Dancing in the Dark

A Swift Current thoughts about how we treat the elderly

Madame Vuillard at Table Eduard Vuillard 1888 Private Collection

The times are tough now, just getting tougher

The whole world’s rough, it’s just getting rougher

Cover me,

 Come on baby,

 Cover me…

 

 

Did you watch the Grammys, Hallie?

Yes, but I was disappointed. I wanted Bruce Springsteen to win but, well… you probably don’t even know who he is…

Bruce Springsteen? Hallie! Of course I know Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen is THE BOSS. After all, Hallie,

I live in Hollywood!

I’ve always loved that story. I thought it showed my mom’s youthful vigor; her spirit; her vitality.

But now I think it tells you

something about

me.

When that conversation took place,

my mother was 70 years old.

Though she spent her days working in an art gallery–

her evenings watching PBS or reading The New Yorker

to me, she was old.

And old meant out of touch—unaware–incapable of appreciating

the good and the new and the exciting.

But even if I detected her mild annoyance, I didn’t begin to anticipate what was in store for her–

or understand the battles that would shape the rest of her life.

Some incidents seemed minor at first;

like the day we went to the drug store,

only to discover her doctor had failed to call in the prescription.

The wait was long; the clerk was rude; the pharmacy had no chairs.

And as we stood,

I witnessed time take its toll–

at my mother’s age,

nothing was minor.

Other incidents were more serious,

harrowing, in fact;

like the day she walked to the bus and

muggers knocked her to the ground.

They stole her purse,

broke her wrist;

a few weeks later,

money was missing from her account.

At the bank,

the teller yelled

Speak Up!

She called me in tears.

I did what I could

from 3000 miles away-

but I couldn’t change her reality–

she was old;

she was vulnerable–and

she knew it.

But it wasn’t only impatient clerks and cruel strangers who made her days more difficult.

The truth is

I did too.

To this day, I relive moments that should have been different

Guess what mama? My company is sending me to London and Paris!

Oh honey, that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you.

I’m so excited.

Tell me, are you flying to London and then returning to New York and then going to Paris?

What?

Well, um, are you going to London and then back to New York and then to Paris?

Why would I do that, mama? Think about it. Why would I fly all the way home when London and Paris are so close?

I don’t know.

You don’t know? Why would you ask me that? Look at a map! THINK ABOUT IT!

Her voice was barely audible

I was just asking…

But I wasn’t cutting her any slack. I thought she asked silly questions to get attention. I didn’t appreciate that her questions were harmless. It never occurred to me that she might be confused.

And I never once thought

what is this like for you?

Instead our conversations became delicate dance, often underscored by my dismissive tone and impatient replies.

My mother endured it until she could take no more. But one day, through the unfiltered voice of dementia, my mother’s truth came roaring back at me.

I was visiting the nursing home. But it was no ordinary visit. That day, when I arrived in Los Angeles, I learned my mom’s last remaining sibling, her beloved Julia, had died.

It was my job to tell her.

We sat in the garden in the fading afternoon light. I told her I had bad news.

Something happened, mama. And it makes me sad. And it’s going to make you very sad, too.

I looked into her eyes. I waited.

She murmured

Julie?

I nodded.

She threw her hands to her face. She screamed–shrill—piercing–raw–

She was like my mama–my mama! Oh, Julie, Julie– I had a feeling! I should have been with her.

Oh mama, no. It’s OK that you weren’t there.

NO, it’s not OK! I knew I should have gone to Seattle. I wanted to go. How could this happen?

Mama, she was 99.

Yes, and I thought she would live to be 100!

My mother was rocking back and forth—sobbing

My poor Julie, all alone, all alone…

I was desperate to calm her–

And so I lied.

It’s OK, mama. It’s really OK. She was peaceful—and well…she wasn’t alone. You know, Aunt Julie had lots of friends…

Friends?

Yes, friends. Aunt Julie had lots of friends!

(Clever me—she’ll stop crying if she thinks her sister was surrounded by friends…)

My mother’s eyes hardened. Her expression froze in contempt. Her entire body trembled

Aunt Julie didn’t have any friends. She was old.

And people HATE old people.

She spit each word with a sneering, harsh growl:

OLD!

The nursing home staff was watching from a distance. They quickly approached. My mother grabbed her nurse’s hand

My sister died. My Julie…

We’re so sorry…let’s go inside…

I sat alone in the garden, staring at the dimming sky; upended by her ferocious rebuke.

People hate old people–

my lie had unleashed her truth.

