The Dark Has Its Own Light

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light

Elmer Bischoff– Figure at Window with Boat, 1964

As you come to this last page, there’s a sense of reaching out– for something that you can’t quite reach–that you can’t quite get. When you get to the top, you haven’t got it, but there’s a breathing out,

and accepting

that’s how it is…

It’s anything but a resolution. It’s not a reassurance either. It’s not that everything is going to be alright–nothing is going to be alright.

It’s just about accepting the way things are…

Words by pianist Paul Lewis about
Schubert’s last Sonata
The New York Times
August 2, 2016

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I have found

a certain peace.

It’s anything but a resolution;

it’s not a reassurance either;

and it certainly is not catharsis.

My mother is dead.

Her absence is an indelible part of me–

a space that cannot be filled—

nor should it.

Time does not heal;

I still long

for what cannot be–

but my grief

is tempered by

gratitude;

surprise;

even joy.

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I still shed tears

but I don’t fight them.

They are my silent– even welcome—recognition

of what I’ve lost and

what I live for.

Six years later,

she visits my dreams

with startling clarity–

pushing –prodding–

minding—mothering—

she makes her stand

in the dead of night.

Six years later,

I hear her voice

in my thoughts and

in my words — from

silly asides to

serious exhortations–

I am astonished to realize

she lives on

through me.

Six years later,

I look back;

I move forward;

everything’s going to be alright–

nothing is going to be alright.

As I come to this page,

there’s still a sense of reaching out

for something I can’t quite get;

for someone I will never see.

But there’s a breathing out—

accepting

the way things are.

My mother is dead.

I stare into the void

and

finally see.

The dark has its own light.

 

 

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I’ve been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”

~~ Wendell Barry

 

 

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light Corita Kent and Mickey Myers

As seen on a friend’s bookshelf…words by poet Theodore Roethke–print by Corita Kent and Mickey Myers, 1984

When I first read the interview with pianist Paul Lewis, his words stopped me in my tracks. In describing the final page of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, Lewis helped clarify my then-muddled thoughts about my evolving grief.  Here is the link to the New York Times interview by David Allen: https://nyti.ms/2lDqDvd

A Meeting in A Part– copyright Wendell Barry, 1980 All Rights Reserved

Like Paul Lewis’s words, seeing the Corita Kent/Mickey Myers print at a friend’s home helped me think about loss.  Corita Kent’s artwork is the copyright of the Immaculate Heart Community All Rights Reserved– for more information http://www.coritaartcenter.org

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”…

Double Take

You say you will love me
If I have to go
You’ll be thinking of me
Somehow I will know…

 

A Swift Current Double Take whenever i see an owl, I see her

Halfway Through the Wood… Photo by Sylvia Ferrell-Jones

A quiet winter Sunday–

a charming photo on Facebook—

an owl peaks out from a tree.

I close my eyes

take in my breath

(Mama!).

I want to thank my friend for

this fleeting moment—

this unexpected gift

but

“my mom LOVED owls”

is all I can muster.

I don’t add

her small collection of ceramic owls

was the first thing you saw

as you walked in the door of our childhood home;

or that my sister and I wore

owl pendants on our lapels

at the funeral.

And now

owls are

everywhere

pillows and wallpaper and tshirts and stickers and notecards and calendars and ornaments and

A Swift Current wherever I go, I see owls

Oh My…Radish Moon creations by Sarah Nicholas Williams

 

And every single time,

I see her–

like a spark,

catching me off guard;

startling–

playful–

elusive.

And it’s not only the owls;

–that would be too easy—

but again and again

just when I least expect it,

–there she is!–

tracing the shadows

just out of reach.

My eyes fall on a solitary figure

a half block away;

her coat–

her gait–

her hair!

I quicken my pace

but just before I call out

she turns her head.

Well, of course-

of course,

I knew that!

(you didn’t really think I’d call out, did you?)

But just for that instant…that flash of an instant…

(thank God I didn’t call out!)

A woman sits next to me in the theater;

she smiles, adjusts her wrap, studies the program

while her perfume takes me to your room

I sit on your bed feel your nervous tension my excitement too as you put on your party dress the babysitter arrives my chicken delight too my face nestled against your cool neck your sparkling earrings my goodnight kiss I promise to be good you look so pretty mama so very pretty please

don’t leave!

I duck into a diner–

a quick bite–

tuna fish salad on wheat toast please and yes, I want the potato chips;

there’s a catch in my throat

but this time I knew you were coming.

