For Us (I will carry it on)

A Swift Current For US (I will carry it on)

Edouard Vuillard– 1891-1892– Private Collection

 

An hour often passed without their speaking. The shared quiet fell over them, binding them more tightly than any conversation could.

~  Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland

 

Twenty-four hours ago,

my mother did not know me.

Now we sit

side by side;

holding hands.

Our words

drift into the air;

a deep breath;

a slight smile.

Tengo hambre, she says,

surprising me

with the lost language of her childhood.

Our silence surprises me too;

luscious relief

after years of dementia’s

nonsensical tales;

bitter accusations;

angry recriminations.

Our silence;

a tender reminder of

long ago afternoons

home from school;

the two of us sitting

at the formica table;

Chips Ahoy and milk.

Day after day,

we sat in silence as

I tried to figure out

what the nuns expected;

what the other kids wanted;

why was I so scared.

She knew

not to say a word

until I was ready.

And in our daily

interlude,

I felt safe.

Now, it is my turn

not to say a word;

we watch the birds;

I rub her shoulders;

she cradles her cheek in her palm.

As I leave

she murmurs

te quiero.

I love you too, mama

(is this

the last time

you will know me?).

But in the months left to us,

she knows me

every time.

Some days

animated–buoyant;

other days

struggling–silent;

but most always

affable–sweet–

even playful.

Her consuming turmoil and rage–

dementia’s cruelest gifts–

simply recede from view.

I am thrilled.

One day I bound into the nurses’ office—

she is so much better!

Scowling,

the new head nurse rises from her chair,

her words like bullets:

She is worse, much worse.

It is counterintuitive, I know–

but when she battles us,

when she cries out,

it is because

she knows what is happening to her—

she knows.

The fierce, combative woman–

the anguished, angry woman—

that was your Mother

fighting to get out.

This docile, compliant woman–

You think she is better.

But she is worse.

There’s just no more battle in her.

She is done.

The disease has finally won.

It always does.

I was stunned.

My sweet mama

wasn’t so sweet after all;

she was done.

For a decade

I’d been embarrassed by her behavior;

bruised by her temper;

I should have been cheering her on.

And now,

someone has finally told me

what is happening to my mother.

She has lost her ferocious battle;

I am losing

her.

It is time;

I have to let her go–

for her–

for me.

Once again

a song on the radio

becomes my anthem

and my balm.

The lyrics echo still–

Every day that will pass you by

Natalie Maines’ crystalline voice–

Every name that you won’t recall

Martie Maguire’s scorching violin–

Everything that you made by hand

their refrain–

Everything that you know by heart

my silent vow

to you

to me

for us

And I will try to connect

All the pieces you left

I will carry it on

And let you forget.

And I’ll remember the years

When your mind was clear

How laughter and life

Filled up this silent house

 

A Swift Current For Us (I will carry it on)

Edouard Villard, After the Meal, c. 1900, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

The Lowland, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri published by Alfred A. Knopf Copyright 2013 by Jhumpa Lahiri all rights reserved.

Silent House from the Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way, Writer(s): Natalie Maines, Neil Finn, Neil Mullane Finn, Emily Robison, Martha Maguire Copyright: Chrysalis Music Ltd., Woolly Puddin’ Music, Chrysalis Songs, Scrapin’ Toast Music all rights reserved.

 

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25 thoughts on “For Us (I will carry it on)

    • Thank you!

      I have received many comments from readers about the impact of the art/photos and as a result, I now focus on the images as I formulate the posting. At the outset, I did not use images nor did I anticipate their importance, but I now see them as integral in illuminating my words.

      I have always loved Vuillard, and in an earlier post (Postcards to the Edge, May, 2013), there is actually a photo of my mother studying his paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. How prescient was that?!

      But in addition to loving Vuillard’s imagery, I am struck by two things. First, as I have sought out images, he appears to be one of the few artists who paints older people, depicting them in a realistic manner, not sugar coating the physical profile of being an older person. I conclude that painters in past centuries glorified youth like we do (please correct me if I am wrong!).

      But also, in painting after painting, Vuillard portrayed them (and this is part 2) with a deep understanding of the psychological aspects; the solitary figure, the bent shape, the vacant expression. I particularly like the fact that the figure in After the Meal has no facial characteristics, and dressed in white could almost be an apparition amid the festive décor.

      As I search for images, I have a wealth to chose from his archive. I am not sure I have as many essays in me as their are Vuillard images which perfectly capture the dilemma of the elderly.

      Thanks again for commenting and as always your support for my efforts buoys me, H

    • It is always interesting to me that people often see sadness where I see hope. Perhaps it is because I have lived with the head nurse’s words for so many years, I can accept what she said. I do remember where she stood and how I felt…it was one of the deeply sobering moments of my life.

