Last month my two sisters and I met in Oxford, Mississippi, to see our mother’s gravestone for the first time since we had buried her just over a year ago. We’d all made sojourns to the cemetery before this particular April afternoon, but it had taken a while for us to get the ledger in place. So we walked from The Square over to St. Peter’s Cemetery, around the small grouping of trees I think are cedar but don’t know for sure. Then, just past the curve of the road, we veered right to the Wilson plot on the hill.
It looked beautiful, elegant and classic, just like Daddy’s. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it read. Ann, Ginny, and I got her as close to Daddy as we could. It’s where she liked to be in life, right next to our father, and she told me more than once, “that’s it for me,” after he died, some sixteen years before she did. She would quickly add that she still loved being with her family, but I knew what she meant, I think, for something life-giving abandoned her the day he died.
We had a ritual when we got back to Ginny’s house, putting out some pictures, lighting a candle, and telling stories of our childhood. I read a poem entitled “We Remember Them,” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer, sent to me by soul-friend Sheri Malman when I told her what I wanted to do. She also managed to have a bouquet of flowers waiting at the cemetery for us, which contained calla lilies and roses, my parents’ favorites. That’s a good friend, people.
The last line goes like this: “For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”
Let all those who miss their mothers on this day say Amen.
Somehow comforted by hearing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” on WMOT, the fabulous Americana station I listen to daily in Nashville, as I write, and remember.
This morning I woke up wondering how to make amends for having offended someone. We were at a conference and I’d tried to sit next to him during the lunch break.
“You can’t sit here,” he said. “I don’t want to be around you because I saw you do something I didn’t like.”
It might be merely sad if I were worried about someone jerky enough to refuse to sit by me because of a perceived slight I might not even have been aware of making, but the thing that makes my concern even more pathetic is that it was all a dream. After dreaming about a man, someone I did not recognize from my waking life, being rude to me, my response was to blame myself and beg for forgiveness. All this before I’d even brushed my teeth.
This can’t be good, right, that I allowed a dream to make me doubt myself? That my first inclination upon waking was not, “What a beautiful morning” (which it is here in Nashville) or “Aren’t I lucky to have a husband who brings me coffee?”
Instead, I opened my eyes and thought: “I can’t believe I made this guy so angry with me. What could I have done wrong?” Blink. Blink. Blink. “What can I do to make it right? How can I make him like me?”
“That’s a stretch even for you, Babe,” said Precious when I told him I woke up worried. “Usually we make it to noon before you take to fretting.”
I think he was kidding, but he knows I’m an anxious sort, that I have the potential to assume responsibility for actions that take place five counties over. That I can imagine all manner of things to be sorry for just sitting in the den.
But I’m working on it. I’m learning the art of presence. I’m practicing being centered in today instead of borrowing trouble against tomorrow. I yearn to be respectful of, and grateful for, this very instant. This one right here. I don’t want to be the kind of old woman who wanders too far afield into the unknown of the future or stays mired in the over and done with of the past. Today, though, I feel like my dream conspired against me.
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In training to be a spiritual director, we’re doing dream work, which is new to me. We’re asked to make notes of our dreams and sit with images that come up. Maybe this dream is inviting me to let go of what people think of me. Maybe this dream is reminding me that I can’t control how others react to me and that, alas, not everyone will like me. (This one still breaks my heart, that not everyone thinks I’m fabulous. And that there’s not a darn thing I can do about it.) This wouldn’t be the first time such propositions have been hurled in my direction. Maybe now I will get the message. If not, there’s always tonight, where another dream awaits.
I turned fifty-three two weeks ago today, and for the first time I didn’t hear my mother’s voice on August 5. It’s been almost two years since her dementia diagnosis, so her memory is not what it used to be, not like it was when she would call and sing “happy birthday” to me whether I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, or Washington, DC, or Richmond, Indiana, or Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, Nashville.
Sometimes Daddy would chime in, even though harmonizing was not his finest gift. But sang they did to their baby girl, the one who was supposed to be a boy, the one who keeps looking for the next big thing. The one who is now more than half a century old.
Since Daddy died in 2000, Mother has been carrying the tune on her own. Last year a family member was able to help Mother call me, and even though her voice was shaky she managed a verse or two. This year, though, my mother’s hold on the present day is looser than ever.
“You could call her,” said Precious, when he realized, at day’s end, how sad I was not to have heard Mother’s voice.
“I know,” I said. “But I think it would be too hard. She’s sometimes more anxious in the evening, and even if I didn’t tell her why I was calling, I’d be too emotional to sound normal.”
When I was a child, I would tell people my birthday was “August and the fifth,” trying to make sure, I guess, that they wouldn’t separate the day from the month and run the risk of forgetting when they should bring me a gift. Or call me on the phone.