I knew

she had heard every

curt response–

exasperated sigh–

disdainful tone—

from the world;

from me.

 

A Swift Current Thoughts about how we treat the elderly

Girl with the Flowered Background, Richard Diebenkorn 1962 Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

 

After that day

I’d like to think I finally saw her;

I’d like to think

I changed;

I’d like to think I was more understanding, more honest, more giving

in the decade left to my mother

after her Julie died.

But one thing is true:

my mother’s words reverberate to this day.

As I help an elderly gentleman search for a jar of cloves in the market;

slow my gait behind the woman with a walker;

instruct a clerk to assist the old lady in the eyeglass store

(will somebody help me please?),

I wonder what it’s like for them—

and hope my smile masks my impatience

(some things are hard to change).

I relive many moments

but this time

I do better

(yes, I am going straight from London to Paris– it’s so close, you know!)

I’m a little late,

but still

I’d like to think

I’m becoming the person

my mother always thought I could be

 

A Swift Current Dancing in the Dark Thought about how we treat the elderly

Adele Springsteen, age 90, dances with her son, March 2016, Madison Square Garden “She’s Still Got The Moves” he shouts with pride

Cover Me music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen Copyright 1984 Bruce Springsteen. All Rights Reserved

There are several complete videos of Bruce Springsteen dancing with his mother Adele available on YouTube–the one excerpted above was recorded by markit aneight

Interlude

A Swift Current Interlude Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing...

Woman in the Countryside by Vuillard 1897-1899 Private Collection

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing,

     of just going along,

listening to all the things you can’t hear…

                                                                  ~ Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
 
 
 

During the last few weeks, several people have asked: Did you write this summer?

The answer is yes, and no.

I wrote– but not about my mom. Of course, I thought about her every day. Some memories brought smiles; some brought tears.

But I didn’t commit any of it to paper.

I gave myself the summer off.

When I started writing A Swift Current, I wanted to share my experience with dementia and the death of an elderly parent—personal revelations which, at the time, I hadn’t seen discussed in any other forum.

And so for the last three years and 40 essays, I have shared our story here– the ravages and grace of dementia; our renewed and strengthened bonds; my searing grief over the loss of her.

My grief shocked me. I had thought her death would be a welcome relief—she was, after all, 95 years old. She had dementia. But after her death, the numbness of the initial months blossomed into an unexpected anguish.

I missed her–dementia or no dementia.

And while the intensity of my emotions has evolved, I still stumble. Five years later, I feel an unrequited longing I never imagined. I frequently replay scenes from our lives-the teenage years; the career years; the dementia years—

I see it all so clearly now.

We have so many expectations of our parents. When we’re young, we want them to be different. When they’re old, we want them to be how they always were.

During my mom’s decade of dementia, I slowly grew in my understanding—and even acceptance– of her illness. Despite her confusion and fantasies, turmoil and anger, I still saw the core of my mother in her fading and fragmented being–even near the end of her life. I wish I hadn’t been so frightened of her disease in the early years. I wish I could have accepted who she was, and who she was becoming.

My friend Kathleen Novak captures my hard-won perspective in her poem Clarity, written when her father first began to show signs of confusion. As I resume writing future essays for A Swift Current, I offer you Kathleen’s thoughtful, generous, realistic view of an aging parent—with remarkable Clarity.
  

He is ninety after all, so

not everything is in bright focus, like a photo snapped mid-afternoon,

not everything looks as clear as that, for example,

he may not know whatever day it is today,

possibly a Thursday, unless that was yesterday

and today is Friday, or he may not know exactly

when he is to fly out to visit his son

though he wrote it down somewhere and he will find it

because he remembers having that piece of paper

along with the monthly bills and statements, the insurances and taxes

he has those written down too, the amounts paid and due

but there is this blur of dates and times, of numbers and facts

 

He is ninety after all, though

certain particulars still remain in bright focus, for example,

a great good game when he wins, the memory

of everything important that ever happened in any decade

and the way it all stacked up, the rises and falls, the girls

he left for other girls, the time he got meningitis in Africa

and later when his daughter smashed the car,

when his son became a doctor, the first time he saw his wife

and asked her to dance and the night his father-in-law died during a storm,

and years before, when he looked for the babies’ graves with his old mother,

 

there’s no blur when it comes to the pure blue of an afternoon sky

or the threat of snow again, those hovering white clouds,

who is true and who is not, whose heart is open and whose is not

at ninety you have a different kind of clarity

at ninety, after all that,

you know what you know.

