Just Like Me

A Swift Current Farm Stand

At the farm stand– Photo by Hallie Swift

Late summer, last year

in line at my favorite farm stand

surrounded by the season’s bounty;

sun high in the sky;

good friends arriving soon.

A woman stepped to the front of the line;

I’m old so I get to go first.

Fine with me;

in my mind, summer’s unhurried pace is summer’s unheeded joy.

I did not care

if she stepped to the front of the line;

except–one thing–

she didn’t look old.

And so I offered a compliment

You don’t look old…

I am old, she insisted. I am 73.

Well, in my world, 73 is not old. Now 95…I would concede that 95 is getting up there!

And then, as though someone had opened a spigot, I babbled on, completely unable to restrain the flow:

my Mother was 95

and well, she had dementia, and she

(what am I doing?)

well, she died at 95

(why am I saying this?)

and um, there you have it

(will someone stop me please?)

my Mother was old

(and you’re not!).

Even at the farm stand– on a gorgeous day– at the height of summer,

I could not shut up about my Mother.

And the old 73 year old replied

If I ever get dementia, I hope someone takes a gun and shoots me.

In the sudden flash of a moment,

I felt like the old 73 year old had assaulted me

and reviled those coveted years.

I could not just stand there.

I had to say something.

I took a deep breath.

Well, for me, at least with my Mom, while her personality split apart, I still saw her; I still saw her light, I still saw her…she was still there.

The old 73 year old spat her words

I know all about dementia; my husband died of dementia; I have written articles about dementia. I know!

She knew;

up close and personal—

she knew

And she was livid.

To diffuse the moment, I asked her name. I promised to look for her essays.

And I wrote the first draft of this post as soon as I got home.

I asked the blank page what I wanted to ask the old 73 year old.

When?

When exactly?

When exactly should I shoot you?

Should I shoot you when you

are crowned Queen of Hearts on Valentine’s Day;

eat your dessert before your dinner;

win the bingo prize?

Should I shoot you when you proudly tell me

your alma mater is honoring you;

the cute social worker is flirting with you;

your dead sister is calling you?

Or maybe I should shoot you when you tell me the woman sitting at the end of the table

is really a man

dressed as a woman

investigating your sister’s mysterious death

at the age of 99

(she knew dangerous secrets!).

Would that have been a good time?

Of course,

I will not shoot the old 73 year old

under any circumstance.

But that cruel moment at the farm stand stirs fundamental questions;

ethics at the crossroads;

soul wrenching doubt.

I have seen it before;

people who think they know what they will do when devastating illness strikes

are often the very same people who cling most fervently to this glorious mess we call life;

seeking every possible treatment;

daring to defy the odds.

I believe

we need to talk about these issues,

in our families and as a society.

But for the record

my heart resents

the flip retort; the brusque aside; the I won’t let this happen to me.

Because when it comes to dementia,

you are not in control

and Just Shoot Me is not a plan.

This year, late summer,

at my favorite farm stand

I thought about the old 74 year old,

And decided it was time to keep my promise.

I found two of her essays.

Her husband had died within months of my Mother.

Her writing portrays

a storybook romance with an older man; their robust life together and

her indefatigable determination to care for him

in the most horrendous of circumstances.

But I am stunned as I read her imploring words;

(Could this be the same woman?).

Less than a year before his death,

her writing is unequivocal.

Though he had almost completely dissolved

into a mere ghost of the brilliant man he had once been;

she exhorts him to live.

Hang on, she beseeches, hang on.

A year ago,

I was bewildered and hurt by

her abrasive demeanor; her ferocious anger;

but now, I know.

Last summer

as we stood side by side at the farm stand

she was grieving,

just like me.

She had witnessed the brutality of dementia

up close and personal

And still

She knew love and

She was not ready to let it go;

She was not ready to be left behind;

She was not ready;

Just like me.

At the Farm Stand

But Now The Days Grow Short — Photo by Hallie Swift

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17 thoughts on “Just Like Me

  1. Wow….so touching. You experienced the many faces of grief. I too have been guilty of being flippant in response to illness, but in my case I suspect that perhaps this was a coping mechanism – for we have no idea where our life and health will lead us. Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts. I can so relate to your continued sense of loss. xoxo

    • I like your words “the many faces of grief” as well as your reference to the continued sense of loss. Both ideas are central to my thinking and writing. It astounds me that we expect people to “move on” quickly…for me loss was the single most significant fact about me for months after my Mom’s death. So I understand the woman at the farm stand must have snapped when she heard the word dementia…she was still right there in it…it strikes me that maybe (the older we get) we are all struggling just right below the surface…Thank you for adding your thoughts; I appreciate the chance to develop the dialogue. H

  2. Oh Hallie, this is so good, such a great twist on it – positive and wrenching and lovely. I so love the questions about when would you shoot – I love those questions. Good show here. And your empathy in the title. Would you rather I make these comments on the blog for others to read? I never asked. I like keeping it personal, but if you want me to be more public in the future, let me know. Later, Kathleen

    • Thank you, thank you! These comments are public, or at least I think they are…and I welcome your observations in a public forum! The “working title” for this piece was Just Shoot Me…until I read her essays. It is astounding…change one word…shoot to like and it makes a world of difference!