I can never order a tuna fish salad sandwich (on wheat toast)

without a catch in my throat

we pile into a booth at DuPars near the Broadway Wilshire or Hody’s at Hollywood & Vine back to school shopping I’m giddy your feet hurt we’re starving! and yes we want the potato chips and maybe even a root beer float…!

And now, mama,

my feet hurt too.

And maybe I understand, if only just a little, what it was like for you.

And how I never told you

all I meant to say.

I stare at the table;

the waitress sets down my plate

you need anything else, hon?

A woman walks down the street;

her perfume

her coat

her hair–

she turns away;

I smile.

Up the block

across the table

in the next seat

an owl peaks out from a tree.

You’ve been gone four years, mama

but you do not fade.

You ease my longing

dampen my sorrow

shelter me.

I still cry, mama

but not as much;

after all

how can I be sad

when you’re

always

just one

step

ahead.

 

A Swift Current  Double Take I see owls everywhere!

Walking Down Lex…Photo by Hallie Swift

 

Opening quote from the song “Things We Said Today” words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney Copyright © 1964 Northern Songs All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured

Halfway Through the Wood photo by Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, copyright Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, all rights reserved. Used by permission. I entitled the photo with a not-so-vague reference to Stephen Sondheim’s No One Is Alone from Into the Woods…the song was the impetus for this essay.

Owl pillows and t-shirts are part of a line of products by illustrator Sarah Nicholas Williams, Radish Moon, all rights reserved. Used by permission. To view the magical Radish Moon creations (drawings and dishes and dolls, oh my!) see http://www.radishmoon.com

And to readers who love the artist Vuillard as much I do, rest assured that I looked…but I don’t think he painted owls, or at least I couldn’t find one!

Bittersweet Symphony

A Swift Current Bittersweet Symphony


Vuillard– Child at the Door, Yale University Art Gallery 

I listened to her message;

the social worker’s voice

–always calm, friendly, familiar–

now imbued

with anxious insistence

Please call

ASAP

Your mother is fine but

We need to speak with you today!

I knew my mother wasn’t fine

but I didn’t expect the latest twist:

Hallie, I have upsetting news–

your mother is screaming

night and day.

She is disrupting the other residents. No one can rest. They need their sleep so they can get better!

We have no choice, Hallie—

we need to move her—

TODAY!

My warrior mother was back.

But they were moving her–

and I knew

this call

was the beginning of the end.

From the day she entered the nursing home,

my mother had lived in the same bright, cheery room

right by the front door.

For more than a decade, she waved to visitors and watched the activity–

with her prime vantage point,

she even thought she was a member of the staff–

but I haven’t seen a paycheck yet!

And now she was losing her post.

We are moving her to a different wing where her screaming won’t bother the other patients.

I don’t understand. It won’t bother them? Won’t she still upset people?

They won’t notice. They are too sick to notice.

I’m confused. They are too sick to notice a screaming woman? What am I missing?

I’m sorry, Hallie; but this is not up to you;

We are not asking you;

We are telling you.

Until that moment,

I had done everything I could

to avert a move from her room.

I knew

for dementia patients,

routine is paramount–

every day; every thing;

exactly the same.

And I knew my mother;

right or wrong,

I believed

a move would kill her.

For more than a year,

the prospect of a move loomed over us

for one simple reason–

my mother was running out of money.

I had paid the nursing home bills from her savings, then a small inheritance, and finally from the sale of her house.

At first, I didn’t worry;

I thought the proceeds from our family home would sustain her for the rest of her life.

And it did—for close to a decade.

But as the balance steadily declined;

I grew uneasy.

I stopped opening bank statements. I knew what they said.

And what they didn’t say.

Where will we get the money?

The obvious answer; we wouldn’t. We would spend her assets; apply for state assistance. Some people call it welfare. In California, it’s called Medi-Cal.

But Medi-Cal would not pay for her bright, cheery room; she would be moved to another location on the premises—

her routines–

her modest little corner of the world–

gone.

I had already taken away her beloved home. I could not do it again.

My solution:

I paid the bills

from my savings;

negotiating with myself

over and over and over again;

what is fair–

how much is enough–

her welfare vs.

my future.