      ~Kathleen Novak

A Swift Current Interlude

You Know What You Know…Madam Vuillard and Her Daughter by Edgar Vuillard 1893 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Clarity, copyright 2011 by Kathleen Novak

Winnie the Pooh
, by A. A. Milne Copyright 1961 the Disney Corporation; original copyright Dutton Books

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”…

What A Tale My Thoughts Could Tell

A Swift Current What A Tale My Thought Could Tell

Vuillard Young Woman in a Room 1892-1893 The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

When you reach the part

Where the heartaches come

The hero would be me

But heroes often fail

                    ~Gordon Lightfoot

Saturday night

New York City;

jazz on the stereo;

the nursing home on the line:

-she’s agitated the doctor’s coming the meds aren’t working we need you to know her meds stopped working the doctor’s on her way we need you to know-

Sinking into the sofa,

I asked my husband

Why do people live so long?

As the words crossed my lips

I shuttered;

I had spoken the unspeakable

Why?

Years earlier,

my mother had written a living will;

in her own hand

she spelled out what she wanted.

She was unequivocal;

she believed in

quality of life

not quantity of years.

No extraordinary means,

she wrote,

but it had little meaning

when her mind disappeared.

Perhaps

her words could guide us

through end-of-life decisions–

but we never got that far.

Our decisions resided in the land of

of the grey;

how do we care for our demented mother
when we know
she would not want to live like this?

At the beginning,

the head nurse had proclaimed

Dementia patients in skilled nursing

live longer–

they have no worries…everything is done for them…!

Her words–meant to instill confidence–

begin to haunt me;

and I start to see

the nursing home itself as

extraordinary means;

bestowing years

my mother did not want.

During my visits,

people would say

Your mother is so proud of you!

and I’d wince–

I could not escape

the beating drum

the insistent rhythm

the irrefutable fact

I failed you.

Even after her death

I could not let go

(I should have taken you home, mama–

in the beginning,

when we had the chance—

home, mama

like you wanted–

no extraordinary means,

no unwanted years!)

And now

I see my friends

enter the fray;

doing battle

for their elderly parents.

One by one

I watch them struggle

with the same unmerciful choices.

From the sidelines

I see heartache; confusion; doubt.

And I realize

it’s the daughters and sons who try to do it all

who feel like they are doing it all wrong.

Where my friends feel gnawing frustration and guilt,

I see only unselfish grace and goodness.

A friend checks her watch; it’s time to call her dad. He’s lost after the recent death of his wife-his sweetheart. Every evening my friend patiently encourages him as they select his TV programs for the night. With tears in her eyes, she gently cajoles him (You’ll love Bob Newhart, Daddy…) as she lifts him up again and again.

A friend’s father will not let his favorite jacket out of his sight. After much searching, she purchases a similar jacket, slips it into his room and secretly launders his treasured garment. He might not be fully aware of her resourcefulness and ingenuity, but I’m sure he knows her love.

A friend joins me for a quick bite at the end of a long work day; our visit is brief; her 95 year old mother lives with her now, and will be despondent if her daughter doesn’t return home soon.

And this summer, on the 5th of July, a friend tells me she spent the entire previous evening on the phone with her 90 year old mother. Her mom was upset by the sound of fireworks. Mother and daughter talked long into the night.

You spent your entire 4th on the phone?

Well, yes…she needed me…

But you gave up your celebration…

I did…but…you know…

you do what you can do.

You do what you can do.

And with her words,

I let go.

Four years after my mother’s death,

the 5th of July, 2014;

my independence day;

my absolution.

You do what you can do.

The nursing home or

moving her home;

the choices were perilous.

We chose the nursing home.

It was not the right answer.

It was not the wrong answer.

It was our answer.

It gave us

long years.

It gave us

each other.

Your mother is so proud of you.

Yes,

she is.

You do what you can do.

Everybody loses the thing that made them. That’s how it’s supposed to be in nature. The brave stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.

                                                              (Beasts of the Southern Wild )

A Swift Current What A Tale My Thought Could Tell

Madame Vuillard and Annette, 1920, Private Collection

The title and opening lyrics are from the song If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot, copyright 1969 by Early Morning Music (SOCAN), all rights reserved. One of my all-time favorite songs, Lightfoot has stated “it’s about peace through acceptance” (Gordon Lightfoot Songbook copyright 1999 Warner Bros Records Inc. and Rhino Entertainment Company).

