Loving Martha: On Memory and Mother’s Day

Martha
A favorite picture of Mother, taken on her last trip to the Chautauqua Institution, where we often vacationed together.

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.

Stealing My Neighbor’s Daffodils

IMG_3425When 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.

On the Occasion of Mother’s 92nd Birthday

IMG_3336When my precious mother turned 80 in January 2002, my sisters and I hosted a lunch in her honor at the small church my parents had helped found in 1956. There was chicken spaghetti and cake, flowers and balloons, and lots of love for my mother. People told us how much she had meant to them over the years, shared stories about my sisters and me, and remembered my father, who died in 2000, with affection. Mother stood up and thanked them, cried a little when talking about Daddy, and made sure folks got second helpings.

This year, Mother’s birthday looked different. She’s 92 and living in a care facility, diagnosed with dementia. There was cake and and pink lemonade, flowers and balloons, and lots of love for my mother. My sisters and I didn’t know if the residents would want—or be able—to sing, but one of them started belting out “Happy Birthday” so we joined in as best we could.

Mother stood up and thanked them, smiled over at her three girls, and made sure folks got second helpings.

Christmas Past

IMG_3294What the ornaments hanging on this wreath lack in finesse they make up for in memory, and tradition, and family. Like when my father was still alive, his arm wrapped around whichever of his three daughters happened to be within reach. When my mother didn’t have a diagnosis of dementia, and we painted wooden cutouts shaped like snowmen and Santas. When my sisters and I were young. These ornaments are as much a part of me as my green eyes and my tendency toward impatience. I pack them up with a heart made full by tenderness for what was, gratitude for this present moment, and acceptance of what will be.

Love Affair, Interrupted: The Ones Left Behind

He looks like Grandmother Wilson,” I said, remembering my paternal grandmother, who died in the early 1980s.

Yes,” said my mother. “He does.” She took a shallow breath and then, “Why did this happen?” Mother stared at Daddy and I patted him on the shoulder, which seemed to make me feel like I was doing something helpful.

“Would you like to go ahead and take his jewelry with you?” asked the nurse.

His wedding ring and class ring (University of Mississippi, Sigma Nu, 1948) came off fairly easily, but the watch was harder. His hands had always been big—something I inherited from him, along with his sensitive skin and his tendency toward impatience—and it seemed his hands and wrists had doubled in size since he’d been in the hospital. Watching the nurse struggle became too painful. “Greedy daughters take jewelry off dead father. Film at eleven.” In reality, we were simply clawing for any piece of Daddy that we might keep, anything that might outlast death.

“I’ll get that off for you later,” said the nurse.

Mother cradled his wedding band in her palm, and I slipped the class ring on the thumb of my right hand. It was too big, even for my pudgy fingers, but I wasn’t about to let go.

“Sometimes I like to pray with the family,” said the nurse. “Is that all right with you?”

Who knows how each of us prayed silently as the nurse spoke, her voice soft and clear and sure as she asked for the emotional healing of my family. Her short hair and wire-rimmed glasses gave off a certain air of efficiency, but it was not just about the job for this woman. It was about us, too, the ones left behind. The ones she could still help.

As for me, I thanked God for giving me such a fabulous father. And then I bawled like a baby.

 

Love Affair, Interrupted: “Just Like That”

Reservation Confirmation for Martha and Earl's Honeymoon in 1948

“The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying away while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements…”—Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell

As my father drew his last breath, he did not rise up to confess the name of an unknown love child or reach out to my mother to proclaim his love one more time. He simply died.

“Is this it?” asked Mother. At 78, she looked like a child who had lost sight of her parents in a crowded shopping mall.

“I think so,” I told her, crying, searching the nurse’s face for a signpost of my own. She nodded.

“Yes,” I said to my mother. “I think this is it.” She climbed onto the hospital bed and lay down beside Daddy, cradling his head in her arms and whispering into his right ear. She was wedged between the side rails and her soulmate. My two sisters and I huddled around the other side of the bed, taking turns telling Daddy good-bye. Later we discovered that Ann and Mother were begging him to stay, while Ginny and I were telling him he could go, his work with us was done, he had done it well. We did not know if Daddy could hear us, and in light of the conflicting messages, maybe it’s best if he didn’t. It’s a good thing Daddy always knew his own mind.

It became obvious rather quickly that my father was indeed dying. Numbers dropped on machines, glowing lines lost their arcs and veered toward flat. I know you’re not supposed to be able to hear hearts break, but I swear I heard something, loud and clear. After twenty-four hours of his head swaying back and forth, his face obscured by an oxygen mask, the first love of my live was gone.

The nurse moved to turn off the machines that accompanied my father from this life to the next. Despite her best efforts, she could not get one of them to stop beeping.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” More beeping.

My friend Mary said when her sister died of skin cancer—she was only 35—there was a death rattle, sort of a guttural sound. All I heard, besides the beeping, was absence. Ann, Ginny, and I helped Mother down from the hospital bed. We gathered ourselves one into the other and moved around the room as a single unit, a glob of grief, not knowing where to go or when to stop. Occasionally one of us reached for a tissue or glanced out the window at the skyline of the city that had served as our family’s backdrop for more than half a century. But mostly we drifted around Daddy’s bed, first one side, then the other.

