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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A Day in the Life

A Swift Current A Day In the Life--the power of the calendar

Beach Heart (a discovery on an otherwise ordinary day)– Photo by Hallie Swift


 

Every holiday– every birthday–

every year;

my mom was giddy with excitement.

In anticipation

I’d send a reminder to

cousins and friends;

her photo with a note:

hugs and kisses welcome here!

Year after year,

flowers and cards and visitors and candy

descended on the nursing home;

just the thought of it

made me giddy too.

 

A Swift Current A Day in the Life--the Power of the Calendar

They Say It’s Your Birthday–Photo by Hallie Swift

 

Now that she’s gone,

holidays and birthdays

stare at me

from the calendar page;

each promising to deliver

its own private havoc.

Standing in a checkout line,

(is it Mother’s Day already?)

I avert my eyes from

the greeting card display

but it’s too late.

I swat away tears

fumble coins

bungle amounts;

the customer behind me

sighs

with New York impatience.

I want to tell her

(this has never happened to you?)

it doesn’t take much to rattle me–

Father’s Day-

Easter baskets-

Valentines-

ENOUGH!

But

I know

I’m not the only one

upended by the innocuous.

(Facebook reminds me)

there’s no such thing as an ordinary day;

it’s always someone’s

birthday—

anniversary—

or even

death day,

for that matter.

And these extraordinary

ordinary dates

reverberate

on the page and

in our minds;

none of us escaping

the silent struggle

no one else can see;

more of us

in mourning

than you would ever know.

Recently

an ordinary,

unremarkable

winter’s day

was

(would have been)

my mother’s 100th birthday.

I proclaim her milestone

on Facebook

–the new village square–

a photo from our cross country drive

only months after my father died;

a widow at the age

I am now.

My mother turns toward the camera

a quintessential tourist pose,

the Grand Canyon behind her;

alone–

strong–

brave–

(or do I detect a rueful shadow in her half smile?)

Happy 100, Mama!

I hit post

and discover instantly

I am not done.

Suddenly galvanized

by the facts of her life,

I continue my exploration;

one by one

photo by photo

hour by hour

I recount the twists and triumphs

of 95 years.

With each addition,

a forgotten woman emerges,

my Mama.

And I realize:

until this day,

her last decade–

the decade of dementia–

had dominated my memories and

belied her life.

I had allowed the confusion, pain and grace of our final years

to become her whole story;

our whole story.

But she was so much more.

As I unbury my dead,

a chorus of cousins and friends

cheers my revelations–

helping me strike back

at a calendar filled with dread.

Dates loom large;

on the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth

her story challenged my grief;

my sorrow finally tempered by

understanding,

pride,

and yes, even

giddy excitement.

That evening

my husband took me to dinner;

we raised our glasses high in the air

the end of an extraordinary ordinary day

Here’s to you, Mama

what a life—

happy 100!

 

nothing she did
or said

was quite
what she meant

but still her life
could be called a monument

shaped in a slant
of available light

and set to the movement
of possible music

(from “The Grandmother Cycle” by Judith Downing Converse Quarterly, Autumn)
 

 

A Swift Current A Day in the Life The Power of the Calendar

It’s My Birthday Too Yeah– Photo by Hallie Swift

 

They Say It’s Your Birthday, words and music by Lennon & McCartney, All Rights Reserved.

The excerpt from The Grandmother Cycle is from the opening pages of one of my all-time favorite books, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which explores the life of an “ordinary woman”…

Little Did We Know

Missing poster

Missing Poster–displayed on a neighborhood lamp post– Photo by Hallie Swift

In a bustling airport,

I watched the scene unfold;

an elderly woman

surrounded by police.

She was traveling to see her son.

She did not know where he lived.

She did not know her name.

Clutching a policewoman’s hand, she cried

Please don’t leave me!

I moved on.

Why on earth is she traveling alone?

I thought;

What an irresponsible son!

Little did I know.

Across the country

my mother was covering up

signs of emerging dementia.

We attributed her occasional slip to

forgetfulness;

laziness;

or an annoying

ploy for attention.

And my clever mother always

smoothed over missteps;

deflecting any doubt;

Mama, what did you say?

Oh, I was only joking!

And with that assurance,

we moved on.

Just a few years later,

the doctors gave those missteps a name–

dementia–

but beyond their diagnosis,

the professionals

seemed unwilling

to explain what was happening.

