And She Was

A Swift Current The latest essay And She Was (it was not the long goodbye because she was not gone)

Eduard Vuillard Madame Vuillard at the Dinner Table 1903 Oil Private Collection

Every time I visited the nursing home, I never knew which version of my mother would appear—

buoyant, funny—

incisive, wise—

bitter, raging—

sometimes I’d see all of them in a single afternoon.

But through all the permutations, I’d always see my mother, even if it was only a fleeting glimpse. She was unraveling, bifurcated, stripped of all social masks

but it was still her. All of it. Her.

Our years were not the long goodbye

because she was not gone.

Throughout our decade of dementia, she was still my teacher. Our roles had shifted, but she was still the mom. If I listened, I could hear her guide me—even at times with humor and patient understanding

I love you, Hallie

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.

My tendency to explode. I will never forget that moment. And with her succinct observation echoing through the years, I work to keep my temper in check.

Sometimes her counsel was more direct.

I visited the morning after a friend’s wedding. My eyes felt like sandpaper. My throat was parched. My stomach was doing backflips.

But she was deep in the clutches of dementia. Surely she wouldn’t notice.

She noticed.

You know, Hallie. Alcoholism is a terrible problem in our family. And I don’t like what I see.

But over the years, words became more scarce.

For hours, we’d sit side by side; enveloped in silence–

a deep breath, slight smile, an occasional word drifts into the air.

But even then, our silence was a tender reminder of lessons long ago–the two of us sitting at the formica kitchen table- an after-school feast of Chips Ahoy and milk.

Day after day, we’d sit in silence as I tried to figure out

what the nuns wanted;

what the other kids expected; and

why was I so scared.

She knew not to say a word

until I was ready.

She made me feel

safe.

And now,

it’s my turn—

I bring a treat;

we watch the birds;

she cradles her cheek in her palm.

As I start to leave,

she surprises me with the lost language of her childhood,

te quiero, she says

I love you too, mama.

 

A Swift Current-the latest essay And She Was--our years were not the long goodbye--because she was not gone

Vuillard–In the Garden–1899–Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

But no matter how hard I try,

this is different;

I cannot make her feel

safe–

the disease is in control.

And as it progresses,

I witness yet another version of her.

Hostile, combative, even frightening,

this woman allows no one near

(be careful she’ll scratch you!).

Her nurse tells me this is my mother’s last stand. She is battling the ravages of her brain with all the fight she can muster. She is a hero—this angry woman–this woman is my warrior mother.

Her nurse also warns

She might not make it to her birthday

but even if she does,

she won’t know what’s going on.

But right before her big day,

there is another metamorphosis–

ebullient, effusive,

this woman is brimming with excitement for her 95th year.

On her birthday,

my sister and I bring all the ingredients for a happy day

(as if we could make it so).

We eat cake–

unwrap presents–

exclaim with glee.

As the afternoon light slowly shifts,

she studies us

with penetrating, almond-shaped, hazel eyes.

Nodding slowly,

a faint smile flickers at the corner of her lips,

she quietly says

I am so pleased.

As we take her back into the nursing home,

my mother waves her arms high in the air

shouting to the residents gathered for dinner

Thank you for coming to my party!

The nurses rush up to us—

we are euphoric, exhilarated, exhausted;

not quite believing what has just transpired.

I am so pleased.

I never expected to find joy

in the halls of a nursing home;

I never expected to see my mother so clearly

or to love her so much.

For more than a decade,

we sat

side by side

in the garden—

bitter, raging-

buoyant, funny-

incisive, wise—

I never knew which version of my mother would appear.

But I came to understand

this kaleidoscope was my mother —

even if

I didn’t always like what I saw.

And with this revelation,

I finally embraced those years

exalting in the time we spent together;

my chance

to finally show her

all I had never said.

I love you too, mama

I love you

for your happiness

and for your volatility.

 

 

The world was moving, she was right there with it and she was
The world was moving, she was floating above it and she was
Joining the world of missing persons and she was
Missing enough to feel alright
And she was

 

A Swift Current--the latest essay And She Was-our years were not the long goodbye because she was not gone

Vuillard–Marie in the Garden–Private Collection–1893-Oil on canvas

 

And She Was, written by Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison and Tina Weymouth, copyright Warner/Chappell Music Inc.  All Rights Reserved

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18 thoughts on “And She Was

  1. I was excited to see your new post on my home screen. Once again, your insights, from hindsight, are so important to share with others. I too have shared quiet times with my father and often get some memory or comment from him that allows us to walk down a new road. While he will immediately forget it, I have enjoyed these opportunities with him.

    • It makes me so sad when I hear people say they don’t visit friends/parents with Alzheimers because they wouldn’t know I was there anyway.

      I think they do know. And there are so many ways to communicate. Silence is one of them.

      And believe me, when my mother detected my physical state (the day she told me I don’t like what I see), we were many years into her dementia struggle. It was astounding that she could 1) make that observation and 2) come up with the words to let me know what she thought.

      It is a strange disease and my mother’s battle was a roller coaster. But hindsight is crucial for me too. And I am grateful for all the chances I got to see her, even if some of the visits were rugged.

      It was all her.

