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

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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.

 

Privilege

Summary: Discussions of eldercare issues are often imbued with a sense of burden and pain. While in no way do I intend to downplay the issues confronted by the elderly and their caregivers, I strongly believe the last decade of my mother’s life taught me what matters. Amid difficulties and struggle, our bonds became stronger and deeper. I am honored to share my perspective to Caring Across Generation’s #blog4care as together we address the needs of our elder loved ones. For more information, http://www.caringacross.org

 

A Swift Current Privilege, My Visits Were for Me

Edouard Vuillard– Mother and Daughter…

 

…what caring for our mothers really taught us…this part of life that so many people are afraid of…the act of carrying on a conversation with someone who can’t speak to you — and being there when they are dying—

there was a sense of privilege…and a sense the ‘Gosh, I was so afraid of this, I didn’t want to do it; I didn’t want to be here.’

But being here is starting to feel like a good thing, a good part of life—

something that we avoid in this culture that actually is a rich experience, albeit painful; it’s actually so much a part of life and so many people never get to be in it.

~Will Scheffer, interview on Fresh Air, National Public Radio

 

Your flight to Los Angeles has been cancelled.

What? No!

We’ve put you on the next flight. You’ll arrive at 3 PM.

But my mother…

I started to cry.

I have only a little time this trip–a few extra hours–this trip is for work…

and

now

I won’t get to see my mother.

The American Airlines agent looked down, tapping her keyboard. She placed a call—exchanged a few words– printed a boarding pass

You’re on the United flight

in one hour;

Find the tram–

Don’t stop for anything–

Run!

Until that moment

I thought my treks to the nursing home

were for my mother.

Bearing flowers and chocolates,

I’d brighten her day;

check on her care;

play the loving daughter.

In tears at the airline counter,

I realized;

my visits were for me.

And for the next ten years

I took joy from those visits

in spite of–

because of–

our cacophony of emotions;

every visit

a wild ride between

tenderness and anguish–

endearments and allegations–

astute observations and twisted fantasies—

all with roots

firmly planted in our past.

As my mother lost the ability to edit,

her words were often not

polite;

appropriate;

acceptable.

She said what she thought–

And I began to know my mother;

unfiltered;

unequivocal;

real.

But throughout our decade of dementia, I could count on one thing; she always welcomed me with outstretched arms and a redeeming grin —

(I knew it would be you! I had a feeling you were coming! I want a hug!)

until

the day

she didn’t.

I’d driven to the nursing home from the airport. My mother was in the dining room. She’d just finished lunch.

I stood in front of her, smiling broadly

Surprise!

She gazed up at me. A tentative curl of her lips; a slight nod of her head:

Hello.

I always knew this could happen.

Do you know me?

Yes, I know you. You’re Irving Berlin’s daughter!

Well um, um, no,

I’m Hallie.

That’s funny. I have a daughter named Hallie.

Yes! That’s me. I’m your daughter– Hallie!

No.

I would know Hallie.

My Hallie is

not you.

I always knew this could happen.

But I was determined. I’d travelled 3000 miles and I wanted my moment—gleeful recognition, tight embrace, beaming smile.

I tried again.

Well, what if we played a game? What if I answered questions only your Hallie could answer?

I do not want to play that game.

You would think, after all these years, I would get it.

I didn’t get it.

And so–as if words could release her– I talked. Her responses were vague; cool; reticent. She told me that she liked the facility; she was learning new things, like how to eat with a fork. She’d never used one, she said. It was difficult, but she thought she could do it.

I was relieved when one of her friends arrived;

(look mama, she knows me!).

As her friend and I started chatting,

my mother became exasperated:

Would you two please leave!

But mama, I just got here. I can visit. I have all day!

LEAVE!

Her friend implored

Please don’t go; she loves you so. She talks about you all the time.

GO!

She doesn’t mean it. Don’t go…please don’t go…she will be so sad…

GO NOW!

I left.

I wandered around the hotel; watched a movie;

and realized

she made sense.

A stranger acting as though she knew you;

insisting she’s your daughter when

clearly she is not.

And the imposter wouldn’t leave–

terrifying!

I would tell me to leave too.

I returned the following day. She was sitting in the dining room.

Do you know me?

Yes! You are the Archangel Gabriel!

Her next words were gibberish; the invented language of an infant; startling sounds from a 94 year old woman.

I left.

On the third day, I found her sitting with her nurse;

she looked at me steadily;

her eyes did not light up;

her arms did not reach out.

Do you know me?

Yes, she said,

you are my baby.

Her nurse turned away.

I stayed.

My visits were for me.

