Mother Knows Best

MarthaAndMe

A favorite photo from several years ago, before Mother’s dementia diagnosis.

Back in January 1922 my parents were born four days apart. My father in Bell, California, and my mother in Tula, Mississippi. They would meet several years later at elementary school when my father’s family returned to its southern roots, and they married in 1948.

Although there were balloons and decorations and cake for my mother on her birthday earlier this month, she would not have known it was her day unless someone had made a fuss. Her dementia robs her of a lot, such as keeping up with dates and important life events. She sometimes thinks her parents have just died and that she wasn’t able to get to their funerals. I hate this for her, that her mind is not only failing her but is also tricking her, goading her into thinking she failed her parents. When, in reality, she was a devoted and faithful daughter until the very end, when she saw her mother and father across the bar and into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi.

So she loses memories and facts, but she retains her grace, and her humor, and her kindness.

At Christmas I held her hand while we watched part of “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I had never seen and for some reason insist on referring to as “Miracle on 51st Street.” I left after Santa was put in the hoosegow, so it is my fervent hope that the poor man got sprung before the movie was over.

When I arrived that day at the residential facility where she lives, she was resting in her chair with her eyes closed. I sat on the edge of her bed and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she took a few seconds to stare at me with love.

“I recognize you,” she said, smiling.

Her eyes were clear and lively, not dulled as they can sometimes seem when she is having a harder time focusing and engaging. It was the same smile I have seen on her precious face countless times before, an upturn of her lips that let me know she is still my mother.

Show Me Your Scars and I’ll Show You Mine

IMG_3730.jpgI didn’t realize I was sick back then—just miserable. I knew I didn’t belong in law school, though everyone around me said I did. Problem is, you don’t drop out in my family. Wilsons persevere.

“I think something’s wrong with your thyroid.” This from my mother at the Thanksgiving table after my dismal semester. Turns out a goiter had sprouted in my neck and I hadn’t even noticed. That’s how out of touch I was with myself, people. (Google “goiter” at your own risk.)

“You better go see Doc Murray when you get back to Oxford.”

I did and it was. The kindly and charming old-school doctor sent me to a specialist, a not kindly and especially uncharming man, who glanced at me and said: “Most times this is cancer.”

My twenty-two-year-old self started crying and ran to call my parents.

“Come home,” they said. So I did. We got another specialist. A nicer one.

After the surgery to remove half my thyroid gland, I didn’t really mind the scar, even early on when it was angry and red. It proves I can weather the storm, if you will, that’s the way I see it. Cliché or no.

“I can fix that for you,” said a doctor acquaintance at a party not too long ago. He was tilting his head toward the base of my neck and stabbing for an olive with one of those plastic cocktail swords. Red I think it was.

“Fix what?” I asked. I wasn’t even trying to be coy, as I don’t think about the scar, which looks a little bit like a short, braided rope.

“Your thyroidectomy scar. The surgeon should have done a better job. You know, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable.”

Maybe your mother should have done a better job with you, I wanted to say. You know, so your personality wouldn’t be so bothersome.

“I don’t want it fixed,” I said instead. “But thank you for your concern.”

Besides the small rough patch on my right hand—a neighbor’s German Shepherd jumped up on me while I was riding my bike (boy was I proud of that banana seat) and I ended up in a puddle of gravel—I don’t have other visible scars. (I’ve had more surgeries, laparoscopies and such, but no additional physical reminders of trauma.)

My mother, bless her precious 93-year-old heart, is riddled with scars: colon cancer, mastectomy, gallbladder, vena cava filter, skin tears every time her body tricks her into thinking she doesn’t need to use a walker and she pitches to the floor.

I don’t know if she minds her scars or not. I could ask her, but the answer might not be based in reality, as dementia is robbing her of such. She doesn’t seem to mind them, though, or much of anything, actually. Instead she comes across as content, happy even, in the moment. She no longer seems anxious and does not spend her days borrowing trouble, a favorite pastime of hers that I’m sorry to say I have inherited.

Usually she just smiles, asks me if I’m her baby, and rolls herself into the dining room to join the other old souls who can no longer live on their own.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I am.”

Scars and all.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: Read Lucille Clifton’s “Scar” and write about what it brings up in you. Write for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

http://www.sunsetcoastwriters.com/blog/scar

From Wallowing to Reaching Out {On Friendship}

DSC_0310A friend texts to say she appreciates me, and that I make a difference in her life. Just like that, lickety-split, my mood shifts from somber to celebratory, from grasping to gratitude. My energy morphs from wallowing in my own gunk to remembering to check on an older neighbor who is ill. On a gray-sky day in Nashville, a handful of words from a fellow pilgrim in a different time zone seek me out and everything shifts. I don’t know if it’s some sort of spiritual manifestation of the butterfly effect or not, but I’ll take it.

Now go tell someone she matters.

“Her Name Is Martha” {A Prayer for My Mother}

MarthaI type these words as I email my prayer request to some folks at church, people who might be aware my mother is still living but who don’t necessarily know her name. They might even have a vague recollection that she’s in Mississippi, but they can’t know that we used to dance together in the living room to “I’m a little teapot,” or about the memorable conversation we had while riding the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard, or how she used to sign her letters “Love, Me.”

“My mother has been hospitalized with pneumonia,” I write. “She is 93 and has dementia. I worry that she’s afraid. Her name is Martha.”

We hate this for her, my sisters and me, her body being subjected to multiple injections and further indignities. She’s had breast and colon cancer; blood clots in her lungs; gallbladder surgery; Crohn’s disease. Hasn’t she suffered enough? I pray for her not to linger, and wonder if I am trying to outmaneuver God.

