Go Collect Yourself

IMG_1875The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.

Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.

Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.”  She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.

As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.IMG_2684

In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.

A Eulogy for My Mother

ALW-Mother-Eulogy-BlogInstead of regaling people with charming anecdotes about my childhood (dancing to “I’m a Little Teapot” in the living room) or relaying repetitive accolades (“Your mother was one of the most influential people in my life.”) about how precious my mother was—and she was dear—when giving her eulogy on February 23, I instead read three passages I dug out of one of my “memory boxes” while crying and packing my suitcase for Mississippi after my sister Ann phoned to say, “This is the call you never want to get.” Bits and pieces from a long life well lived that illustrate, better than a hundred family snapshots, what made Martha Lee Lyles Wilson (1922-2016) such a remarkable woman.

One was a quote she included in a birthday card she sent me; another was a passage she wrote on a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper; and the third was a quote she cut out from a magazine. In short, these snippets reveal how my mother made her way in the world, and how she inspired those around her to follow her lead as best we are able:

“Those people who influence us most are not those who buttonhole us and talk to us, but those who lived their lives like the stars of heaven and the lilies in the field, perfect, simply, and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mold us.”—Oswald Chambers

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”—John Wesley

“But where do I start? The world is so vast; I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is very large; I better start with my town—but my town, too, is large. I had better start with my street. No, my family. Oh well, never mind. I shall start with myself.”—Elie Wiesel

I don’t know if the quotes she clung to are punctuated or even worded exactly as they appeared in print, and to me it doesn’t matter. The philosophies are clear, and they now have a permanent place in my heart, right alongside my mother.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Obituary for Martha Lee Lyles Wilson

 

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.

“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

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.