Night after sleepless night

I battled my conscience–

If she moves to get Medi-Cal

and doesn’t survive

Tossing

I could not bear it

Turning

she paid for my education–

bought my first car–

Tossing

if I move her

Turning

and she dies

Tossing

I’ll look into Medi-Cal…

Turning

NEXT year!

But I can’t

Tossing

move her

Turning

now–

Tossing

not

NOW…

Hallie,

we are moving your mother;

we are not asking you;

we are telling you.

And Hallie,

her new room is Medi-Cal eligible;

I am sending the forms.

Please Hallie,

you’ve done enough.

It’s time to fill out the forms.

We will help you any way we can.

Now hold on, the charge nurse needs to talk to you…

When are you coming?

In a few weeks–right after jury duty.

Good. You need to come.

Is—it—imminent?

No, but your mom has entered the last downward spiral. That’s why she’s screaming.She has entered the last phase. Then she will go into the quiet period.

The quiet period?

Haven’t we had the quiet period?!

No. In the quiet period, she will lose everything—

eating, speech,

everything.

How long will this quiet period last?

Well, your mother is very healthy. It could be two to three years.

(Oh, please God, no!)

I have my plane ticket.

Good.

It’s a bittersweet irony;

despite sleepless nights,

willful determination and sacrifice

to keep her in her room;

at the end

money had nothing to do with it.

Her disease had taken her to a place

where no bright, cheery room could camouflage the horror in her brain.

We were descending down the spiral of disease—

entering the years of quiet hell.

They had no choice;

they moved her.

But still

I was not ready;

those Medi-Cal papers became

another envelope I could not open.

A few weeks later

I finally studied the forms.

We were allowed to spend her remaining money on certain essentials;

a burial plot, for example.

We would be allowed to keep a small amount in the bank;

And I would need to find her original Medicare card (copies not accepted).

(Wow, the original card… I know I’ve seen it somewhere…).

The next day

the phone rang.

The caller ID

nursing home.

For years, I had eyed those words with trepidation. But they had called so many times during the last few weeks

I did not hesitate as I lifted the receiver.

And then I heard her voice.

It was not the social worker. It was not the charge nurse.

It was the new head nurse;

the new head nurse

who had never once called.

And in that moment

I knew;

my warrior mother was dead

(oh please God…).

Minutes later,

the phone rang again:

the charge nurse–

Oh Hallie! We always get a text when someone dies. I almost fainted when I saw the message. My husband had to hold me up. Your mother! I can’t believe it! I saw her– just a few hours ago–she was the last person I saw before I left. I know what I told you…I believed what I said…I am so deeply sorry…

It was my turn to be the rational one.

It’s alright. I know you did everything you could. It’s time.

And here’s the catch:

I believe it.

Looking back, I realize,

I spent a decade

trying to orchestrate the impossible.

I was tormented about her care; a move; no money;

And in my shattered vision

I lost sight of the most basic tenet of this vicious disease;

I could control nothing.

Dementia had eviscerated my mother;

it promised only bitter years of quiet hell

with no more sweet moments to assuage me.

And even the most compassionate, experienced professional could not anticipate its path nor ease our fall.

Only three weeks after the move,

the phone rang;

my worst fear;

my urgent prayer;

my mama–

a warrior to the end.

Alleluia.

A Swift Current Bittersweet Symphony

Vuillard, The Artist’s Mother– Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The title Bittersweet Symphony comes of course from the song of the same name by the Verve. I leave it to you to research the lyrics and determine if they apply…

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

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

Theme and Variations Part 2

A Swift Current || And Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

At the end of the storm Photo by Hallie Swift

We lost Mike.

My Mother called my Dad’s closest friend from work. She spoke three words and dropped the phone.

We lost Mike.

She let out an anguished wail; a strangled sob from the deepest part of her.

We lost Mike.

She ran into their room and slammed the door.

We lost Mike.

They were married for 34 years. And for 34 years, he called her Darling.

On their first date, they saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia and had dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. Year after year, for birthdays and anniversaries, we joyfully returned to the scene of that immortalized first date, creating our own family folklore.

Every night as he came home from work, my Father walked down the street loudly humming bars from whatever symphony or concerto happened to be running through his brain. The neighbors, hearing my Dad before they actually saw him, laughed and waved. And my Mother invariably called out…

Here he is…our husband and father!

They were older than the other parents; graying hairs, aging profiles. They were thoughtful, careful, deliberate. Yet at the same time they built a home bustling with new ideas and discoveries. They challenged our thinking; embraced our interests; encouraged vigorous debate. Politics and religion were lively dinner table topics; homework a serious family endeavor.

