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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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.

 

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

 

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

Postcards to the Edge

At the Art Institute of Chicago

My Mother at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1985 Photo by Hallie Swift

Vuillard never ceases to amaze. I recall a poignant moment with our Mother in front of one of his paintings… she was simply swept into the picture. It was almost as though she had been there. I realized at that moment perhaps more than any other…she understood the language of painting in a way one did not have to articulate.

                                                                     ~From a letter by my Sister, an artist

A few weeks after my mother moved into the nursing home, I sent her a postcard; the image was a painting by Monet.

Later that same week I sent a Matisse.

And a few days later, Vuillard.

If living in a nursing home meant my Mother could no longer explore museums and galleries,

then I would take the museums to her.

And so began our decade of discovery—painting by painting, postcard by postcard.

But art was only part of our discovery.

There was another revelation, completely unexpected;

the postcards became our lifeline.

In the world of dementia, every sentence is precarious; every exchange hard won. As my Mother’s dementia tightened its grip, her ability to converse became increasingly tenuous. Her memories were tangled; thoughts confused; words frequently out of reach.

During visits or phone calls, her responses were often nebulous; we could explore a new topic for maybe a sentence or two, if at all.

But I discovered if a subject had been mentioned on a postcard, we could actually have an extended conversation; it was as though she had needed time to absorb my words and find her response.

Every time I walked into her room, I found her clutching several postcards. She carried them wherever she went; the edges bent; words smudged. Like childhood flashcards, she repeatedly studied each one, examining the images; reading each sentence over and over and over again.

I wrote simple, clear messages; looking back, I think I invented the tweet:

You remember Mary from Minnesota…

I met a famous chef…

I saw a great play…

Perhaps through sheer repetition, these simple, brief messages laid the groundwork for more involved, interesting and even fun interactions. And during our conversations, she could introduce topics without any prompting from me…

Did you have fun with your Minnesota friend?

Tell me about the French chef!

I know you liked that play, but I didn’t think it was so hot!

(I loved that she formed an opinion about a play she hadn’t even seen; a true critic!)

Despite the treacherous struggles of her mind, the postcards revealed my Mother still had more than a glimmer of cognitive ability. After a series of cards about the New York Yankees, she turned to me and sardonically inquired:

Well Hallie, what do you do for fun these days, other than baseball?!

She even grasped information I hadn’t intended to reveal. I never told her I had changed jobs, leaving the “security” of a big company to work with my best friend.

But because I was spending more time with my friend, unintentionally Elie’s name appeared more frequently in the cards. And one day my Mother turned to me:

I notice you mention Elie more often these days. Are you girls spending more time together?

Her cognition was severely diminished,

but she was still able to read between the lines.

My perceptive Mama;

She was still there.

For more than ten years, I sent postcards several times a week. She saved every one until the Fire Department said she had too much paper in her room! My postcard repertoire expanded beyond the art world to include scenic views, tourist sites and even the free ones from restaurants; some weeks almost any 3 by 5 paper would do!

Postcards to the Edge

Postcards sent to my Mother included artists Berthe Morisot, Corita Kent and Wayne Thiebald among many others…

But while I raced to write the cards, I always knew someday it would end.

I always knew that one card would be the last card.

Columbus Day, 2010.

We were watching the final game of National League Championship Series:
the Giants vs. the Braves.

(What do you do for fun, other than baseball…?)

Between innings, I walked over to my desk; I chose a postcard:

Apartment View by Wayne Thiebald.

And I wrote the last message.

As my Mother lay dying,

I told her we had a nice weekend; we went to Long Island;
we walked on the beach.

Shortly after I wrote a few simple words,

3000 miles away,

my Mother died.

It was a little after 6 PM in Los Angeles;

right after her dinner hour.

A few minutes before 9 PM in New York;

between innings;

I selected the last image.

And I wrote the last card;

the postcard to the edge…

The Last Postcard: Wayne Thiebaud's Apartment View 1993 Oil on canvas licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Pomegranate AA280993

The Last Postcard: Wayne Thiebaud’s Apartment View 1993 Oil on canvas licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, published by Pomegranate AA280993

Say It Ain’t So

Her doctor’s words echoed in my brain:

Your Mother will never go home again.

I refused to believe him.

(Not go home? No way. You were right the first time; she will dance out of here.

You’ll see. She will show you!

We will show you.)

I was determined. I was defiant.

I sent an email to everyone I knew in LA; does anyone know anyone who knows anything about eldercare?

Someone did.

Through my all points bulletin, I found a team of geriatric social workers. They recommended a new doctor, and off she went to a new team of specialists.

Her original doctor wasn’t happy with me. I didn’t care.

The new doctors put her in special program to improve her cognitive skills. (Yes…a program… that’s what we need…)

My Mother gleefully shared reports about her commute across LA. The van driver sang her name. She looked forward to seeing him.

At the program’s conclusion, she got a certificate.

When I tried to enroll her in the next level, the hospital declined; we are sorry, but you see, we are funded by grant. Our participants have to show progress. If they don’t progress, we don’t get our funding. And well, we can’t have your Mother back. She didn’t show progress.

She didn’t show progress? But she has a certificate!

She can’t come back.

I found another program: a senior center with classes to improve memory skills. (Yes, a better program…that’s what we need…)

We are sorry; your mother doesn’t exhibit the cognitive ability…

NO. NO. NO.

You are wrong. You are all wrong.

I convinced the nursing home to move her to the “assisted living” section. The residents live in cute little rooms and occasionally need a helping hand. She would prove she could be on her own. She looks so much better than the other patients… certainly my Mother doesn’t need around-the-clock care…after all, she’s not really sick…is she?

And my Mother moved to assisted living…not once, not twice, but three times.

And each time, within a few hours, she fell. After the third attempt, the nursing home administrator referred to my Mother’s “staged falls.”

Excuse me?

Staged fallsshe “falls” gently; she’s not hurt and she knows we will find her. He explained that subconsciously she knows that she can’t be on her own, so she “stages” the fall, and back she goes to full-time care.

Do you think it was starting to sink in?

Do you think I was ready to admit defeat?

Do you think despite her plaintive pleas to go home and my willful determination to make it happen, my Mother actually knew she needed to be there…in a nursing home?

Help me, Hallie!

How do I help you, Mama?

The answer came from the nursing home’s new director/head nurse.

In fact, there was nothing new about her. She had retired from the same job–in the same facility–a few years earlier.

But retirement bored her.

She was back.

She was tough.

She looked me straight in the eyes.

Her words were direct, unequivocal, uncompromising.

Your Mother is the best of the worst, she said.

You are right. In comparison to the others you see around here, she looks good.

But your mother has dementia. She is not able to function on her own. Her falls are cries for help.

Dementia.

No one had used that word before.

OK. I am ready.

Tell me, please. Tell me what I need to know.

Your Mother is the best of the worst.

She will not get better.

And she will not go home.

A Swift Current || Reflections on Elderly Parents || Say It Ain't So

Photo by Hallie Swift