      But like the information I am trying to impart in many (if not all) of the posts, I thought it was an invaluable observation that was crucial for anyone going through this today. I really wish at the time I could have understood my mother’s anger in this context. I might have been more accepting of her behavior, more realistic about what was possible, less upset at her attacks; understanding it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the dimming light.

      And I am thankful for the Dixie Chicks; who writes a song about dementia anyway?

      Thank you, H

  1. Once again, so beautifully written. Remember the good times is the most important to me. Forget the unpleasant.

    • Thank you for your continued support of my efforts!

      The interesting thing is…I do not remember the cruel things. Perhaps you have noticed, the vignettes I relay here have never included quotes of the mean/nasty/awful things that were said. I only refer to them; I do not repeat them. It is not because I am editing them out. It is because I truly don’t remember them.

      There was one visit in particular that was just horrendous. Usually every visit was a roller coaster ride (from good to bad and back again), but during one in particular, my mom would not let up lacerating me. At one point, one of the nurses put her arm around me, handed me my jacket and purse, and escorted me out the back door. I will never forget her words You do not deserve this. And I remember standing outside the nursing home praying that it would not be the last visit; I could not have that be the last time I saw my mother.

      BUT, and the reason I have not included this incident in an essay, I do not remember a single thing my mom said that day. So I refer to the brutality but cannot be specific.

      I guess that is my psyche’s way of protecting me.

      So it’s the laughter we remember…

      Thank you again, H

  2. As always, a beautifully written and very moving post. I think when we are in the middle of the aging “battle” with our parents, we just want them to be “normal”…to be themselves. A dear friend gave me some precious advice when I was going through this process with my dear daddy…she said “join the journey” with your parent…just join the journey. These words were of such solace to me, they helped me survive the pain of letting him go. And, two weeks ago, while I was accompanying her on a visit to her 93 year old mom (who has dementia), I repeated her words back to her…because, when you are in the middle of the battle, sometimes you just want things back to “normal.” Thank you, Hallie, for sharing your talents and insights with us.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head…that we cannot help our desire for “normalcy”…even when things are clearly way past that point…there is an incomprehensible pull for what was and can never be…

      In an earlier post (The Long and Winding Road, May 2013), I said that “I never stopped wanting her to be the person she could no longer be, and that is my deepest sorrow”… the sorrow comes from realizing I created more frustration for both my mom and me by trying to steer her thinking and behavior; I couldn’t get it thru my head AND heart that it was simply was not possible. There was no going back…or in the words of the head nurse,

      the disease has finally won. It always does.

      The way she said always was absolutely spine tingling; bitter and frustrated and resolute all at once.

      I wish years earlier someone had spoken to me as clearly as she did that day. I would like to think I would have understood the disease more, and been perhaps more able to “join the journey” rather than hope for “she is so much better!”

      I think we would be better off if medical professionals were more blunt with families. But as I write that, I remember it was hard for me to seek out information, and when I did, things were too instructional– say this; don’t say that— or maudlin. Through A Swift Current, I am trying to bridge that gap.

      Thank you again for your comments, and for sharing your experiences here with me and our readers, H

    • Several people have suggested a book; you are the first to say movie! Low budget indie?!

      I read your comment as saying you can see the scenes. That is a huge compliment.

      As I look back on early posts, I want to bring out the editing pen! Thank you for sticking with me as I found my voice and streamlined my style.

      Hope you tweet this one for me! I get by with a little help from my friends, H

  3. Another wonderful post, sharing an insight based on your experience that should help others understand that the most difficult, combative phase of Alzheimer’s is a struggle for life. I think the placid stage at the end — which I also experienced with my mother — can help the survivors concentrate on their own acceptance of losing their loved one.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I wish I had understood the combat phase while it was happening. I was just talking with a friend and we agreed that the medical professionals are just so overwhelmed–rushed–that there is no real way they can interact with families and advise them as carefully or thoughtfully as they would like.

      I have recently met some fabulous people at the Medical Narrative program at Columbia University; my understanding that this degree program is designed to bring back the patients’ stories into medical diagnostics and treatment…I am told that what I am doing is Medical Narrative; whatever we call it, I take joy in the opportunity to interact with people who are going thru this now and offer a sounding board (or a shoulder, like Vuillard portrays in the opening image…).

      As for the placid phase, I think you are right…it gave us time as she moved away even further…and I love the Lahiri quote about the “shared quiet…binding them more tightly…” I felt that at the time, and I feel it now.

      Thank you again, H

  4. I did not cry this time Hallie. I think I am now truly understanding as time is marching on and I see the signs, those signs that my brothers try to ignore but are telling me we are approaching that time and it is coming with some dignity on my Mother’s part and maturity on my part. I do understand now.
    I thank you so much for your lessons as that is how I have taken them. How lucky I am to have you. Never stop writing. You have a way of committing your thoughts to paper that is easy for me to understand and remember.

