All That You Can’t Leave Behind Part 1

A Place That Has To Be Believed...Photo by Hallie Swift

A Very Very Very Fine House…Photo by Hallie Swift

You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen…

                                                                   (from Walk On by U2)

I see it


the cool white Spanish walls

on a hot LA day;

sun streaming

in the tall windows;

the welcome breeze at dusk.

My sister

at the piano;

fingers flying, chords vibrating,

her conquest:

Rhapsody in Blue;

just for the fun of it.

My father

on the sofa;

end-of-the-day vodka

cradled in his hand;

a dog-eared encyclopedia

resting in his lap; always

studying something new,

just for the fun of it.

My mother

in her chair;

exhausted from

chores and cooking; cooking and chores;

waiting to be

swept away by

Masterpiece Theater;

just for the relief of it.

I see us


I took it all for granted;

my mother did not.

She wanted to buy a home for years, struggling to convince my Depression-scarred dad, who didn’t believe in debt.

But she wanted a house.

And she wanted this house.

When she heard Mrs. Gold might sell, my mother walked up the red brick path and


I have loved this house

from the moment she opened the door.

It was her dream; her triumph;

she even bought Mrs. Gold’s dining room set.

My mother lived in her house for 40 years;

until one day

with our urging

she headed to the hospital.

Knee replacement surgery would guarantee her independence

or so we thought;

I will have you dancing out of the hospital, her surgeon lied.

She walked out her door,

down the red brick path;

she never walked again.

In the beginning, I did not accept her fate. She begged to go home; I vowed to make it happen.

But two years after the surgery,

I finally started to understand.

My sister and I faced a dilemma. We lived in the east. We could not take care of our childhood home.

And we needed to pay the nursing home bills.

We needed to sell the house.

(But how do we tell her?)

We spent the holidays in Los Angeles;

(Merry Christmas, mama; oh by the way, we are going to destroy you).

We visited. We celebrated. We did not discuss it.

Our holiday was slipping away. December 26…

December 27…

I was trembling when we walked into her room.

Before we said a word, she looked at us evenly:

Well, girls, I’ve been thinking. I think it’s time we sold the house.


It must have been unsettling– knowing we were staying in her home–without her.

And just the day before, my uncle casually remarked

Well, dear, I’m going to your house now… to have a martini…

I gulped; he turned white; but

his blunder might have been the welcome catalyst —

Well, girls…I think it’s time we sold the house.

I was ecstatic. She had made a staggering decision with no prompting. But within days,

she protested:

Who said you could sell the house? Who decided?

You did, mama.

I did? I don’t remember!

Yes mama, you said: Girls, I think it’s time we sold the house.

I would never say that!

But you did, mama, you did.

And she had decided,

for one day–

or at least for one moment–

but I had learned; in the world of dementia, you take what you can get.

I never mentioned our house again.

But she did.

She continually plotted her return long after it had been sold. She tore our family photos from the nursing home wall, preparing for her journey. She begged the nurses for a bus pass. She sat stoically by the front door, waiting for her (long dead) sister to pick her up.

Sometimes I waited with her.

I let her believe her sister was coming.

I let her believe her home was waiting.

I could not destroy my mother’s hope.

Out of the blue, she might ask

Where is my dining room table?

We have it.

Who has it?

Well, you remember Uncle Ted, right?

Well, of course.

Remember his son Bob?

Yes, Hallie, of course.

Well, then you remember Bob’s daughter. Remember when she was a baby and had her first Thanksgiving at your table…

Oh yes, she is so cute!

Well, mama, Bob’s daughter has your table and all the dining room furniture. She is taking care of it for you. And when you are ready, she’s going to bring it back. Does that sound like a plan?

Yes! That sounds like a plan!

Over the years, she asked about her possessions as though she were taking inventory; table by table; room by room. She even asked about her recipes; an intriguing question for someone who hated to cook…

And each time, I converted her questions into conversations about family. I tried to be careful, calm, reassuring– her belongings would be returned, of course, when it’s time to go home.

But when is that?

When is what?

When am I going home?

Well, first you have to move into assisted living. And if you can be in assisted living without falling, you can go home. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you went home and had to come right back?

Yes, that would be terrible.

When you can live on your own without falling, then you can go home. Does that sound like a plan?

There was silence.

That, she said slowly, is a very tall order.

I know mama,
but it would be awful if you fell…

She looked into my eyes.

I believe

she knew exactly what I was doing.

You can go home…

That is a very tall order.

I stare into her almond-shaped hazel eyes;

And I see us


Sitting on the sofa;

Playing the piano;

Waiting for

Masterpiece Theater.

We can go home, mama.

We will walk up the red brick path;

light streaming in the tall windows;

white stucco walls against the hot LA sun;

a cool breeze at dusk.

Your home is waiting for you, mama;

I will take you there.

Does that sound like a plan?

Home I can’t say where it is

But I know I am going home

That’s where the heart is

And I know it aches

How your heart it breaks

And you can only take so much

Walk on, Walk on

Vincent van Gogh, White House at Night, 1890  Hermitage Museum Collection

Vincent van Gogh, White House at Night, 1890 Hermitage Museum Collection

Both sets of lyrics from Walk On, from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, music and lyrics by Adam Clayton, Larry Mullin, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, Copyright Polygram Int. Music Publishing B.V.

The last essay, Remember the Ladies, inadvertently did not allow Reader Comments. I hope the problem has been remedied, and I welcome your comments. Thank you, Hallie