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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15 thoughts on “Bookends

  1. Wow, your post really hits home for me. I also have a sometimes difficult relationship with my own mother and that smothering love and stubborness certainly reared its ugly head last year when I had to become her caregiver. I still am struggling with my feelings and memories of some of those very dark days. Thankfully she is doing better now and we each have returned to our “normal” lives. Thanks for sharing your experiences it is a good reminder for me to focus on the love that I know my mother has for me despite our many differences.

    • I think sometimes we hear sentiments like “it’s the laughter we remember” and we know it’s not true. Or not completely true. My goal here is to tell a more complex story, as void of cliché as I can be. The thing is I do remember a lot of laughter, but it is never the whole story, and A Swift Current will not help anyone if I don’t try to paint the other shades. I am grateful you are following the blog and welcome your comments. I am so impressed with your project; I think we are both approaching the same difficult topic– just in different ways. Thank you, Hallie

  2. Another touching post…Though my father has now been gone for three years, I miss him every day, still (greedily) yearning for our daily calls or emails, debriefing over every Dodger game (oh, would he be so excited this past month), and feeling a little bit lost every time I can’t share some important piece of news with him. Thanks, as always, for sharing…

    • Thank you Shelley. I have been grappling with these thoughts for a long time…and when Stephen Colbert used the phrase, I was both surprised, upset (I thought maybe for once I had an original thought) and relieved. It is a relief to know I am not alone with feelings even though they are not necessarily what people want to hear. And it is a relief for me to hear that you, like me, miss your dad every single day. I like the word “yearn”… and I like that you admit to feeling a little bit lost. Me too. It is comforting to know we are not alone.

      And by the way, yeah Dodgers! I am sure you have read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful book Wait Til Next Year, about her relationship with her dad thru baseball…right up our alley…! H

  3. Bittersweet memories …tears …empathy …understanding … We have the promise of being perfected, body, mind and soul … We will be reunited with our Maker and trusting that He wants us to be happy, I believe we’ll see our loved ones again. Keep writing darling! Xo

    • If you look at the Stephen Colbert link Remembering Lorna Colbert, he talks about one of his mother’s last memories was a simple prayer in German she had recited to her young children. And as you might remember from earlier on A Swift Current, one of the fundamental tenets of my Mother’s life was a prayer in Spanish by St. Teresa of Avila…Let Nothing Disturb You, Let Nothing Frighten You, All Things Pass Away…. The faith of those prayers underlies the introspection of today– both are critical as we make our way through this world. Thanks so much, H

  4. Hallie…another lyrical posting. This one really struck home with me, not just as it spoke to my own relationship with my Mom (the expectations, the similarities which sometimes drove me nuts!), but especially as I relate as a Mom to my now adult daughter. Your reflections truly spoke to me, as I think we all long for more…more time, more attention, more love. Realizing the love is there regardless of time or location is a gift. Thank you so much for your writing.

    Could you please advise me as to how I can send your blog to others so that they can read your wonderful postings?? I am a blog “newbie!” Thanks!

    • I am thrilled that this post, which I have pondered for so long, has hit a chord with people from both sides of the relationship, as daughters and as Moms. Once again, it is a relief to me just to know I am not alone as I think back on the push/pull of our lives. But I hope one of the messages is that the experience does come full circle…that one day the daughter will understand what the Mom went thru, and vice versa. Through it all, I believe love, as fundamental and confused and messy as a Hallmark card won’t paint it, is right under the surface.

      On one of her prints, Corita used the following quote:
      Where there’s life, there’s mud.

      That just about says it all. I believe she took it from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip.

      AND YES, please share the link: http://www.aswiftcurrent.wordpress.com

      I welcome new readers and new comments! THANK YOU! H

  5. Thank you for sharing such beautiful memories, difficult experiences and hopefully one day it will all evolve into a book

    • If we find a publisher, we can do a book! But in the meantime, I really want to get these thoughts into the world…even if it is a small group, I need to throw my ideas out there…

      THANK YOU for your continued support, H

  6. I have a 37 year old daughter. As I read this I saw myself as the Mother (your mom) and my daughter (you) in this post. I wonder if she feels this way because for sure my behavior has been similar. Thank you for this insight. Love your children no matter what they do. This is not easy. No I take that back. I love my daughter no matter what but I sure have not liked some of her choices. I wonder where we will be in 30 years with each other? As always Hallie you have me thinking, especially today as this past week, during the week that my mother turned 90, I saw the first signs of dementia.

    • Your responses are always thought provoking, and I thank you. First let me say that I took a deep breath when I read you saw signs of dementia in your Mom. If you are right, my only counsel at this stage is to remember that she has no power over what is happening. It is easy for the rational person to think they can do it/think it/name it if they only tried hard enough. She cannot, pure and simple. If it is dementia, she has no power to control what is going on. There is no “fighting this disease.” And I think that understanding in and of itself would go a long way to gaining the patience you will need as you and your family confront whatever unfolds. Of course, I hope you are not correct…I hope that it is simple forgetfulness but stay alert about everything you see as well as for what she isn’t telling you.

      I am moved by several people who have written about parallels in their lives with the push/pull with their Moms, and they now see themselves in their Mom’s role, wanting more time and attention when their daughters are moving forward with their own lives. Perhaps you can talk to your daughter about it? I know that I wish my Mom and I hadn’t swept everything under the rug, all those years. But I do know over the course of her life, my Mom grew and changed; she pondered things she had read and seen and heard, and so I believe it is possible for all of us to get out of our own way and make things better.

      When my Mom died, a lifelong friend (actually the same friend whose house we were sitting outside in the car 30 yrs ago!) wrote: Rather than sorrow, think of the many years she had in the great joy of family: her husband deeply engrossed in the musical world and two daughters taking two very different paths but with equal determination. Celebrate what she learned from you……it expanded her world.

      “Celebrate what she learned from you”…what a lovely line…as I celebrate now what I learned from her.

      Thank you again, H

  7. Hallie… Wow! As I read each word, I found myself thinking of our time in Chicago when I knew you as my boss… Great wonderful fond memories. And as I continued to read on, my heart opened up to receive your heartfelt words. Oh how, I wish I had had a relationship with my mother as you describe in this post. She’s been gone for 30 years and I long for her, and the what if of our relationship! Just writing these words make my eyes tear! Be greedy…for her! It’s okay!

    • Thank you Karen. I am grateful that your memories of our time working together are fond…for I know I was feeling my way through working for a corporation and not at all sure what it meant to be a “boss!”

      I think for our whole lives, we all come away with what if…for those relationships cut short like yours and for those who enjoyed the gift of longevity, like mine.

      I long for her”…even though your eyes tear, I think it lovely to be able to say that. Thank you. And thank you too for giving me the permission to be greedy…I need that OK…

      I remember a friend of mine who was recently widowed said she took no comfort when people told her “but his suffering is over.” She wanted her husband alive, suffering or not. And she thought, “and mine has just begun.” Complicated thing, this love.

      Thank you for your support of my writing and for your friendship, all these many years later… H

  8. Dear Hallie, This got to me on many levels – my father nearing death, I’ve had the same desire for him to live on and on and Jenny moving on in her life at the same time. One thought, did your mother visit you very often through the years? Anyway, it’s a beautiful piece. Thank you. Love, Kathleen

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