The story of the jacket can be found on the WordPress blog Let’s Talk About Family. When I first started writing these essays, I avoided other writing on the topic; however in recent months, as exploration of my mom’s story approaches a conclusion, I have found several probing, poignant blogs by people who share their unfolding experience with dementia. Here is the link for Lori’s writing: http://letstalkaboutfamily.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/lunch-with-dad/

=
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a 2012 Oscar nominated film, screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

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.

 

To Understand (and he blessed you best of all)

looking up February 7, 2014  Photo by Hallie Swift

looking up February 7, 2014 Photo by Hallie Swift


Your eyes seem from a different face

They’ve seen that much that soon

Your cheek too cold, too pale to shine

Like an old and waning moon

And there is no peace

No true release

No secret place to crawl

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

                                                          (from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson)

On this day, thirty eight years ago,

my father died.

He was 63 years old.

In my mind,

he was not done.

My dad had anticipated his retirement years;

articles he would write;

classes he would teach;

trips he would enjoy;

someday.

When he died, his record company issued a news release:

‘…one of the very few true experts in the field of classical music…”

my very true expert;

my daddy;

gone at 63.

In his last months, he wrote to us; ideas and observations, philosophies and beliefs;

his letters, I thought, signaled the promise of things to come…

…Beethoven is not the only artist who suffered from excessive solemnity- which is a lead in to my second heretical statement.

If find the famous Sistine Chapel fresco of Michelangelo to be a bit ludicrous- I suspect the reason I regard it as a failure is that Michelangelo attempted to do too much- and found it impossible to sustain a high level of thought on the vast scale that he outlined.

Like the Ninth Symphony, the kindest words…are that it is a noble failure- but a failure nonetheless.

Several times I have been tempted to write a series of essays under a general heading like “Putting the Classics in their Place.” I have myself sometimes been annoyed by my own timidity at not speaking out against the oppressiveness of mass acceptance.

He never got a chance to write those articles; teach those classes; take those trips. My father’s retirement was brief; cancer stealing his hard-earned years of leisure; of reflection; of speaking out.

In my mind, he was cheated.

And I felt cheated too.

I read those final letters countless times; desperately searching for him amid the carefully chosen words and well-reasoned opinions. I wanted to know what he would think; what he would say; what he would do.

I wanted what could never be.

And I could not let go.

Just a few years ago, my pain began to ease. I wrote an article; not about Beethoven; not about Michelangelo;

I wrote about my dad.

He had been a record producer—in the early days—back when there were long-playing albums. In his era, the producer’s name didn’t appear on the jacket. I wanted to correct that oversight; give him credit; capture his role for posterity.

Researching every accomplishment; documenting every claim;

I wrote a Wikipedia page;

the internet equivalent of scratching

I was here

into the sand.

I showed it to my best friend. I watched nervously as she read. She paused and looked at me

This is a big life.

Three simple words:

a big life;

and for the first time in all those years,

I felt relief.

I began to understand;

he had done so much in so short a time;

he could do no more;

he was done.

I no longer needed to talk to him

every time I heard a piece of music;

no longer felt tumultuous anger;

no longer wished for what would never be.

My daddy

gave me all he could;

the rest was up to me.

I Was Here  Central Park discovery as I wrote this post  Photo by Hallie Swift

I Was Here ( a Central Park discovery as I wrote this post) Photo by Hallie Swift

And then, just a few weeks ago, I was completely confounded by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I felt a sense of loss out of all proportion. I kept telling myself

…you don’t know him…he belongs to his family…to his friends…

but the news blared and I listened

…the greatest actor of his generation…

I thought films were better because he was in them; his characters illuminating,

even the smallest part searing.

I read story after story about his prodigious career, his nuanced, soul-diving performances;

done at 46.

Amid the tragedy of his death, articles repeatedly bemoaned

performances we lost;

roles he should have played;

disappointment we will never see his Lear!

I bristled;

What could have been

only undermines

the undeniable feats;

the huge accomplishments;

the impenetrable mystery

of

his big life.

We want to believe

the best is yet to come;

we keep telling ourselves

someday…

but

for any of us;

for all of us;

our best

might be have been

a long time ago;

our promise now a memory.

(But we will never know).

Finally

I understand;

the measure of a life –

any life—

my father’s life–

is not captured by

annotated references

and attributable sources.

His best

might be hidden in the margins–

a fleeting moment;

an off-hand comment;

a letter written to his daughter when

he knew he was going to die.

He tried to tell her

what matters.

Put the classics in their place.

It took me

a long time

to understand;

every life

a big life;

no small parts.