 

My Mother has done it. She has made me see what she wanted me to see…

Together we are quiet and still.

                                                                        ~Anna Quindlen, Every Last One

 

A Swift Current Vuillard In The Shade My Visits Were for Me

Edouard Vuillard– In The Shade

 

Edouard Vuillard, Mother and Daughter against a Red Background, 1891, Private Collection. Vuillard painted this image when he was just 23 years old.

The Fresh Air interview with television producers Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen originally aired on December 23, 2013 on National Public Radio. Scheffer and Olsen produced the HBO’s series “Big Love” and ”Getting On”. Their fascinating interview (entitled ‘Getting On’ With It: A new HBO Show Doesn’t Tiptoe Around Death’), is available at the Fresh Air website and as an iTunes podcast. Interviewer Terry Gross, Scheffer and Olsen explore several aspects caregiving for aging parents, as well as for your partner. According to the interview, while they were producing Big Love, Olsen flew from LA to Nebraska every other Friday night to visit his ailing mother, flying back to LA on the 5 AM flight Monday morning; Scheffer also made the Friday to Monday visits to his ailing mother in NYC alternate weekends.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen Copyright 2010 by Anna Quindlen Published by Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Edouard Vuillard, In The Shade, 1907

 

All That You Can’t Leave Behind Part 2

Vuillard--Misia at the Piano, 1899

Vuillard–Misia at the Piano, 1899


Vuillard 1895

Vuillard 1895

And if the darkness is to keep us apart

And the daylight feels like it’s a long way off

And if your glass heart should crack

And for a second you turn back

Oh no, be strong

  Walk on, walk on

What you’ve got they can’t steal it

No they can’t even feel it

Walk on walk on

Stay safe tonight

Mama, can we clean this out? I’ll help you. It’ll be fun!

I pulled the handle. Papers spilled as the heavy drawer slowly opened –church bulletins, family photos, old grocery lists-

a waterfall of paper cascading to the floor.

Oh no, oh no! Put that back… I might need it!

A grocery list?

I might need it!

I put it back. Valued keepsakes; dumpster-bound discards; my mother’s home was an archeological dig waiting to happen.

There was even artwork under the beds.

Please don’t get me wrong. My mother was not a hoarder; she was a survivor; a Depression survivor. She saw potential in everything.

Can’t we throw this out?

NO!

But she didn’t live there anymore.

She lived in a nursing home.

And it was time to tackle 40 years of accumulated treasures.

With every decision

(would cousin Peter like this?)

(could the thrift shop sell this?)

(do you want this?)

I was haunted.

Our mother —

who relished this home

and cherished these belongings–

would not approve.

Even though she said

it’s time to sell the house;

I knew

she didn’t mean it.

She didn’t want this.

She lived only a few miles away,

And there we were;

shelf by shelf; drawer by drawer; closet by closet;

demolishing her life.

As we begin,

the neighbors accost prospective buyers, proclaiming the house should not be sold. Our mother would be happily at home if it weren’t for her evil daughters— from the east— who put her away.

A neighbor races to the nursing home

They are removing your dining room furniture. You said I could have it. I’ll give you a good price!

My mother is hysterical.

The nurses are aghast.

Nothing surprises us.

We clean the garage. Donning hazard masks, we load huge dumpsters– expired medicine; exploded tomato cans; a wealth of evidence that dementia made its appearance a long time ago.

A neighbor storms into the backyard. Jabbing her finger in the air

You are making a big mistake. We can take care of her. She‘s just fine!

We sift sort discard

clean pack

cry.

The neighbors’ tirades could not begin to match the torrent of emotions inside those walls.

The most mundane objects–

a chipped cookie jar;

battered manicure set;

dog-eared encyclopedia–

spark a firestorm of memories.

But where’s Uncle Charlie’s diamond?

Grandma’s wedding band?

Missing!

Lost.

Stolen?

We will never know.

But in truth–

they can have the diamond;

we have the cookie jar.

As each room is emptied, my apprehension grows;

I have dreaded this moment for years.

In a few days,

my sister and I will walk out of this house

for the last time;

down the steps, down the red brick path;

no turning back.

I am not sure I can do it.

We lift pull carry

scrub sweep

find

small glass bottles of water

hidden in a bottom drawer.

But not just any water—this is holy water– blessed at our parish church the night before Easter.

Our family always attended The Easter Vigil; my parents enthusiastically participating in the church’s dramatic rituals as it prepared its new year;

its new beginning.

The blessing of water was one of those rituals;

apparently my mother had saved water every year–

water with special powers–

if you believe in such things.

My sister and I look at each other, amused;

What on earth do we do with holy water?

