“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.”

Keeping Kin

StPetersCemetry“I’m Earl’s youngest.”

I must have said it ten times as a reference point for people who looked familiar but forlorn as we came together to bury my aunt in Oxford, Mississippi.

My father’s been dead for fifteen years, and my mother is out of touch now due to dementia, but these folks—blood kin and otherwise—gathered at the funeral home on Highway 6 still link me to my heritage. They are my people.

Oxford is where my parents met in elementary school, attended University High, and were graduated from Ole Miss. It’s where my family went throughout my childhood to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. Cousins. It’s where I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, realizing I didn’t belong in law school and that I was about to undo years of dreams–other people’s dreams–by dropping out. It’s where we buried Daddy. And it’s where I married the love of my life at age 41, in the same church where my parents said their vows in 1948. Lafayette County will always have hold of me.

St Peter’s Cemetery embraces more family members than I care to remember. But remember I did, tiptoeing over ancestors as I made my way to the Wilson monument on the hill to escort another loved one across the threshold.

“We’ve saved a plot for you,” my mother said to me once when we visited the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a Wilson or a Lyles. I was single then, and my “bless your heart” parents thought it would always be so, that I would end up next to them in death, close by, just as I had been for most of my life. Too close, perhaps. It did not seem the time or place to tell her I plan to be cremated, married or spinster, my remains cast to the wind hopefully in North Carolina, where I feel more at home than I ever did in my hometown.

“Thank you,” I said.

My father is there, both his parents, my mother’s parents, too, second cousins twice removed, a couple of relatives I have no clue about (why don’t I remember Roxie Malinda?), and a precious child who died soon after birth. They’re all accounted for, surrounded by friends known to several generations of my family. I recognize names like Clark and Howell and Ivy from years of recollections offered up during holiday dinners and family reunions.

When I was younger—I’m 53 now—I thought I knew enough of my family’s lore. But on that day, as we said another goodbye, I realized I do not know enough.

Letters from Home {“Love, Mother”}

IMG_4019The return address was my niece’s, so I assumed my precious three-year-old great nephew had sent me a card. Upon opening the envelope, I found a folded-over piece of green paper, with a thickness between typing and construction paper. 

That adorable boy made me a card. I knew I was his favorite…

Although I did not recognize the writing on the front, upon turning the page I quickly knew my mother’s penmanship, that familiar cursive that has seen me through sleep-away camp, moves to Knoxville, Washington, and Nashville, the death of my father. A little weaker looking now, but still full of heart.

I’ve been crying a lot lately. A sister tells me it’s because I’m in my fifties that everything has suddenly taken on an increased tenderness. She says one day I’ll wake up and everything will be all right, but that it might take a while. She’s just past sixty and doing great, so if she says it gets better, I choose to trust her. 

In my current condition, a teenager waiting at the bus stop, who looks like maybe she had to work a shift after school, still in her fast-food uniform at night, makes me cry. The bearded man whose truck stalled next to me at a traffic light makes me cry. He tried to crank the engine four times before sliding slightly into the intersection. The truck looked like it had been pieced together with scraps, a patchwork of parts, and in that short span of time I convinced myself the man was down on his luck and all alone in the world. Please let it start. Please let it start. Please let it start. Please let it start. And it did, just after the light turned green and before anybody started honking. We both went on our way, me thanking the universe  and driving straight down Woodmont, him puffing on his cigarette, changing lanes as he turned onto Hillsboro.

I’ve always been sensitive, mind you, but it’s more pronounced now. When I realized my ninety-two-year-old mother had made me the card, and not a toddler, the tears came fast and fell for what seemed like a full minute. Mother was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and she lives in a residential facility for people with memory issues. My family’s Christmases are not the same as in the days of yore. Daddy’s been dead for fourteen years, and the rest of us can’t always gather together during the holidays. Chances are slim you’ll find us on Facebook in matching outfits holding mugs of steaming cocoa in front of a garland-draped fireplace. We are wandering a new land now, full of misplaced memories and far-flung relations.

