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

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.


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:




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

16 thoughts on “Bookends Part 2 (which nobody can deny)

  1. Hallie, I enjoyed reading your entry… I was laughing, and smiling at the same time. Such fond memories, and she knew you so well, even in her state of dementia. What a blessing in spite of the disease you all faced, and she experienced! In the midst of this horrific disease, the pain and anguish, I read love, humility and gratitude. You were a blessing to your mother, and you remain so in how you continue to honor and cherish her! It’s inspiring!

    • Thank you! I am sure you could relate to the opening lines…
      I think so often the patients of dementia are dismissed, whether consciously or subconsciously; an assumption made that they don’t know what is going on; that interaction is futile. But my experience over the decade was the connection remains; the spirit breaks through the fog; and the moments are all the more special. I should however add the caveat that my Mother never went through the final downward spiral–the so- called “silent years” where communication is non existent (though we did have times where words were sparse).
      But looking into those hazel eyes, even when they were clouded with confusion, I always believed my Mother was there.
      I know my readers are people who are facing or anticipate facing this with their elderly parents…but I wonder what your beautiful daughter would think of this writing…I wonder if somehow it would impact how young people thought about their parents…
      Just a thought, H

  2. 0h, Hallie,
    i bet she did love you for your volatility! not as a mom( we want our girls to be perfect) but as a fellow woman traveler on this earth…she probably loved seeing you do what she could not do…Let go. Say what you feel, consequences be damned…a lovely momentary freedom!

    Love ya

    Sent from my iPad

    • I think you have an excellent point! I think she was both taken aback and thrilled by my strength. I remember one time I challenged her doctor on why his office didn’t call her in prescriptions for more than 24 hours after they had promised it, which made my 80 something yr old Mother stand at the pharmacy for an unreasonable amount of time (this is probably a future blog post…!). I was with her, witnessed what I considered abusive behavior by both the pharmacy and doctor’s office and called him on it. He turned to my mother and asked what I did for a living…my Mom just laughed. I do think she was proud that I took him on and I can’t say that he “liked” me!
      There was another time; she and I travelled across the country together as I headed to grad school. We were having trouble finding a place to stay; it was late; I was exhausted from driving all day. I found a room, but something about the proprietor suddenly gave me the creeps. I abruptly got in the car, pulled away from the place and announced we weren’t staying there. It took awhile, but we found a room. Later she told me that the moment gave her great comfort; she had been so nervous about my living across the country, but she felt from that incident I knew how to take care of myself.
      So V, maybe you are right…I haven’t thought about it quite that way, but maybe she did love me for my volatility…!
      Still, I try to rein it in; not easy when your blood starts boiling…!

  3. I’m with the woman in the checkout line–only because we didn’t get a decade and I was torn between children and mother, 2000 miles apart. You are right to treasure your time with her. I’ve often thought how much I would give to see my parents just one more time.

    • I know that feeling…just one more time…one more time filled with a thousand questions and a million hugs.
      I felt like the woman at the checkout was a gift as well…my own personal reminder to send a Hawaiian lei for birthdays and anniversaries or even just to say hi; write the postcard when I couldn’t think of anything to say (yes, even I had trouble finding words… after 3-4 postcards a week, for 52 weeks, for 10 years!). But that woman and the advertising mantra Just Do It were the Greek Chorus of the decade.
      I hope by writing about it here, more people will just do it…in fact someone wrote to me that he texted his partner (how great you looked this morning!) because of the post…!
      But I should add that since I do not have children, I didn’t have the competing generations, unlike so many people reading this blog. I cannot begin to know the pressure of the sandwich generation, with needs pressing both sides. If anyone wants to comment on how to balance the conflict, I welcome that discussion.

  4. This speaks to me so much— especially now, as my mother (who has been helping to care for my son for the last 7 years) gets ready to move to my sister’s house in the country… I am reminded to stay in the moment, to enjoy her now. To visit her there often..The time is so important. Your mother was so lucky to have you Hallie, by her side every step of the way. I will follow your lead. Thank you..

    • I think you are hitting the nail on the head…we take their presence for granted, and then they are gone. In your case, it is caused by a move that is going to be momentous in your life.
      The “working title” of this post was “Every Little Thing” from a favorite Beatles song, and I never changed the name on the files; it was a constant reminder to me that Every Little Thing made my interaction with my Mom the gift that it turned out to be.
      And I am thrilled that my writing inspires you to look upon with your relationship with your Mom the same way…what a joy to be able to do shower her with Every Little Thing now, even though she will be farther away…she will still be close!

  5. Oh, Hallie. Words fail me…your words inspire me. As you know, when I get the glimpse of my dad (how he is/was to me), it’s a gift. I don’t expect it, but rejoice in it when it is there. Thank you for putting my feelings into words…that’s a gift you give me.

    • Thank you again for your support of my efforts here. I cannot tell you how much it means to me. Your observations are a validation for me…when you write that you see glimmers of your dad, I know I am not the only one who latches onto glimmers of the girl/woman/mother who was my Mom.
      And yes, you are right not to expect it and I hope my writing doesn’t lead people to think the glimmers will be there every day, or even often. But when they are, rejoice is exactly the right word!
      And it is great you know to look for them, and recognize them…that is a gift too!

  6. For all the times you doubted her and were proven wrong, I’m sure the opposite was true as well. There’s no good playbook for dementia, but you’re teaching us to be more aware of the potential. Thank you Hallie.

    • Yes, you are right; for every helicopter piloted by Dave, there were probably hundreds that weren’t. But that is the key; you just don’t know. And so often I would realize later that her statements had kernels of truth (if not the whole truth and nothing but the…!)

      I learned over time that it just made sense to listen and ponder, accept and, as Joanie wrote in a comment, rejoice

      (I was astounded when my Mom observed that she didn’t get flowers and chocolates, believe me; that was at a stage when I thought she didn’t notice…well, she noticed!).
      Thanks so much, H

      • And confounding actually! I demonstrates that I really didn’t know what was going on in her mind; had no way of knowing what had impact and what didn’t…
        and as Joanie said, rejoice when you see the glimmer, but even when you don’t, know deep inside that it all matters…every little thing matters.
        The flip side: after one of my visits, as I called her from the airport to say goodbye, she was very upset because she said I hadn’t returned to see her (which I had!). In trying to convince her I had been there, I said, “aren’t there pretty flowers on your nightstand” and she responded “yes and no one knows how they got there!” She was still capable of the sharp retort. I was sad and frustrated that she didn’t remember our afternoon together (I had read a pamphlet to her from MOMA’s Matisse/Picasso exhibit; we had ooded and awed over the photos but later she didn’t remember that I had even been there).
        Such is the world of dementia; and yes, it was very reassuring to know that somehow all the efforts impacted her consciousness.

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