      When I first started A Swift Current, I vowed not to read any other writing on the topic lest I be tempted to adopt/adapt other’s ideas…I wanted it to start out as solely my Mom’s story. I didn’t know what I would find when I looked at her essays, but I didn’t think it was fair to write about her without thinking about her point of view. I certainly did not expect the twist she provided. I realized that the horrible moment last summer was coming from her deep pain, and I could not be upset with her anymore.

      I have long wanted to write a piece about how carefully need to tread, all of us, not knowing the story of the person standing right next to us. I felt that keenly in the months after my mom’s death: as I was jostled on the streets of NYC, I thought I should be wearing a “handle with care” sticker on my forehead. But as a post, the idea was preachy, and then as I wrote this one, it just unfolded to that point. Maybe the subtitle should be “handle with care.”

      At any rate, you know I had doubts about the writing, and even the subject…and I so appreciate your thumbs up! Thank you for urging me on!
      H

    • I really appreciate all the comments that this should be a book…welcome any suggestions on how to address that. In the meantime, I am thrilled to be sharing my thoughts here and with the response. All comments help my thinking and direction.

      With thanks, H

  3. Your insights and words are so powerful. What an opportunity to be able to stand back and understand the struggle of another through their own words, and find they are on the same road as you.

    Hallie – your stories are beautiful. I find myself compelled to read each new one quickly and then again when I have more time. Thank you

    • I am buoyed to your response to this post, as I struggled with the writing, thinking perhaps I was “off topic”…it was the reassurance of a good friend/writing buddy that convinced me to continue. I appreciate all the comments here, as often people see things that I don’t see. The post as it was originally drafted was only the incident and did not have had the resonance of the piece revised one year later…but yes, you are right…I had the chance to stand back and ponder what had occurred…and Just Shoot Me transformed into Just Like Me.

      I guess that is the power of writing–new and thrilling for me!

      Thank you, H

  4. Had you stuck to your vow not to read other writings on the topic you would only know the woman as a rude self-absorbed hurtful person. And, you may have taken her comments personally. Breaking your vow gave you a chance to understand her, forgive her sharpness and find another writer on the topic. Perhaps she would benefit from reading your blog as well.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I felt it was unfair to write about a stranger, particularly as my impression was so negative, without reading her articles. And yes, finding her writing completely challenged my understanding of our interaction.

      However, I still limit my reading on the topic–I don’t want to take other people’s words or ideas (not that mine are so original, but at least I think they are!). For example, just this morning there is an article about the elderly by Jane Brody in the NY Times entitled When Parents Need Nuturing. I think I will set it aside for the future. At some point, my tale will come to a close, but I hope to continue A Swift Current as a forum for dialogue on articles, news stories, books, films et al regarding eldercare experiences and issues. However, if anyone wants to share an article here that you think I need to see, I welcome the input!

      Thank you again, H

  5. I thank you very much Hallie for your posts, for if you had not posted this blog, I would be in shock when this subject hits my life and now I have some tools to work with. Thank you.

    • I am thrilled that you think my essays are providing you with concrete tools, as that is absolutely one of my goals. When I was encountering these issues, I found a lot of lists (do this, don’t do that) but they had limited use in practical situations. I hope that by imparting my new found-understanding through these vignettes, the information will be memorable. I hope I can continue to be a resource. Thank you, H

  6. oh, this is so beautiful, so well written, so beautifully expressed in every nuance…My mother and I were just having this conversation, about dementia and how can one really know when it’s time to let go. For those of us watching this totally transformed person, who is almost nothing like the one we have loved and known so well, how do we know that their life has no meaning, when we are judging by our “usual” ideas of value and what makes life worth living…? It’s so complicated, as is love, death and grief.
    Thank you for this beautiful essay. blessings, Lucia

    • Lucia, your words are deeply moving to me particularly as I know you know loss at its most stunning. Thank you for your confidence in my writing and in my perspective.

      And you highlight a point we often overlook as we witness the decimation caused by this disease– we cannot know what it is like from the person’s perspective. Yes, my Mom had many moments of total frustration, anguish, and other horrible permutations. But she also had moments of absolute glee, delight, ease, excitement and wonder. You are right…we judge from our rational, ordered world and cannot begin to understand, let alone value, the chaos of an unraveling mind. One of the things I have tried to say here is that often some of her most seemingly demented statements actually contained huge doses of truth. So which is more desirable, covering up truth for the sake of propriety, or telling the truth without a filter?

      Thank you for your observations and your support of my writing. I continue to follow your journey and hope my words bring some small dose of solace to you. Hallie

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