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”…