“Do not be afraid.”

This is what I would whisper to my mother at her bedside, but my sisters tell me not to drive the 400 miles south toward the town of our births.

“She’s stable,” they say. “We’ll keep you posted.”

We’ve been at the brink a couple of times, so close that my sisters and I once gathered in the hospital lobby to go over our notes about what Mother said she wanted at her funeral and draft her obituary. We sometimes pretend we are prepared.

Several days after penning that prayer request, my mother was released from the hospital. She does not remember what was done to her, or why. And maybe that is for the best.

So we continue on, grateful for today, and trying not to borrow trouble for tomorrow.

“Do not be afraid.”

MayBelle Gets Labeled {On Being Called “Obese”}

IMG_1913MayBelle was proud of herself for figuring out how to sign up for her doctor’s web-based information system, so that she could schedule appointments online, request prescription refills, and access all sorts of other helpful materials, like maybe how to get rid of night sweats and hot flashes you’re still having some three years after being told you’ve “gone through” menopause. (Can you say “vaginal dryness,” anyone?) So imagine her disappointment when she logged on today to arrange a follow-up visit and found the following in her file: “Mildly obese.”

MayBelle quickly double-checked to make sure she hadn’t accessed another hapless patient’s account, like, you know, someone who is, well, fat. Still MayBelle.

Now MayBelle is keenly aware she needs to lose a few pounds but deliver me, she said, looking around the room to make sure no one else had seen those two life-changing words.

“Those doctor’s office scales always seem to weigh me heavy,” she said, pulling in her stomach and sitting up just a bit straighter.

For a minute or so, MayBelle thought about going to buy a pie at the farmer’s market, or eating some cookie dough she just might have stashed in the freezer.

“Mildly schmildly,” she thought. “I’ll show that doctor from obese and move right up to ‘moderately.’”

Apparently once you’ve been labeled “obese” you don’t place much import on qualifiers.

But MayBelle knows that’s not the proper, or healthy, reaction. So instead she logged off, took a deep breath, and texted her trainer.

Take a Seat {On Mindfulness}

Photo by Christie Walkuski.

With thanks to Christie Walkuski for use of her photograph. https://christiewalkuski.wordpress.com

“This is mindfulness,” said my insight meditation teacher last night as seventy or so souls from various walks of life sat together in silence, all of us letting go of our baggage and our histories and our dreams for an hour in the sanctuary of a church in Nashville.

“This is mindfulness,” he repeated. “Knowing your experience with compassion.”

I’m trying to get the hang of this mindfulness thing and to me it means, at least in part, being able to sit with what you’ve got, whether it’s sadness or anger or fear. Anticipation or joy or nervousness. We’re invited simply to be, which can be tricky if you’ve got even an ounce of Type A in you or if you’re prone to wanderlust or if you like to keep score. Can I get an amen?

So I sit. Day after day I set my Insight Timer app and go to my favorite spot in the front room of my house. Or the faux wicker chair on the deck. Or the parking lot of whatever restaurant I just had lunch in. Some days it goes better than others, this fledgling practice of mine. Sometimes I can hardly believe it’s been twenty minutes when the bell rings, and other days it seems like the timer will never go off to signal my release.

And I read. I search online for “centering prayer,” “insight meditation,” “the contemplative life.” I look to Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Tara Brach. And I listen to Gordon Peerman with Insight Nashville every chance I get.

And then I sit some more.

As far as I can tell, mindfulness is the opposite of running from your emotions or tamping them down or eating your way through (my personal favorite) them. It’s about sitting still with your experiences, without judgment or reaction or censure.

Then there’s that tricky part about being compassionate with yourself. Is that allowed? This will be news to some of us, that it’s okay, even necessary, to care for your own heart with the same understanding and tenderness you use to love your friends and family members. Apparently your soul counts, too. Don’t forget that.

How can you bring mindfulness into your life this very day?

A Dream Realized {On Writing at Chautauqua}

Me, in a hat, realizing a dream.

On one hand, it might not look like much, for it’s just a picture of me in my favorite hat. And for those of you who know how much I loathe having my picture made, I’m actually okay with this one. Because it’s not about image; it’s about a dream come true.

Last week I had the honor of leading a writing workshop at the Chautauqua Institution (“The Language of Loss: Putting Grief into Words”). Since first stepping foot on that magical spot some twenty years ago I’ve known it would change my life. And it has.

I’ve learned a lot about subjects ranging from history to religion; made friends; eaten really good food at the Brick Room and the White Inn in nearby Fredonia, New York; heard Garrison Keillor, Carol Channing, and Salman Rushdie, to name just a few; wandered small towns with names like Ashville and Westfield and thereby come to love a part of the country I hadn’t known before. All that has been great. But now, now the best part is that I got to commune with creative-soulfuls for a week, people who were willing to write their hearts out with a stranger.

Each day we came, gathering around the table in an unairconditioned room in a former elementary school turned community center. We brought our pens and our journals and our deep-down stories. We opened the windows, turned on the fans, and wrote. In so doing, we formed a community where it was safe to tell our stories without fear of critique, or judgment, or comparison. No one cared about split infinities or potential for publication or increasing blog followers.

Instead, our concern was forming a kindred-spirit container for the sacred act of sharing those stories we don’t often get to talk about, the ones from the gut, the ones that hurt. Those writers were brave, and considerate, and willing. They were “good with words” and lovely with one another. I was inspired, humbled, and made grateful. Thank you, Chautauqua, for the experiences and the memories, yes. But especially the people.

Writing Prompt: What step can you take today, this very minute, toward realizing one of your dreams? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!