And our door was always open to the neighborhood kids; our house teeming with activity on warm summer evenings– tag on the front lawn; the Beatles on the turntable; hamburgers on the grill.

I remember one night studying in my room when I heard the muffled sound of unfamiliar music coming from the living room; the rhythmic beat of castanets and guttural Spanish cries; a new record on the stereo.

I peered into the living room and there they were–

My parents

dancing

to Flamenco!

My Mother turned to me, beaming:

Oh Hallie, doesn’t this just stir your Spanish soul?

I was incredulous. To my teenaged eye, they looked ridiculous.

And thrilling.

My serious parents

dancing to Flamenco.

Who knew?

Then

only a few years later,

after a brief, excruciating battle with cancer,

We lost Mike.

She was only 61.

I thought she was old.

I thought she was old and an adult and
of course, adults know how to handle these things.

I gave little thought to her loneliness; her sorrow; her grief;

their marriage.

Until decades later, as dementia set the stage, and my Mother’s mind became obsessed with certain subjects. Unresolved issues rose to the fore. A single topic would kidnap her brain. If I tried to change the subject, I might succeed for a sentence or two, but in a flash she would reintroduce her latest theme.

Each theme would take center stage for months.

And just when I thought she couldn’t possibly explore it any further, she would circle back to her opening lines.

It was unyielding.

It was exhausting.

And one of those themes:

My Father.

Where is he? Why doesn’t he call? He is living down the street. I saw him walk right by– but he doesn’t visit. He is paying my bills but another woman lives in my room. Who is she? Why does he let her live here? She has no right to be here. Why is he doing this? Why is she here?

Get out!

Despite the do-not- argue dictum for families of dementia,

I simply could not go along.

When the WHERE IS HE? theme first emerged, I gently reminded her that he had died years ago.

He died? No one told me.

Mama, he died. We had a funeral.

NO. If we had a funeral, I would know. I would have been there.

But you were there.

NO! You did it without me. You and your sister; How dare you go behind my back!

I am his wife;

I have a right to know!

For at least a year, this theme underscored our every encounter.

I am his wife. I have a right to know!

She created scenes in the hallways, accusing other residents of cheating with my father. She upset their families. The nursing staff explained that false accusations are a normal part of dementia; not to worry.

I am his wife. I have a right to know!

But even the nursing staff had its limit. One day the social worker pulled me aside:

Your Mother keeps saying: I have a right to know…

This doesn’t just happen.

Her insistence is too overpowering, too relentless.

Is it possible that she is confronting a deep wound?

Did your father have a secret?

Perhaps we were confronting the ultimate indignity of dementia:

It pulls back the curtain:

Dark suspicions aroused;

Fissures revealed;

Pain relived;

Wounds stripped bare.

Perhaps we were confronting dementia’s ultimate truth:

Buried questions exposed;

Secrets succumb;

Sorrow turns to rage.

The theme continued, month after month, variation after variation:

He is alive; he isn’t calling; he’s been murdered; you girls are hiding the truth…

After my initial efforts to dissuade her, I simply gave up.

I listened. I couldn’t argue. I couldn’t agree.

The most I could muster:

I don’t know, Mama. I just don’t know.

Of course you know.

Mama, I don’t…

One day, as abruptly as it started,

the theme simply disappeared.

She let it be– as though she had finally reached a resolution

in her own private purgatory.

And as if awaiting their cue, other themes captured her. Each recalled a past trauma– the deaths of her sisters; a baby lost more than sixty years ago. One by one, each past agony, real or imagined, was confronted; relived; then extinguished,

never to be mentioned again.

It was brutal to witness her war with the past. And when each theme finally dissolved, I felt complete unmitigated relief.

During her final years, I tried not to mention my Dad. If I accidentally referred to him, I held my breath; but she never resumed her diatribe.

In fact, she even seemed at peace.

My Father;

Perhaps he was less perfect than I once thought.

Perhaps he was flawed.

But for me, his song remains the same.

The man who loomed large then still looms large now.

And I know what I know.

My great man;

He will always cry at the end of Carousel.

And so will I.

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid

Of the dark…

A Swift Curent And Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

And Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Photo by Hallie Swift

You’ll Never Walk Alone, composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, published by R&H Music Publishing Company, an Imagen Company, All Rights Reserved