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.
Today my idea of exercise was to walk the mile from my house to Whole Foods, eat lunch, and walk back. All I could manage.
Soon after I hit the sidewalk, I noticed a woman up ahead who kept turning back to look in my direction. Her steps were steady, but after every two or three, she turned. Was she confused? Lost? In need of medical assistance? Surely I could be the one to save her!
When I caught up, she told me she’d been looking for her husband, who had started out after she did.
“My eyesight isn’t what it used to be,” she said, “so I wasn’t sure who was walking behind me. You know your body starts playing tricks on you when you get older.” She was smiling when she said it.
“Yes ma’am,” I responded. “That’s one reason I’m out here today. I’m fifty-three and am trying to get in better shape. I haven’t been all that physically active up until now so it’s a bit of a challenge for me.”
“I understand. I’m eighty-six, and I do three miles every other day.”
“Eighty-six?” I might have said this with a little too much gusto, but this woman looked fabulous, trim enough to pull off wearing one those skirts over her leggings.
“Had a birthday last week. My husband, he’s ninety. He does five miles, every day, no problem.”
“Five miles!” I might have been screeching by this point, what with the shame of it and all.
“Yes,” she said, smiling again. “We’re doing what we can to stay in the game.”
Indeed, I thought, but what I said was, “You’re inspiring me.”
“Well, you’re doing good too, Hon, getting in the habit.”
We introduced ourselves before I walked on.
I made it to Whole Foods, ate my salad (no cheese! no dressing!) and drank my green juice.
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.
I’ve promised my friend Sheri that I will write for one hour every day. I think it was my big idea, trying to get us both motivated to do what we say we love to do: write. So now I’m sitting here on a Monday morning, coffee hot, candle lit, jazz on the radio, and I’ve got nothing.
When working with clients, I advise them simply to start, when, of course, there’s nothing simple about this, except maybe the tools you need. Most everyone has pen and paper, and potential. But that motivation part is tricky. “Sometimes,” I say in my kind writing coach voice, “I make lists if nothing is coming to me during my writing session. Just begin.” And so I do.
Today I feel a little less sad than yesterday. Maybe it helped that I showered and dressed before 8:30 this morning.
I know the writing life requires a lot of solitude but sometimes it is too much for me.
A friend emails to tell me a young man in our city has killed himself; his grandparents are friends of hers. Only 28.
I should have my email off while writing.
I’ll be 53 soon, and if one more person says “it’s only a number” I might clock ‘em.
I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, use, or love. There’s more of it than I care to admit. Out it goes into the world to be needed, used, or loved by someone else.
Last week, unbidden, two people let me know how much I mean to them. A gift.
Fingers crossed that my precious stepdaughter gets the job.
The nurse from the retirement home called last night. Mother was sad and wanted to hear the voice of one of her girls. I needed to hear hers, too.
I fear I’m becoming one of those people who treats her dog like her child. Wait. I may have been like that since Quay Girl.
A volunteer training I just completed did not work out like I had hoped.
I called my priest friend to tell her I want to do more in the church. She wants more time to write. Such is life.
Maybe I should just “be.”
You’d think the meditation and centering prayer would be paying off by now.
I need to lose weight.
The hour is almost up!
Why haven’t those people called me back?
I miss Indiana.
I’m not sure how much longer I can keep watching the news.
What is it about the future that keeps captivating my attention?
Finished a great book last night, something I picked up on the road at a used bookstore: The Scent of God, by Beryl Singleton Bissell. Now I want to read everything else she’s written. Maybe I’ll pass it along to my friend Karen. I think she’ll like it.
My neighbor is having her windows cleaned. I’ve lived in this house for ten years and it has only now occurred to me that washing your windows from the outside might be something to consider.
Now more than an hour has passed since I first sat down to write. I must tell Sheri.
If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “You’re so sensitive,” I’d have a bunch of dimes.
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.
Not really, because I can’t sing, at least not in any meaningful or memorable way. Although I’ve been known to belt out a little Van Morrison or John Hiatt when Precious isn’t around, it’s not pretty, or melodic. Just cathartic. These days, though, I’m not much in the mood for singing, or for anything other than reading, napping, and eating. Oh yeah, and wallowing. And maybe a little ruminating.
On paper, I shouldn’t be depressed: loving husband, fine friends, spiritual underpinnings, work I enjoy (although not always enough of it as a freelancer), warm home. But those of us who “suffer” with depression know that paper has nothing to do with it. I put the word suffer in quotation marks because I wonder about what it implies, that maybe people will pity me. I don’t really find pity an appropriate response to depression. I vote for acceptance and understanding instead. Because on this very day, in this tender place, I don’t need you to cheer me up (smiley faces begone!), or pat me on the knee while saying “it’s going to be okay” (I trust it will be), or remind me I have a lot to be thankful for (indeed I do). I just need you to sit right here with me.
So far, I’ve kept my appointments, met my deadlines, gone to the gym, and, on most days, managed to practice proper hygiene, but I haven’t done those things with my usual levels of energy and involvement. Instead I’ve met the minimum and then hurried back home to hunker down. Sometimes, while hunkering, I find myself mulling over mistakes, worrying about the future, and wondering where I might have made a different move. And although I enjoy a little introspection as much as the next middle-aged goober, I suspect such intense “what if-ing” isn’t healthy, not for the long term anyway, and I’m working to make sure I don’t over do. But I also know this is part of me, this depression, and that it deserves my attention, and maybe even my respect.
It’s cold and gray here in Nashville, without snow to make the weather seem worth it, so that doesn’t help. I don’t know if I might be susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but I plan to check it out just in case.
So tonight my depression and I are listening to the soundtrack on NPR devoted to cabin fever and trusting in tomorrow. Maybe we’ll light a candle, and even sing a few bars. What do you listen to on dark winter nights?
When 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.
An older man stops my trainer at the gym to ask if she is trying to teach me balance. I am struggling to stay upright atop what feels like to me is a mound of Jello. (It is, in reality, something called a Bosu ball.) It is so challenging for me that I must reach out for my trainer’s arms more than once to steady myself as I raise one leg, then the other, to her count.
“Yes,” she tells him. “This exercise strengthens your core and helps your balance.”
“That is good,” he says before walking away.
I talk to my trainer a lot about such issues that matter more and more as I age. I hear stories from my elderly friends about falling at the least provocation. These exercises are no guarantee, of course, that I will remain upright. But I want to do everything I can to be ready. And so it is with the rest of my life.
At 52, I find myself a bit unsteady about what to do next. Another degree? Open an arts studio? Take a part-time job? Finally see if I’ve got a novel in me? But instead of relying on my old habits of signing up for yet another workshop or scheduling an appointment with one sort of therapist or another or, my personal favorite, ordering books about living the creative/mindful/spiritual/healthy (insert your personal predilection here) life, I am trying, simply, to be. I’m resisting with all my might the desire to make sudden moves.
For most of my life I’ve felt that as long as I was moving, I must be living. (Can you say avoidance?) Now, though, I sense there is something to be gleaned from spending time with myself without an agenda, or a goal, or a to-do list. It’s harder than it sounds.
One of the best career breaks I ever got happened years ago when, although I was not happy with my employer, something told me to stay put instead of packing up my red pencils and my thesaurus and moving to another job, trying a different city. By sticking around, I enjoyed one of my most fulfilling creative assignments to date.
The voice that said “stay” was not loud or threatening. It did not belong to a friend, or, dare I say, even a divine entity. It was my own, and I’m just hoping I can recognize it now.
Copyright Hamblett House LLC. Photo of Amy Lyles Wilson by Martha Grace Gray Photography.