And when I asked too many questions,

their answers were imbued with impatience;

peppered with subtle disregard.

I remember

during the first weeks of our nursing home life;

a social worker nonchalantly commented:

Well, that’s your mother’s Sundowner’s Syndrome.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

When I asked for an explanation, he seemed incredulous

You know, he said, in the afternoons, she gets more confused.

She does?

Yes, she’s more confused in the afternoon. It is called Sundowner’s Syndrome.

Later

the meaning of sundowner’s was dramatically revealed during a visit with my uncle.

My uncle and aunt–

always impossibly charming—stylish–even glamorous–

in my adoring eyes, and

in their respective 90th and 93rd years,

they still were.

I visited their new assisted living facility; assisted or not,

they appeared unchanged—

my handsome, jovial uncle; my gracious, proper aunt–

compared to the typical roller coaster visit with my mom,

this was easy.

But as the afternoon light shifted, deep shadows fell across my uncle’s chair.

Without warning,

he looked anxious.

He glared at me;

his face etched with fear.

His expression menacing, he demanded

Who are you?

I froze.

My aunt buried her head in her hands;

Oh no, oh no. This is so frightening.

And as if a loud voice could clear his mind, she shouted

It’s Hallie; it’s Hallie; Mike’s daughter, Hallie!

Who?

Your brother Mike—Mike’s daughter– Hallie!

I don’t know any Hallie. Are you my wife?

My aunt raised her voice; it’s Mike’s daughter! Mike’s daughter, Hallie!

Mike didn’t have any daughters.

Sundowner’s Syndrome;

like film noir–

shadows appear sinister; mysterious; threatening;

and the demented brain reacts.

In a flash,

the patient responds to danger;

fear sets the stage.

A Swift Current Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows– Photo by Hallie Swift

Just as startling,

as the drifting light again enveloped my uncle’s chair,

he snapped out of the sorcerer’s spell–

Hallie,

he smiled wanly,

come see us again soon.

And there you have it–

my mom–

my uncle—

a face staring from a missing poster

or lost in an airport–

each completely different;

each exactly the same.

They call it dementia;

they use clinical words and vague terminology;

but they don’t tell you what to expect;

they simply don’t know.

Much later

as the disease approached its final stages,

my mother would sit for hours in the garden;

cradling her face in her hands.

She’d taken to wearing a cap over her unwashed hair—unwashed because she wouldn’t let anyone touch her;

she’d scream if we tried.

Words fumbled; sentences incomplete; her thoughts quickly evaporated into silence.

It appeared

we had finally reached

dementia’s steepest slope;

little did we know.

Right before her last birthday,

my mother re-emerged;

back in the sun.

A  Swift Current my mother's 95th birthday

Reading cards on her 95th birthday Photo by Hallie Swift

Sporting a new haircut,

she was ebullient; effusive;

brimming with excitement for her 95th year.

My sister and I were wary; her mood could change at any moment. Just the three of us gathered in the garden—bestowing balloons, presents, cake,

and photo birthday cards with images from her youth.

That day

my mother’s joy never abated; she was clear, content and even more beautiful than the pictures on the cards.

A Swift Current my mother's 95th birthday

“That’s me!” My mother seeing her picture on a birthday card–Photo by Hallie Swift

As the afternoon light slowly shifted, she studied us closely.

Nodding slowly,

a faint smile at the corner of her lips,

she quietly proclaimed

I am so pleased.

As we returned to her room, she gave her best Queen Elizabeth wave to her fellow residents in the dining hall, calling out

Thank you for coming to my party!

The nursing staff approached my sister and me. They shared our euphoria, confiding that they were astonished by what had transpired.

Just a few weeks earlier, they were not sure she would make it to her birthday. Certainly she would not understand what was going on.

Instead she surprised all of us with a transformation

no one could anticipate.

She gave us

her old self;

a radiant last birthday;

reminding

all of us

once and for all

how little we know.
      

A Swift Current on her 95th birthday

“…observe her closely…it is almost as though she will be gone shortly…” Quote from Octave Mirbeau…Photo by Hallie Swift on my mother’s last birthday

The Octave Mirbeau “Observe her closely…” quote comes from his description of Claude Monet’s Study of a Figure Outdoors, Facing Right ,1886, in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris