitation, she replied,

Where will you go?

Her unequivocal words and firm tone rang clear; my childhood home was not an option.

I was on my own.

But she sprang into action.  She visited my high school, conferred with my teachers, and called with her report. The nuns were unanimous:  a woman with a Master’s degree is better off than a woman without one.  Stick with it.  You can do it.

She was right.

I was miserable.  I was lonely.  But I did it.

My graduate advisor found a job for me in Minnesota, where I literally twirled on a street corner and threw my hat in the air…then it was on to Chicago, and let’s win thereNew York New York it’s a wonderful…

My life turned into a whirlwind; dominated by my career.  But as the years unfolded, my Mom seemed perplexed by my choices. I wasn’t sure she took much satisfaction in

My Daughter, the Vice President of Marketing…

But if she felt disappointment, she didn’t express it; at least not to me.  I was deeply grateful that she never pried about my boyfriends; never angled for grandchildren; always seemed to relish stories of the kitty’s latest exploits.  We both pursued our hectic lives, separated by a continent of unspoken expectations; unresolved yearning; unrequited dreams.

When I (finally) met my husband, she was exuberant. Well, actually, so was I.

Friends reported her giddy delight (before she even got in the car, she was exclaiming Hallie’s engaged Hallie’s engaged!).  The day she arrived in New York for our ceremony, we asked if there was anything special she wanted to see.  And without hesitation, she replied,

I want to go to a wedding!

The Mother of the bride was 82 years old.

And the evening of our rehearsal, when my new Mother-in-law told my Mom that she wished we’d done things differently, my Mother responded that she’d once heard a sermon that affected her deeply.  The priest instructed his congregants to

Love your children; no matter what they do; especially if you don’t agree. Their lives are their own. 

And your job is to love them.

When a friend shared this overheard remark, I was astonished.  We had spent more than 20 years in an awkward dance of expectation and resistance. Love guarded by boundaries. Bonds etched with misunderstanding.

I wondered if I knew my Mother at all.

(I guess I am just greedy…)

It was only two years later

when the head of the nursing home looked me in the eye,

and told me the news I did not want to hear:

Your mother has dementia.  She will not get better. And she will not go home.

I never expected what happened next.

I never expected I’d find joy in the halls of that nursing home.  I never expected that within those walls, I would (finally) discover my Mother.

In the decade that followed, we spent long hours, side by side.

Her illness taught me to slow down.

Her need taught me to accept responsibility.

Her unraveling taught me know her; unedited.

And as the years unfolded, her longing became mine.

I always hoped for one more visit.  I wanted to see her eyes dance just one more time.  I knew she didn’t want to live like that, but

I didn’t want a world without her in it.

In the years following her death, I still see the two of us sitting in that car thirty years ago; I remember our frustration and her words from that night.

But now I am the one who is perplexed. Despite my best efforts, I hear the echo of my Mother’s voice.  This time it’s coming from my own heart:

Well, I guess I am just greedy. 

I can’t help it.

I just want to be with you. 

And I’m not going to change…

A Swift Current || Bookends

Lorna Tuck Colbert 1920-2013 Link to Stephen Colbert’s tribute is below

The link below (Remembering Lorna Colbert) should lead you to Stephen Colbert’s tribute to his Mother which aired June 19, 2013 (please bear with the brief advertising lead in)…As he says, If you like me, that’s because of my Mom…

Remembering Lorna Colbert

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Theme and Variations Part 2

A Swift Current || And Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

At the end of the storm Photo by Hallie Swift

We lost Mike.

My Mother called my Dad’s closest friend from work. She spoke three words and dropped the phone.

We lost Mike.

She let out an anguished wail; a strangled sob from the deepest part of her.

We lost Mike.

She ran into their room and slammed the door.

We lost Mike.

They were married for 34 years. And for 34 years, he called her Darling.

On their first date, they saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia and had dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. Year after year, for birthdays and anniversaries, we joyfully returned to the scene of that immortalized first date, creating our own family folklore.

Every night as he came home from work, my Father walked down the street loudly humming bars from whatever symphony or concerto happened to be running through his brain. The neighbors, hearing my Dad before they actually saw him, laughed and waved. And my Mother invariably called out…

Here he is…our husband and father!

They were older than the other parents; graying hairs, aging profiles. They were thoughtful, careful, deliberate. Yet at the same time they built a home bustling with new ideas and discoveries. They challenged our thinking; embraced our interests; encouraged vigorous debate. Politics and religion were lively dinner table topics; homework a serious family endeavor.

