Every time I visited the nursing home, I never knew which version of my mother would appear—
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.
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
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.
But no matter how hard I try,
this is different;
I cannot make her feel
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–
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–
exclaim with glee.
As the afternoon light slowly shifts,
she studies us
with penetrating, almond-shaped, hazel eyes.
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,
side by side
in the garden—
I never knew which version of my mother would appear.
But I came to understand
this kaleidoscope was my mother —
I didn’t always like what I saw.
And with this revelation,
I finally embraced those years
exalting in the time we spent together;
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
And She Was, written by Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison and Tina Weymouth, copyright Warner/Chappell Music Inc. All Rights Reserved