I heard the text ringing through as I was at work on Sunday. I could see it was from Bob, my brother and that there was a picture attached. I quickly opened it and smiled. There was my mom, obviously outside with Bob on a beautiful spring day, and clenched in her hand was a happy yellow daffodil. Then I noticed a dandelion, in the same hand, pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Her expression was mild amusement. Bob had to have given her both flowers. I could hear her soft chuckle as he put them in her hand, the big yellow flower and the little one, maybe like he would’ve done 50 years ago as a little boy. But now mom is the child.
My mother is 84 now. I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately because Mother’s Day is coming up. When your parent has severe dementia, to the point where they no longer recognize you, or at least can’t verbalize it, you are in this strange limbo. The mom I knew has been gone for some time now. I still have sudden impulses to call her, to share something with her and within the same second I remind myself, “She’s gone.” But she’s not.
It was this time of year six years ago when I felt God telling me to go visit my mom in New York. She had moved there while in her 60’s, reeling from a cruel relationship with a man who appeared to offer security and friendship. She had returned to New York, where my brothers and sister lived, to have treatment for breast cancer. She was worn out and depressed so my brothers extricated her from the mess she was in, and moved her to an apartment with a small view of the Hudson River. She loved it, and for maybe the first time in her life, she was content to just be a mom and a grandmother and work on crossword puzzles out on her little porch.
She would drive anywhere, including Cape Cod, to see her grandkids and me, her oldest daughter. On occasion things went well, but often there was the familiar strain between us. My mother always had favorites, and rearranged our pictures on her dresser accordingly. I rarely made front row. Why did I never feel that she was happy with who I was? Or that she even saw who I was? I remember once she looked at me with a puzzled smile, and said, “Whose child are you anyway?” in that lilting South Carolina drawl that never left even after living in the north for 65 years. We were at odds, I think, from my birth. Her own mother abandoned her for Jim Beam, leaving no blueprint or instructions for motherhood. A daughter must’ve really scared her.
So it was a bit out of form for me to call her up and say, “Hey! I want to drive all the way to New York just to be with you.” I could tell it made her nervous and skeptical. Just us? In her apartment? Yes, for Mother’s Day.
When I arrived, she was as excited as a teenager throwing a party. She had bought a refrigerator full of snacks, mostly junk food, and I think the plan was just to stay up and eat all night, a favorite pastime for everyone in my family. I don’t remember much about the night. She insisted I sleep in her bed that had “nice clean sheets!” and she curled up on her couch, content. In the morning, we drank coffee on her little porch and ate some more. She laughed easily and I was moved. She actually seemed to really like me. I mean I always knew she loved me, but the like part…
As I got ready to leave, she walked into the living room with an envelope and handed it to me, shy and awkward, explaining, “These are Kina’s letters. They’re yours now.” I sat on the couch while she quietly sat next to me and read two letters dated 1964, the year my brother Tim had died.
Kina had been her mother’s friend, and she had one child, a little girl named Betty. One Sunday afternoon, while her husband Odell, was trying to take a Sunday nap, Kina told six year old Betty to go out and play, suggesting maybe her friend across the street was home. Minutes later, their lives changed forever. Betty was struck by a car and killed right outside their home. In 1964, as my mother reeled under the same crushing grief after my brother died suddenly one beautiful July day, Kina’s words poured off the page and into her heart, bringing some measure of healing, then and throughout the years.
There, on the couch, we had finally found a common ground; two mothers, each had buried a son. Inside a pain and sorrow so deep and so complex in all of its implications, was a place of familiarity between us. And as Kina’s typewritten words that were born from the depth of her own anguish and despair came alive with hope before me, I felt as if my mother’s hands, which were always folded in her lap, were gently holding me, touching me how mothers do, and making things all right.
One week later, Bob called. Mom had had a stroke. A massive bleed in the frontal lobe of her brain left her looking totally normal, but mentally devastated.
My parents met in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. She was not stupid. But her intellect was like a fortress that kept vigilant guard over her heart. You could never know how she felt, just what she thought. After this stroke, the walls came crashing down. And just when she was able to rebuild a little, a second stroke hit her like a tsunami and wiped it all away. She became Mom, the child.
We thought a third stroke would come around and strike her down for good. We had all said goodbye to our mother in steps. Honestly, we were glad to say goodbye to the Mom with the Intellect. Oddly, she became tender, and affectionate, laughing easily. If you were standing close to her she might reach up and tickle your belly-button. She might also eat paper napkins, or fake fruit or write on the mirror with lipstick. I found her at two in the morning feeding a large jar of strawberry jam to my pug when she stayed with me for six months. This was the new Mom.
She’s mostly quiet now. Every now and then she’ll start a sentence, then just drift off. There is no frustration, no pain, no more disappointment. I’m grateful for my brothers and sister who visit her every week. Sometimes they send me pictures, and she is always smiling. And they are always holding her hand. God has her here for His reasons alone, and they are mostly a mystery to us. But it’s nice to love this New Mom, to hug her and kiss her instead of straining under the weight of her mental jousting and elusive love. For all of the psychoanalysis and diagnosing, she never could make sense of her life. She was so smart, but a dunce at life and love. As her daughter, I am more like her than I like to admit. Yet, my Redeemer does live, and thankfully, has loads of patience.
The last time I saw my mother she said my name, but I think it was a fluke. Still, the common ground we have sown in tears will never change. I’m so very glad I listened to God and stayed that night with her, for Mother’s Day. I thought the gift was for her but it was mostly mine. As I look at the picture of her holding the two yellow flowers and the childlike expression on her soft face, I know she is nestled in my Father’s arms, and I know that one day He will gently carry her home.
My brother Graham bought mom a digital frame for her room in the nursing home a couple of years ago. We joked that we all had the same position on her dresser now. As Bob and I sat comfortably in mom’s room last month, watching the pictures of children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren softly fading in and out on the frame, he said,
“Hey Robin, I think there’s more pictures of you in there than anyone else” and we all laughed, even mom. Maybe I can finally be her favorite…