Bookends Part 2 (which nobody can deny)

A Swift Current  Corita flowers for mary

flowers for mary
Corita, serigraph, 1979
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

I love you.

I love you too, Mama.

I love you for your happiness…and your volatility.

What? Mama! My volatility?

Well, Hallie, you do know you have a tendency to explode!

I have a temper; a hair-trigger, fly-off-the-handle, I’m-not-proud-of-it
temper.

And looking back, I am not convinced my Mother loved me for it. Perhaps her words were a commentary in disguise; a need to make an observation; an assessment delivered delicately, with humor, in the spirit of counsel and understanding.

I haven’t forgotten.

I savor those exchanges; those pristine moments of sharing and ease and grace. Amidst the pain and upheaval of dementia, I relished the joy of just being together, at long last. We had the time to say things we’d never said and the chance to give thanks for what had gone before.

The decade of dementia;

it was horrendous;

it was a gift.

I remember moments of uproarious laughter; moments of unsettling poignancy; moments of redemptive quiet. I loved staring into her almond-shaped hazel eyes–eyes that had seen so much and knew even more.

I repeatedly told her she was beautiful.

You’re always telling me I’m beautiful. Do you really think so?

Yes, Mama, of course…you are!

It’s funny, you know. I never thought I was attractive.

Mama?

I never really liked my looks.

Oh Mama…

A Swift Current My Beautiful Mother which nobody can deny

My Mother

My beautiful Mother and I spent countless hours together in the garden; drinking in the expansive view of Los Angeles; drinking in each other. Sometimes we were animated, effusive companions; other times we shared a calm, benevolent silence.

But during every visit, without fail, my mother eagerly introduced me to the nursing home workers as they walked through the garden. I had known them all for years, but my Mother wanted to introduce me–formally–each and every time.

She knew all their names, or at least the names she had conferred on them. Grasping our hands, she exclaimed

This is Hallie! This is my daughter…all the way from New York!

Back then, I thought those repeated introductions were awkward; embarrassing (They know me mama, they know me). And now, lingering in my memory, those moments are imbued with a sweet urgency; my Mother’s unheralded accomplishment. I see her elegant sweeping hands; I hear her proud tone, I sense the workers’ patient understanding.

Meet my daughter Meet my daughter Meet my daughter!

As we sat in the garden one day, we were suddenly surrounded by several staff members. I was alarmed (my God, what are they doing; what’s wrong?). They looked at each other, and burst into song;

For she’s a jolly good fellow

For she’s a jolly good fellow

    For she’s a jolly good fellow…

My Mother’s mouth was agape; her face aglow with surprise and wonder; thanks
and love;

Mostly love.

On a good day, my Mother saw love in every direction. I remember a handsome young man who frequently visited a fellow resident. He was a social worker from Los Angeles County.

According to my mother, it was love.

It is so sad, my mother whispered. She is not well, and they are so in love.

Mama, I think he works for the County.

Oh yes, that is how they met. And now they are in love.

And love was all around my Mother too. The handsome social worker always brought little treats for her. Fellow gentlemen residents were becoming interested. An old friend from church was developing feelings.

And whenever a helicopter flew overhead, the pilot was most certainly my cousin. From our vantage point in the garden, she greeted every roaring chopper, waving and shouting

Dave, there’s Dave! HI DAVE HI DAVE

When I saw my cousin, I laughingly shared my mom’s enthusiastic reaction to helicopters in the sky. And Dave replied:

Oh, that is me. I told her I would be by. I buzz the nursing home during training runs.

That was you?!

Of course it was you.

And my Mother knew.

Of course she knew.

After years of dancing with this disease, you think I would know it too;

I never should have doubted her.

And after years of this dance, you think I would know that her perceptions and moods were dictated by the misfires of her brain and the chemicals in her body.

I could not change her world;

I could not make it better;

But still, I tried.

Every time I headed to the nursing home, I made a special effort to bring flowers and chocolates, ice cream and magazines; ingredients to jump start a happy visit

(as if I could).

But early in the decade, a chance encounter spurred my decision to leave no stone unturned. I found a great florist near my hotel; I had fun picking out cheery bouquets. Standing in the checkout line, a woman complimented my choice, and I happily replied

They’re for my Mom.

She dissolved in tears.

I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that when I had the chance.

And now I can’t.

From that day forward, whenever tempted to skip my errands, I remembered that woman’s tears. That moment was like a yellow flashing warning light.

(What if this time is the last time?)

But one time, I did skip it. I was staying in a different part of LA; didn’t know where to get her favorite chocolates; didn’t think the bouquet would be as nice. And over the course of several days, I arrived at my Mother’s side, empty-handed.

On the last day, I told her I was returning to New York. I would be back soon.

Really? You’re going back to New York?

Yes, Mama, but I will be back soon.

But Hallie,

I didn’t get any flowers or any chocolates.

My mother, her mind unraveling, still knew.

I had broken the pattern.

And she knew.

Of course she knew.

I never should have doubted her.

Flowers grow out of dark moments (said Corita).

But the irony is staggering.

That vicious, anguished decade

bestowed unrivaled moments of

secretly-coveted intimacy

    I love you

joyful revelations;

for your happiness

unexpected honesty

and your volatility!

I feel now as I felt then:

Sorrow;

Doubt;

Love;

Mostly love.

I believed then as I believe now:

that vicious anguished decade

was a gift;

every moment—a gift

which nobody can deny.

Long ago

it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.

~Paul Simon

A Swift Current Which Nobody Can Deny

Fast Flowers Photo by Hallie Swift

Bookends, lyrics and music by Paul Simon, copyright Universal Music Publishing, All Rights Reserved

Corita Kent, flowers for mary, 1979 serigraph dedicated to Corita’s sister Mary Downey, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, for more information  www.corita.org

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