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

“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.”

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 Birthdays {My New Normal}

ALW-BabyPicI 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.

{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.