The toilet?

Bad karma! Let’s decide later.

Later

the house is empty; not a single object remains;

except the water.

The closing is this afternoon;

our purses sit by the door;

Let’s sprinkle the water in the garden!

My sister walks to a rose bush

I sent this to daddy when he learned about the cancer.

We toss water on the roses and say our parents’ names.

In an instant

the moment I have dreaded for years

is easy.

We look at each other

surprised; relieved;

they would approve!

Laughing

we sprinkle water throughout the garden

calling our ancestors’ names:

our grandparents and their parents;

our aunts; our uncles;

the water is almost gone.

We walk to the tree at the corner

This is for

 our cousins

and their children

and their children’s children.

And for us–

This is for us.

I had anticipated heartache; sorrow; remorse.

I felt

grace;

hope;

jubilation.

We danced down the red brick path and got in the car. I had planned this part. The daughter of a record producer, I knew I would need a soundtrack.

I had already installed U-2’s latest disc. I hit track 4. We drove away as Bono sang the words that had carried me to this moment; the words I needed to hear

Leave it behind

You’ve got to leave it behind

All that you fashion

All that you make

All that you build

All that you break

All that you measure

All that you steal

   All this you can leave behind…

The Day We Moved In, Photo by my sister, 1963

The Day We Moved In, Photo by my sister, 1963

Both sets of lyrics from Walk On, from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, music and lyrics by Adam Clayton, Larry Mullin, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, copyright Polygram International Music Publishing, BV

Again I welcome your comments.

Bookends Part 2 (which nobody can deny)

A Swift Current  Corita flowers for mary

flowers for mary
Corita, serigraph, 1979
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

I love you.

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!

I have a temper; a hair-trigger, fly-off-the-handle, I’m-not-proud-of-it
temper.

And looking back, I am not convinced my Mother loved me for it. Perhaps her words were a commentary in disguise; a need to make an observation; an assessment delivered delicately, with humor, in the spirit of counsel and understanding.

I haven’t forgotten.

I savor those exchanges; those pristine moments of sharing and ease and grace. Amidst the pain and upheaval of dementia, I relished the joy of just being together, at long last. We had the time to say things we’d never said and the chance to give thanks for what had gone before.

The decade of dementia;

it was horrendous;

it was a gift.

I remember moments of uproarious laughter; moments of unsettling poignancy; moments of redemptive quiet. I loved staring into her almond-shaped hazel eyes–eyes that had seen so much and knew even more.

I repeatedly told her she was beautiful.

You’re always telling me I’m beautiful. Do you really think so?

Yes, Mama, of course…you are!

It’s funny, you know. I never thought I was attractive.

Mama?

I never really liked my looks.

Oh Mama…

A Swift Current My Beautiful Mother which nobody can deny

My Mother

My beautiful Mother and I spent countless hours together in the garden; drinking in the expansive view of Los Angeles; drinking in each other. Sometimes we were animated, effusive companions; other times we shared a calm, benevolent silence.

But during every visit, without fail, my mother eagerly introduced me to the nursing home workers as they walked through the garden. I had known them all for years, but my Mother wanted to introduce me–formally–each and every time.

She knew all their names, or at least the names she had conferred on them. Grasping our hands, she exclaimed

This is Hallie! This is my daughter…all the way from New York!

Back then, I thought those repeated introductions were awkward; embarrassing (They know me mama, they know me). And now, lingering in my memory, those moments are imbued with a sweet urgency; my Mother’s unheralded accomplishment. I see her elegant sweeping hands; I hear her proud tone, I sense the workers’ patient understanding.

Meet my daughter Meet my daughter Meet my daughter!

As we sat in the garden one day, we were suddenly surrounded by several staff members. I was alarmed (my God, what are they doing; what’s wrong?). They looked at each other, and burst into song;

For she’s a jolly good fellow

For she’s a jolly good fellow

    For she’s a jolly good fellow…

My Mother’s mouth was agape; her face aglow with surprise and wonder; thanks
and love;

Mostly love.

On a good day, my Mother saw love in every direction. I remember a handsome young man who frequently visited a fellow resident. He was a social worker from Los Angeles County.

According to my mother, it was love.

It is so sad, my mother whispered. She is not well, and they are so in love.

Mama, I think he works for the County.

Oh yes, that is how they met. And now they are in love.

And love was all around my Mother too. The handsome social worker always brought little treats for her. Fellow gentlemen residents were becoming interested. An old friend from church was developing feelings.