63 years; 46 years;

he gave all he could.

Gone

Done

Blessed.


If tears unshed could heal your heart

If words unsaid could sway

Then watch you melt into the night

With Adieu and rue the day

Did your dreams die young

Were they too hard won

Did you reach too high and fall

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

To Understand

to understand— Corita, serigraph, 1965 Used with permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles “to understand is to stand under which is to look up to which is a good way to understand”…art and words by Sister Mary Corita

For more information on Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita) www.corita.org

All Lyrics from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson copyright 1994 Beeswing Music All Rights Reserved

Just Like Me

A Swift Current Farm Stand

At the farm stand– Photo by Hallie Swift

Late summer, last year

in line at my favorite farm stand

surrounded by the season’s bounty;

sun high in the sky;

good friends arriving soon.

A woman stepped to the front of the line;

I’m old so I get to go first.

Fine with me;

in my mind, summer’s unhurried pace is summer’s unheeded joy.

I did not care

if she stepped to the front of the line;

except–one thing–

she didn’t look old.

And so I offered a compliment

You don’t look old…

I am old, she insisted. I am 73.

Well, in my world, 73 is not old. Now 95…I would concede that 95 is getting up there!

And then, as though someone had opened a spigot, I babbled on, completely unable to restrain the flow:

my Mother was 95

and well, she had dementia, and she

(what am I doing?)

well, she died at 95

(why am I saying this?)

and um, there you have it

(will someone stop me please?)

my Mother was old

(and you’re not!).

Even at the farm stand– on a gorgeous day– at the height of summer,

I could not shut up about my Mother.

And the old 73 year old replied

If I ever get dementia, I hope someone takes a gun and shoots me.

In the sudden flash of a moment,

I felt like the old 73 year old had assaulted me

and reviled those coveted years.

I could not just stand there.

I had to say something.

I took a deep breath.

Well, for me, at least with my Mom, while her personality split apart, I still saw her; I still saw her light, I still saw her…she was still there.

The old 73 year old spat her words

I know all about dementia; my husband died of dementia; I have written articles about dementia. I know!

She knew;

up close and personal—

she knew

And she was livid.

To diffuse the moment, I asked her name. I promised to look for her essays.

And I wrote the first draft of this post as soon as I got home.

I asked the blank page what I wanted to ask the old 73 year old.

When?

When exactly?

When exactly should I shoot you?

Should I shoot you when you

are crowned Queen of Hearts on Valentine’s Day;

eat your dessert before your dinner;

win the bingo prize?

Should I shoot you when you proudly tell me

your alma mater is honoring you;

the cute social worker is flirting with you;

your dead sister is calling you?

Or maybe I should shoot you when you tell me the woman sitting at the end of the table

is really a man

dressed as a woman

investigating your sister’s mysterious death

at the age of 99

(she knew dangerous secrets!).

Would that have been a good time?

Of course,

I will not shoot the old 73 year old

under any circumstance.

But that cruel moment at the farm stand stirs fundamental questions;

ethics at the crossroads;

soul wrenching doubt.

I have seen it before;

people who think they know what they will do when devastating illness strikes

are often the very same people who cling most fervently to this glorious mess we call life;

seeking every possible treatment;

daring to defy the odds.

I believe

we need to talk about these issues,

in our families and as a society.

But for the record

my heart resents

the flip retort; the brusque aside; the I won’t let this happen to me.

Because when it comes to dementia,

you are not in control

and Just Shoot Me is not a plan.

This year, late summer,

at my favorite farm stand

I thought about the old 74 year old,

And decided it was time to keep my promise.

I found two of her essays.

Her husband had died within months of my Mother.

Her writing portrays

a storybook romance with an older man; their robust life together and

her indefatigable determination to care for him

in the most horrendous of circumstances.

But I am stunned as I read her imploring words;

(Could this be the same woman?).

Less than a year before his death,

her writing is unequivocal.

Though he had almost completely dissolved

into a mere ghost of the brilliant man he had once been;

she exhorts him to live.

Hang on, she beseeches, hang on.

A year ago,

I was bewildered and hurt by

her abrasive demeanor; her ferocious anger;

but now, I know.

Last summer

as we stood side by side at the farm stand

she was grieving,

just like me.

She had witnessed the brutality of dementia

up close and personal

And still

She knew love and

She was not ready to let it go;

She was not ready to be left behind;

She was not ready;

Just like me.

At the Farm Stand

But Now The Days Grow Short — Photo by Hallie Swift