      Happy Mother’s Day to all of us (I think we are all moms in some way….)
      Hallie

    • Thank you. With the long breaks between posts, readers have asked if I was “done.” The answer is no–I don’t intend to stop thinking and writing and sharing about these issues that are so important to me. However, there will most likely continue to be significant gaps between posts.

      This one was born by a request to write about the moments of grace and joy that took place during those years. Since I have incorporated some of those exchanges into past essays, I confess I recycled a few (if something sounded familiar!). However the stories are combined in a different way and I added some that I had not previously shared.

      But also, the theme of this piece is new. I found that just writing about the funny incidents or special moments did not do justice to those years. And recently, a number of people have asked me what the blog is about, and as I explained my perspective, I realized there was no one essay which summed it up. So this one does just that…

      And since I did find grace and joy in those years, I am pleased that it didn’t make you sad…

      Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms– here and not here,
      H

  2. This is so lovely and true and meandering and back to the finish line.

    At the end, I am left thinking how happy I am to know you and to read about your relationship with your mother, who lives in these posts in vivid color, in wondrous and hilarious gesture. Here’s to her. And to the daughter she raised. Chips ahoy.

    Love, kathleen

    • This one was hard to write…what am I saying…they are all hard to write. I am happy where this ended up, chips ahoy and all…

      And I am so happy you think this paints a vivid portrait of my mom. If I can do that, and at the same time give clues about confronting dementia, I will have accomplished what I set out to do.

      Onward,
      H

  3. A beautiful tribute to your mom, every time I read your blog. My mom and dad loved and respected her, continued to visit. I read your insights and now understand.

    • Oh Suzanne,

      I am thrilled to see you here.

      I am forever grateful to your parents. They visited my mom regularly. I know that because I happened to be there one day when they stopped by.

      There are people who say oh, I should do that–and then there are people like your parents who really did it. They brightened my mom’s life, both in the good times and then when the days were the toughest. It gave me such comfort to know there were people out there like your folks–people who still cared enough to visit her when her mind wasn’t clear. My sister and I debated whether we should bring her east, but she had such huge support in LA, and it seemed to make sense to have her stay where more people could lift her up. Your parents were part of that. And I cannot thank you enough…

      Happy Mother’s Day, to you and the lovely Marie who I will never forget,
      H

  4. Oh, my…oh, my. As always, your writing resonates…touches my heart, and somehow manages to bring tears to my eyes and comfort to my heart. You illustrate so well the joy that can come when you “join the journey “ of a precious loved one. Thank you for sharing this with us, Hallie. Keep writing.

    • Thank you. And you got it.

      It is astounding to me that something I dreaded the most (being responsible for my mom) is what at the end of the day has given shape and sustenance and perspective to my life.

      When I was trying to explain to a friend this ultimate reaction to the dementia years (as now summarized in this piece) he responded, “oh so you would recommend the Sheryl Sandberg approach and tell people to lean in…”

      And I think that’s it in a nutshell. Lean in…

      Happy Mother’s Day,
      H

  5. I really think this post makes waiting for it all worth it…as always so beautiful and touching your love for your mom comes out from every sentence you write…

    • I get nervous about the gap between posts…and yet–as I said in the other response– the writing is so intense, I cannot make it happen on command. I really wanted this for Mother’s Day (after having missed a self-imposed deadline months ago to post it for my mom’s birthday!). And I am so happy to honor my Mom today and help others who are missing their moms or maybe on their way to visit an elderly mother.

      As my mother said, I am so pleased…
      H

    • I get nervous about the gap between posts…and yet–as I said in the other response– the writing is so intense, I cannot make it happen on command. I really wanted this for Mother’s Day (after having missed a self imposed deadline months ago to post it for my mom’s birthday!). And I am so happy to honor my Mom today and help others who are missing their moms or maybe on their way to visit an elderly mother.

      As my mother said, I am so pleased…
      H

  6. Today I had recurring thoughts about how I will feel tomorrow. My first Mother’s Day without my Mother. Then your email arrived and I read “And She Was”. As I approached the end I started to cry–and cry, and cry. When I stopped crying I felt so good–and now I’m looking forward to spending Mother’s Day with my daughters. Thank you so much for writing and sending this today!

    Diana

    • This message sends me to the moon!

      When I started writing A Swift Current, I had vowed that if it were a help to just one person, it would be worth doing. When I made that pledge, I had no idea how intense the actual writing would be, nor how the writing process itself involves deep layers of revelation–to say nothing of the struggle to find exactly the right word.

      But it is healing to read all these messages–and especially receive this message on your first mother’s day without your mom. I think these big days, holidays, anniversaries, and today of all days, take on a resonance that Hallmark/FTD cannot begin to fathom. I am thrilled to be a resource as we confront what really matters.

      Enjoy your day. And thank you for making mine,
      H

  7. Absolutely beautifully written. You have a gift for expressing your feelings: love, anguish and desperation for your Mom. Through your prose I’m able to truly experience some of what you had gone through. By the way! I love the Chips Ahoy after school…….really cute! Thank you for alerting me to your posts. I also understand how much emotion these writings must take out of you and why you need to take a recess between the entries.

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