And our door was always open to the neighborhood kids; our house teeming with activity on warm summer evenings– tag on the front lawn; the Beatles on the turntable; hamburgers on the grill.

I remember one night studying in my room when I heard the muffled sound of unfamiliar music coming from the living room; the rhythmic beat of castanets and guttural Spanish cries; a new record on the stereo.

I peered into the living room and there they were–

My parents

dancing

to Flamenco!

My Mother turned to me, beaming:

Oh Hallie, doesn’t this just stir your Spanish soul?

I was incredulous. To my teenaged eye, they looked ridiculous.

And thrilling.

My serious parents

dancing to Flamenco.

Who knew?

Then

only a few years later,

after a brief, excruciating battle with cancer,

We lost Mike.

She was only 61.

I thought she was old.

I thought she was old and an adult and
of course, adults know how to handle these things.

I gave little thought to her loneliness; her sorrow; her grief;

their marriage.

Until decades later, as dementia set the stage, and my Mother’s mind became obsessed with certain subjects. Unresolved issues rose to the fore. A single topic would kidnap her brain. If I tried to change the subject, I might succeed for a sentence or two, but in a flash she would reintroduce her latest theme.

Each theme would take center stage for months.

And just when I thought she couldn’t possibly explore it any further, she would circle back to her opening lines.

It was unyielding.

It was exhausting.

And one of those themes:

My Father.

Where is he? Why doesn’t he call? He is living down the street. I saw him walk right by– but he doesn’t visit. He is paying my bills but another woman lives in my room. Who is she? Why does he let her live here? She has no right to be here. Why is he doing this? Why is she here?

Get out!

Despite the do-not- argue dictum for families of dementia,

I simply could not go along.

When the WHERE IS HE? theme first emerged, I gently reminded her that he had died years ago.

He died? No one told me.

Mama, he died. We had a funeral.

NO. If we had a funeral, I would know. I would have been there.

But you were there.

NO! You did it without me. You and your sister; How dare you go behind my back!

I am his wife;

I have a right to know!

For at least a year, this theme underscored our every encounter.

I am his wife. I have a right to know!

She created scenes in the hallways, accusing other residents of cheating with my father. She upset their families. The nursing staff explained that false accusations are a normal part of dementia; not to worry.

I am his wife. I have a right to know!

But even the nursing staff had its limit. One day the social worker pulled me aside:

Your Mother keeps saying: I have a right to know…

This doesn’t just happen.

Her insistence is too overpowering, too relentless.

Is it possible that she is confronting a deep wound?

Did your father have a secret?

Perhaps we were confronting the ultimate indignity of dementia:

It pulls back the curtain:

Dark suspicions aroused;

Fissures revealed;

Pain relived;

Wounds stripped bare.

Perhaps we were confronting dementia’s ultimate truth:

Buried questions exposed;

Secrets succumb;

Sorrow turns to rage.

The theme continued, month after month, variation after variation:

He is alive; he isn’t calling; he’s been murdered; you girls are hiding the truth…

After my initial efforts to dissuade her, I simply gave up.

I listened. I couldn’t argue. I couldn’t agree.

The most I could muster:

I don’t know, Mama. I just don’t know.

Of course you know.

Mama, I don’t…

One day, as abruptly as it started,

the theme simply disappeared.

She let it be– as though she had finally reached a resolution

in her own private purgatory.

And as if awaiting their cue, other themes captured her. Each recalled a past trauma– the deaths of her sisters; a baby lost more than sixty years ago. One by one, each past agony, real or imagined, was confronted; relived; then extinguished,

never to be mentioned again.

It was brutal to witness her war with the past. And when each theme finally dissolved, I felt complete unmitigated relief.

During her final years, I tried not to mention my Dad. If I accidentally referred to him, I held my breath; but she never resumed her diatribe.

In fact, she even seemed at peace.

My Father;

Perhaps he was less perfect than I once thought.

Perhaps he was flawed.

But for me, his song remains the same.

The man who loomed large then still looms large now.

And I know what I know.

My great man;

He will always cry at the end of Carousel.

And so will I.

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid

Of the dark…

A Swift Curent And Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

And Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Photo by Hallie Swift

You’ll Never Walk Alone, composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, published by R&H Music Publishing Company, an Imagen Company, All Rights Reserved