This is my family’s second Mother’s Day since Mother’s diagnosis of dementia. And it’s the first one that caused me to hesitate and wonder, “Do I send her a card?” Whereupon I immediately felt sad, and guilty, and utterly unsure of myself. Who questions whether to send their mother, a much beloved woman, a card?
Last year we were all on auto pilot, I guess, trying to keep everything as normal as possible. This year I cannot deny how much things have changed for us. I wasn’t concerned that Mother might forget reading the card minutes after she opened it. I was worried that she might have forgotten me.
It’s one of the things that scares my sisters and me most, that our mother might not know us one day. “Don’t borrow trouble,” friends advise, and I try not to, even though I’ve spent much of my life doing just that, long before things went wonky with Mother. (I won’t bore you with all the things I’ve worried about that never came to pass. You can thank me later.) It may be that Mother will recognize us until the day she dies. But the very real possibility that she won’t pops up now and again.
I’m the youngest of three daughters. No sons. My sisters are ten and seven years my senior. As a teenager, it didn’t occur to me that I might have been a surprise. Occasionally I noticed that my friends’ parents looked younger than mine—my parents were forty when they had me—but I didn’t resent it or spend too much time trying to figure out what it might mean for my future. I liked hanging out with adults, and I grew up wanting to be older. I wasn’t scared of middle age; I longed for it. In so doing, I suspect I missed out on some youthful—and perhaps necessary—experiences. But it suited me, this way of being brought up.
“We treated you like you were thirty from the time you were six years old,” my father would joke.
On a ferry from Wood’s Hole to Martha’s Vineyard some twenty-five years ago, I asked my mother if I had been a mistake. I don’t know what made me pose the question then, but it was one of those moments of deep connection in which nothing seems off limits. We were two women on a road trip from Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, to New England. We’d toured the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, shopped for antiques in Connecticut, and were now bound for the Black Dog Bakery.
“Of course not,” she said, facing into the wind. Then there passed one beat of silence, two. If I were telling you this story in person I would snap my fingers twice for effect.
“But if you were,” she added, turning to look me straight on, “you were the best mistake I ever made.”
I did send the card, the day before I read this, written by a woman I worked with in another lifetime, Paula Spencer Scott. She hired me for my first gig out of graduate school, working for Whittle Communications, which I count as one of the highlights of my career. Now she’s an accomplished writer and a contributing editor over at Caring.com, and she’s had family members with dementia and Alzheimer’s. When suggesting things to do for your loved one with memory issues, Scott advises, among other things, to “Keep giving cards. She might not remember opening it five minutes later, but so what? What matters is delighting her in the moment.” (www.huffingtonpost.com)
I’m learning a lot about that these days, being “in the moment.” Spending time with Mother brings it all to the here and now. When you’re holding your ninety-two-year-old mother’s hands, noticing how much the pinky on your right hand resembles hers, both now crooked with arthritis, and telling her the same story you just told her a half hour earlier, it anchors you to this very minute. It’s all we’ve got anyway, right? So I will sit, and I will listen, and I will love.
When I was about five, my family moved from one subdivision to another in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after we arrived, a woman came from next door to welcome us to the neighborhood. Mother told me to go out back and play while they visited. So I did. After roaming around for a bit with my Labrador sidekick, Sloopy, I found the longest row of daffodils, all yellow and good smelling, lining one side of the yard. I picked a bunch of them, delighting in my discovery, and took them in to Mother, my chubby fingers wrapped around the stems.
“Here,” I said, offering up my bounty. “These are for you.”
“Oh no,” said my mother. “Those don’t belong to us. You shouldn’t have done that.”
Somehow she knew what I didn’t, that the flowers bloomed on the property next to ours, owned by the nice woman sitting on the couch. She was lovely about it, this new friend, but my mother was not amused.
The neighbor, Mrs. Wise, and I laughed about it when I was older, with her telling me I could pick those flowers anytime, that she just wanted people to enjoy them.
The last time I saw her she brought a card to my father in the hospital after he collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch. Once again Mrs. Wise and I spoke of the daffodils, although she was well into her eighties then and said she had no memory of my indiscretion. Why would she?
Why do I? Because of the shame of it, perhaps, one of those early scoldings we think we didn’t deserve. An early embarrassment. Or maybe it was my first meaningful encounter with a daffodil.
“But I wouldn’t have minded if you picked those flowers whenever you wanted,” she said as we visited in the lobby of Baptist Hospital on North State Street.
“This is for Earl,” she continued, handing me the card. “Get well soon,” it read.
Daddy died the next day, Mrs. Wise several years later.
Every spring when I pick daffodils in my own yard in Tennessee, I think of them both, a neighbor and a father who made lasting impressions on me.