    • Your words are deeply moving to me. If these essays have played even a small part in helping your understanding of what is happening to your mother, I will have more than exceeded my expectations when I started this endeavor.

      Your words validate that I am accomplishing what I set out to do. I have probably said it before, but during our decade, there was very little material for families that wasn’t instructional “do this; don’t say that” and frankly I could never remember much of it. So while I knew I wasn’t supposed to contradict my mom, how do you do that when she is saying how upset she is that she just saw your dad walking down the street and he didn’t stop in to visit (and he has been dead for 35 years!). How do you not contradict her?

      So I wanted to share these situations, my mistakes at the time, and what I took away. That these essays/’lessons’ stick with you means I am hitting the mark.

      How lucky I am to have you, and all the people who read these essays and respond and send private messages too. I felt I grew into a different person during the decade…and it has not stopped. Thank you, H

  5. I agree with the person who posted– your writing just gets better and better! Really a well written, so heartfelt post. Thank you!

    • It is somewhat astounding to me that I started these essays July 7– two years ago! Before I began, my writing experience had been restricted to the business world and personal notes. Comments that my writing is getting better are quite welcome, as my eagerness to tell our story meant that I started posting essays before found my writer’s “voice.” Also, I did not include photos or other imagery in the early posts, which now I consider an integral compliment to the words.

      In a nutshell my readers have endured somewhat clunky efforts along the way and stuck with me. Thank you!

      But I still remember the woman who said the early essays were helping her come out of her “emotional coma” from her mother’s death some years before. I took tremendous encouragement from her response; she made me feel I was on the right track.

      Thank you again. I will keep writing as long as I feel I have more to tell…H

  6. Your compositions are truly quite powerful: the prose, the artwork, selected excerpts from songs and poems. They all work together so beautifully to tell your story. Your reference to your mother’s return to her native tongue recalled for me my mother’s once lamenting that her whole family was gone. When I reminded her that all her children were still alive, she made it clear that her reference to family had returned to her early years, her parents and her siblings. It seems in the end, we often go back to the beginning.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful observations. I was hoping someone would mention my mom’s use of Spanish, which became particularly pronounced in her last year. For me, it was yet another fascinating window into how the brain works–that simple Spanish sentences would replace English (emphasis on simple–these were sentences of a child; not complex in the least). It was as though as her mind was shutting down, all things from the past, even language, rose to the fore.

      How interesting that your mother thought of her family as her parents and siblings. I wonder if my mom was referring to us or her sisters when she asked about family…

      I appreciate your comments about the relation between the quotes, the art, and my words. The opening quote from Lahiri just stopped me in my tracks; I had come to believe that the silence between my mother and me only strengthened the deepening bond; but Lahiri said it better than I ever could (though a completely different context). And as I said, the song “Silent House” by the Dixie Chicks, written in honor of Natalie Maines’ grandmother, helped me accept what was happening. Perhaps it will help someone who reads it here (and listens to the actual song!). I believe the artists and musicians around us help us get where we need to go…

      Thank you again, H

    • I am embarrassed that I did not see that you reblogged my essay with such a lovely introduction. I must say I noticed all sorts of “likes” and new followers, but had no idea where it came from. I went back and looked; WordPress did not notify me of you kind and generous sharing of my writing. I deeply appreciate your endorsement; as you know, when you write (or photograph!), it is wonderful and reinforcing to have people see and comment on it.

      And so, a belated thank you! I have started to follow your blog. I have posted another essay. Onward! Hallie

  7. Hi Hallie, I haven’t read your posts in a while but just read two about your mother not realizing that you are you. How sad that must have been. I understand the nurse’s words that the disease has won but I see it differently. All our lives have a path that has to be lived; your mother was living hers and getting closer to the peace and knowledge of eternity. “Let nothing disturb thee, let nothing distress thee…” The pictures are so integral to your words. What a blessing that you can express your thoughts and feelings for yourself and others. Love, Kathy

    • Thank you Kathy and welcome back to the posts. I appreciate your comments. In the September installment (Bittersweet Symphony), it is clear that my mother was indeed on her own path, as her death occurred just a few weeks after the charge nurse predicted she would live 2-3 more years. On my mother’s grave, we put the words “nada te turbe” (let nothing disturb you) and indeed that prayer from St. Teresa of Avila has been my mother’s legacy to many of her friends, family and caregivers. My sister and I are grateful for her calm counsel even if we aren’t always successful in incorporating it into our sometimes frantic lives!

      Thank you for your comment about my writing, Hallie

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