And whenever a helicopter flew overhead, the pilot was most certainly my cousin. From our vantage point in the garden, she greeted every roaring chopper, waving and shouting

Dave, there’s Dave! HI DAVE HI DAVE

When I saw my cousin, I laughingly shared my mom’s enthusiastic reaction to helicopters in the sky. And Dave replied:

Oh, that is me. I told her I would be by. I buzz the nursing home during training runs.

That was you?!

Of course it was you.

And my Mother knew.

Of course she knew.

After years of dancing with this disease, you think I would know it too;

I never should have doubted her.

And after years of this dance, you think I would know that her perceptions and moods were dictated by the misfires of her brain and the chemicals in her body.

I could not change her world;

I could not make it better;

But still, I tried.

Every time I headed to the nursing home, I made a special effort to bring flowers and chocolates, ice cream and magazines; ingredients to jump start a happy visit

(as if I could).

But early in the decade, a chance encounter spurred my decision to leave no stone unturned. I found a great florist near my hotel; I had fun picking out cheery bouquets. Standing in the checkout line, a woman complimented my choice, and I happily replied

They’re for my Mom.

She dissolved in tears.

I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that when I had the chance.

And now I can’t.

From that day forward, whenever tempted to skip my errands, I remembered that woman’s tears. That moment was like a yellow flashing warning light.

(What if this time is the last time?)

But one time, I did skip it. I was staying in a different part of LA; didn’t know where to get her favorite chocolates; didn’t think the bouquet would be as nice. And over the course of several days, I arrived at my Mother’s side, empty-handed.

On the last day, I told her I was returning to New York. I would be back soon.

Really? You’re going back to New York?

Yes, Mama, but I will be back soon.

But Hallie,

I didn’t get any flowers or any chocolates.

My mother, her mind unraveling, still knew.

I had broken the pattern.

And she knew.

Of course she knew.

I never should have doubted her.

Flowers grow out of dark moments (said Corita).

But the irony is staggering.

That vicious, anguished decade

bestowed unrivaled moments of

secretly-coveted intimacy

    I love you

joyful revelations;

for your happiness

unexpected honesty

and your volatility!

I feel now as I felt then:

Sorrow;

Doubt;

Love;

Mostly love.

I believed then as I believe now:

that vicious anguished decade

was a gift;

every moment—a gift

which nobody can deny.

Long ago

it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.

~Paul Simon

A Swift Current Which Nobody Can Deny

Fast Flowers Photo by Hallie Swift

Bookends, lyrics and music by Paul Simon, copyright Universal Music Publishing, All Rights Reserved

Corita Kent, flowers for mary, 1979 serigraph dedicated to Corita’s sister Mary Downey, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, for more information  www.corita.org

Bookends

I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.

                                                                Stephen Colbert on the death of his Mother                                                   

Stephen Colbert stole my line.

Well, actually he stole my Mother’s line.

Of course, he didn’t steal our lines; not really.

But with the phrase that began, I know it may sound greedy, Steve Colbert captured better than ever I could the deep sorrow of losing an elderly parent.

I know it may sound greedy…

In the years since my Mother’s death, I have wrestled with that word:

Greed–

It is one of the seven deadly sins, or so I was taught.

And I have asked myself repeatedly

Was I greedy to want more time with her?

Because I did.

Because despite her infirmity; despite her confusion; despite her suffering, I was simply not ready to let her go.

I know it may sound greedy…

And as I struggle with that word, I remember that my Mother had used it first, many years ago.

We were sitting in a car outside the home of a close family friend.  I was back in Los Angeles for a rare vacation from my adopted Midwestern home.

But from the moment I walked off the plane, I felt smothered.  My mother enveloped me. She treated my every phone call, every friend, every dinner out as the enemy intruder. I had lived away from home for years; suddenly I had a curfew.

I was anxious; she was disappointed.  Neither of us was happy.

Sitting outside our friend’s home, I leaned my head against the steering wheel.

Mama, I can’t take it. 

What can’t you take?

Every time I leave the house, you make me feel guilty. When I go out with my friends, I feel like I am hurting you.

I just want to see you.

Mama!  I live in Minnesota.  I never see my friends. Can’t I spend some time with them?

I want to see you too.

Mama, I do see you.  I am staying with you!  But it is never enough!

Well, I guess I am just greedy.  I can’t help it. I just want to be with you. I’m not going to change.

Her words did not bring us together.

For years I felt the weight of her longing.  Though I lived thousands of miles away, her determined expression and insistent words reverberated in my memory and underscored our interactions.  I called weekly.  I wrote occasionally.  But she was not the only one who wasn’t going to change.

I guess I am just greedy. 

I can’t help it.

I want to be with you.