When Mother sank to the floor in a heap, phrases that didn’t begin to do the scene justice came to mind: thought I might die; took my breath away; hit me like a ton of bricks; I was beside myself. I kept looking for the just-right cliché, but I did not find it. As a daughter, I was speechless. As a writer, I was at a loss for words.

When a doctor entered the room, my mother looked at him square in the face and wailed, “Why did this happen?”

“Blood vessels get weak over time,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”

“She thinks she might have done something to save him,” I said, softly. “She thinks it’s her fault.”

I was pleading to a stranger for some remnant of reassurance. Anything. The last family member to arrive at the hospital, I wasn’t introduced to the doctors, wasn’t allowed to view X-rays my sisters saw, pictures that convinced them our father could not be saved.

“We’ve already told her it wasn’t her fault,” said Dr. Meany Pants, curtly, before leaving the room. “Your mother knows better.”

Note to self: After suitable mourning period, confront people who piss me off during the process.

The curtain that separated us from the rest of the world, the world of the living, made a slight shushing sound as it came together behind the doctor.

“Wow, the color sure goes out of you fast,” I said to the nurse, as my father faded to white from his head down.

“Yes, it does,” she replied.

Did I just use the word “wow”? Surely something more meaningful was in order.

“How long can we stay?”

“As long as you like.”

“We might be here a while, then,” I said, but I did not know how long would be long enough. I did not know anything.

I asked the nurse to remove Daddy’s oxygen mask and take out his mouthpiece. The minute she did, I was almost sorry, because then I could really see my precious father’s face. I was reminded this was not some sort of terrible mix-up, like when surgeons remove a kidney instead of a lung or amputate the wrong leg (you read about that all the time). Daddy is dead. Repeat after me.

I made my way toward him—it did not occur to me to say, “the body,” for even without breath, he was still my daddy—and smoothed his bushy eyebrows. In doing so I accidentally raised one of his eyelids and saw into the nothingness of his eyes, eyes that used to light up when he saw any one of his girls come into a room. Always a believer in another world beyond this one, I saw for myself, in that very instant, that something separate from our skin and bones, something apart from our organs and tissue, makes us who we are. Call it spirit, call it soul, call it whatever you wish. Whatever it is, it no longer resided inside my father. Just like that.


Minding My Mother: One Man’s Prison

Here’s the scene: I’m sitting next to my mother, who is 88 and lives in a “retirement community.” We’re watching a television show about Bernie Madoff, the disgraced/disgraceful financier who is now serving prison time for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. One of his fellow inmates says he thinks that life in the prison must be similar to living in an “old age home.” It’s one of the nicer joints, apparently, with holiday cookouts, flat screen tvs, and beautiful landscaping. Still, though, there are structured mealtimes, mandated check ins, and limited societal interactions that one associates with being locked up. This comparison is not lost on my precious mother, who winks at me and squeezes my hand.

Mother Love: Respecting Our Elders

I’ve got aging on the brain these days. It’s all I can think about, mine and my mother’s. I’ll soon be 49, and she’s 88. I’m obsessed with her well-being and her happiness. I don’t have children, so maybe this is sort of what being a parent feels like. I spend most of my waking hours, and I dare say a few of my sleeping ones, wondering what I can do to make sure she is happy, and safe, and cared for. She is in good shape, you know, “for someone her age.” She lives in a nice retirement community, has access to good medical care, and my two sisters live close by. I’m about 400 miles away and visit every six weeks or so. But it’s not enough, for me at least.

I find that I am ultra-sensitive to anything involving Mother. If you are too slow to respond to a need of hers at the doctor’s office. you’re likely to get my glare, which I’ve been told can be quite unsettling. If you express frustration in the time it takes Mother to decide what she’d like for lunch in a restaurant, I will be less likely to over tip. I love this woman with all my being, and I will do what I can to make sure she lives out the remainder of her days knowing she is adored.

When I visit her at the Happy Trails Retirement Utopia–not its real name–I see lots of things I’d rather not: elderly people eating alone in the cafe, hungry for nourishment that cannot be supplied by chicken salad; frail women climbing on to shuttle buses for the weekly grocery store run; and rows upon rows of walkers lined up outside the dining room because you’re not allowed to take them in with you. On my most recent visit, I had an encounter with a man who needed help on a computer. That’s all he needed, and yet he had to turn to me, a stranger, to get it. I wrote about it for Her Nashville, and you can read it here if you like.

Sticks and Stones…

I’m wondering why parents would chastise their children in public, for all those in line to renew our license plates to hear. As soon as the words were out of the father’s mouth, I saw the girl’s face crumple. He was unhappy with her performance in a softball game, and he let her know it in no uncertain terms. I wanted to hug the girl, tell her I bet she did the best she could and that her sandals were cute. Instead, I started thinking about how we speak to one another–in public and at home. How words do hurt. And really, how many of us have had to worry about sticks and stones?
Read more of my latest post for Her Spirit here…

Maybelle and Her Mother Clean Out Closets

When Maybelle goes to visit her mother in the retirement “community” where she lives, they  usually undertake some kind of project. This time around, it was to clean out closets. As Maybelle diligently took each item of clothing to her mother for inspection, she came across two lovely formal gowns.

“I don’t guess I need to keep those,” said Maybelle’s mother, who is 88 and looks stunning in this picture with her first great-grandchild. “It’s not like I’ll ever go anywhere to wear something like that again.”

After the kind of pause than can be manipulated for maximum effect, she added, “You might want to hang on to them, though. You can always bury me in one.”