There was a time not so long ago that imagining my mother sitting around a table with other aging, confused souls during “craft time,” putting stickers on colored paper while singing Christmas carols off key, might have made me blush with embarrassment, or shame, or pity. Who knows? Now I consider it a blessing.

I will treasure this green piece of paper with the snowman stickers and the slanting salutation, for it is what my mother can give. She offers what she has left of herself to me and I stand ready to receive. IMG_4021

May we all give what we can, whatever it might be, for as long as we can.

Amy Lyles Wilson

{On Minding My Mother: “Give Me Just a Minute”}

IMG_1631Last month, while visiting with my mother, 92, we danced the dance we’ve adopted since her dementia diagnosis about two years ago. We change it up as appropriate, depending on how she’s feeling and how I’m handling how she’s feeling. Some days it’s jazz like, where we make it up as we go along with a lot of zigging and zagging and very little rhythm. On other days it resembles a waltz, with smooth and deliberate steps. Always, one of us leads and the other follows. For the most part it starts out like this:

She looks at me intently for several seconds before breaking into a smile that cracks my heart a little more each time: part surprise, part gratitude, and still, thankfully, part recognition. All the while I’m smiling back at her, trying not to panic, resisting the temptation to burst forth with, “Surely you remember me, your favorite daughter!”

“Oh sweetheart,” she says, coming close to hug me. “I didn’t know you were coming.” Which is often true, as I’ve been advised by counselors to say “I’ll get back as soon as I can,” instead of “I’ll see you tomorrow,” in case my plans change and Mother is left hanging, waiting for me to drop by. (I live in Tennessee and she’s in Mississippi in a residential facility.) Just as sure as I told Mother I’d be there on a certain day, at a specific time, she’d be lucid enough to hold me accountable. And trust me when I say you don’t want that kind of guilt weighing on you, getting a call that says, “Your mother is waiting for you. She’s anxious that you’re not here when you said you’d be. And she’s all dressed up. With her purse in her lap.”

On this particular visit I could not recall the name of another resident while Mother and I were talking. I’ve known the woman forever, grew up with her children, and yet I couldn’t bring her name to my mouth.

“You know, Mother,” I said, pleading and pointing toward the hall. “The woman who lives just up the way from you. The one with the—“

“Give me just a minute,” said Mother, interrupting me and holding out her right hand in a “stop” position. “Let me think.”

She came up with the name shortly thereafter and presented it to me without fanfare. Just another mother helping her child.

On Being 52: Trust Me, It’s More Than a Number

DSC_0326Please, I beg of you, don’t tell me that my age is “just a number” or “all a matter of attitude.” I get it, really I do, that you mean well, and that you think I’ve got a youthful spirit and that 52 is not 92. But I am here to tell you that being fiftysomething is more than a number. Regardless of one’s perky outlook, it is the startling—although it shouldn’t be a surprise seeing that I’ve had five decades to get used to the idea—realization that more than half my life is over. With that comes, if you’re paying attention at all, some kind of evaluation about where you are and where you want to go from here. 

Here’s what being 52 is: weakening eyesight, creaking knees, a need for naps, an ever-present countdown toward the rest of my life’s goals, missing my dead father, learning the language of Mother’s dementia, dreaming of going back to school yet again, wanting to make a difference, a longer list of books I haven’t read, grieving misplaced relationships and lost opportunities, wondering what will become of me. Thankfully, being middle-aged (humor me, please; I know I’m stretching the math here) also brings sharpened awareness of even the smallest joy, an appreciation for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve avoided, a heightened curiosity, increased energy for what simply must get done and a gentle release of what won’t, discarding what no longer fits me—from old clothes to worn out grievances—without guilt, overflowing gratitude for steadfast friends and supportive relations, and trusting it will be okay in the end.

On this icy winter morning, as I consider my next steps, I raise my decaf latte to the fabulous Elaine Stritch, who bears witness to the “courage of age” with such blazing fortitude that I am made bolder simply by listening to her on National Public Radio.

Sing it, sister, I say. Shout it, growl it, live it.

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.