In fact my Mother had been instrumental in shaping my strong sense of independence. Within months of my Father’s death, I moved across the country to participate in a graduate fellowship.  It was a rocky road.  I didn’t like my classes; didn’t like the East; didn’t make new friends. One day I called her and announced:

I can’t take this anymore; I am dropping out. 

And without hesitation, she replied,

Where will you go?

Her unequivocal words and firm tone rang clear; my childhood home was not an option.

I was on my own.

But she sprang into action.  She visited my high school, conferred with my teachers, and called with her report. The nuns were unanimous:  a woman with a Master’s degree is better off than a woman without one.  Stick with it.  You can do it.

She was right.

I was miserable.  I was lonely.  But I did it.

My graduate advisor found a job for me in Minnesota, where I literally twirled on a street corner and threw my hat in the air…then it was on to Chicago, and let’s win thereNew York New York it’s a wonderful…

My life turned into a whirlwind; dominated by my career.  But as the years unfolded, my Mom seemed perplexed by my choices. I wasn’t sure she took much satisfaction in

My Daughter, the Vice President of Marketing…

But if she felt disappointment, she didn’t express it; at least not to me.  I was deeply grateful that she never pried about my boyfriends; never angled for grandchildren; always seemed to relish stories of the kitty’s latest exploits.  We both pursued our hectic lives, separated by a continent of unspoken expectations; unresolved yearning; unrequited dreams.

When I (finally) met my husband, she was exuberant. Well, actually, so was I.

Friends reported her giddy delight (before she even got in the car, she was exclaiming Hallie’s engaged Hallie’s engaged!).  The day she arrived in New York for our ceremony, we asked if there was anything special she wanted to see.  And without hesitation, she replied,

I want to go to a wedding!

The Mother of the bride was 82 years old.

And the evening of our rehearsal, when my new Mother-in-law told my Mom that she wished we’d done things differently, my Mother responded that she’d once heard a sermon that affected her deeply.  The priest instructed his congregants to

Love your children; no matter what they do; especially if you don’t agree. Their lives are their own. 

And your job is to love them.

When a friend shared this overheard remark, I was astonished.  We had spent more than 20 years in an awkward dance of expectation and resistance. Love guarded by boundaries. Bonds etched with misunderstanding.

I wondered if I knew my Mother at all.

(I guess I am just greedy…)

It was only two years later

when the head of the nursing home looked me in the eye,

and told me the news I did not want to hear:

Your mother has dementia.  She will not get better. And she will not go home.

I never expected what happened next.

I never expected I’d find joy in the halls of that nursing home.  I never expected that within those walls, I would (finally) discover my Mother.

In the decade that followed, we spent long hours, side by side.

Her illness taught me to slow down.

Her need taught me to accept responsibility.

Her unraveling taught me know her; unedited.

And as the years unfolded, her longing became mine.

I always hoped for one more visit.  I wanted to see her eyes dance just one more time.  I knew she didn’t want to live like that, but

I didn’t want a world without her in it.

In the years following her death, I still see the two of us sitting in that car thirty years ago; I remember our frustration and her words from that night.

But now I am the one who is perplexed. Despite my best efforts, I hear the echo of my Mother’s voice.  This time it’s coming from my own heart:

Well, I guess I am just greedy. 

I can’t help it.

I just want to be with you. 

And I’m not going to change…

A Swift Current || Bookends

Lorna Tuck Colbert 1920-2013 Link to Stephen Colbert’s tribute is below

The link below (Remembering Lorna Colbert) should lead you to Stephen Colbert’s tribute to his Mother which aired June 19, 2013 (please bear with the brief advertising lead in)…As he says, If you like me, that’s because of my Mom…

Remembering Lorna Colbert

What Is Certain

It was over.

I would never again experience her mischievous sidelong glance; her resolute will; her unmitigated joy when I walked into the room.

A few days after her death, I came across these words by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; his perspective sustains me as I think again and again about the loss of her:

The more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. We bear what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within; a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

I realized that, except when dementia clouded her recognition, my Mother had always expressed abounding joy each and every time we were reunited.

With a huge smile and beaming eyes, she would throw her arms up in the air for a hug. 

And while we often would engage in a mother/daughter dance of wills, our greetings and partings were always imbued with a deep, poignant stirring.

When I left her side for the last time, I told her I would be back soon.

What if I die before you get here?

Her eyes were focused on me. She was not clouded by confusion. She meant every word.

I don’t think that will happen.

Oh…why won’t it happen?

Because it hasn’t happened before, so it probably won’t happen now.

Well, OK; if you say so.

I never saw her again.

It was over. 

But it will never be over. 

I have hidden treasures; about that, I can always be certain.