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