Dawn cracked the sky on Saturday, the first morning I was home alone in the house. I was up at 4:15 and awake well before that. Like the exhilaration of anticipating a trip or the giddiness of a child on Christmas morning, I couldn’t wait to begin this next part of my journey. The early sky was grey, it had rained all night; but it didn’t stop the sun from rising to the mountain and cracking open the darkness.
My soul broke into dance. The pall that has settled over me in the cloud of Mama’s gloom lifted as I pulled the blinds all the way open. They have been mostly closed except on the darkest of days since my sojourn here began four years and four months ago. The light hurts Mama’s eyes, and she can’t see beyond the window anyway. Perhaps the closed blinds made her world more manageable, as it made mine claustrophobic. My world feels bigger now as I look out into the future, beyond the walls that have held me in.
And I wonder, does Mama’s world feel bigger too with more up close to “see” than there was before? The activity director took her to the piano concert last week.
“How was the concert?” I asked her.
“It was jazz,” she said, “I don’t like jazz.”
“Did you stay anyway?” I asked.
“I stayed for a while,” she said. “It was good.”
“I want to tell you something!” she said the next time I visited. She told me a group had met that day to tell stories about their lives. She told about the picnic shelter in the Seminary Hill Natural Area that was dedicated to her (on her 100th birthday) as the instigator of the movement to save the trees from the bulldozer. She told me stories other residents told.
She may not like jazz, but she is enjoying mealtime. It was my biggest concern. I couldn’t imagine her in the dining room or finding food she could and would eat. Turns out she likes the food and is trying new things! And if the meal includes beef or cheese—or is just too much with three big meals a day—soup is always available. The soup, she says, is delicious! So now what am I to do with the freezer full of one-cup servings of pureed spinach, pea, carrot, broccoli, and kale soup? The meals she has found most difficult are those foods she is most familiar with, this week chicken enchiladas and crab cakes. They are different recipes, so they don’t taste right (i.e. “not good”). But corned beef and cabbage and caramel French toast, she liked!
I have been visiting late morning and taken her to her table at lunchtime. “Hello, Bob! Hello, Lorraine!” she says greeting her table mates. Always cheerful Lorraine (who is an even newer resident than Mama) speaks to her as loudly as she is able, but too softly for Mama to hear—they both understand that’s the way it is. Bob cracks a joke and Mama laughs. It makes my heart swell. Mealtime at home was the worst time of day for me, and for her too I expect. And now it might be her favorite time. Once again she has surprised me with her resilience.
What am I up to, besides dancing? I moved my coffee table and one of my rugs to the living room. When I come into the room now it feels like me. I light the candles in the fireplace in the evening and eat dinner there, just like I did in my previous life. (The chimney will be cleaned in two weeks!) I’m reorganizing the kitchen. When that is done I’ll slow down on the makeover. That is what I need to flourish, the rest can wait. I’ll get back to more writing then, and practice my ukulele, and figure out how to bring in an income.
Speaking of income, on Thanksgiving Day—which Mama spent at the house along with her great-grandsons—she said the most astonishing thing to me in a private moment: “I love thinking of this place as a retreat center. I can imagine it.” What the heck? I don’t even remember telling her that—dare I say—plan, so sure she would tell me I “couldn’t” do that. She couldn’t possibly have given me more to give thanks for. I was nearly too choked up to respond.
Both the kitchen and the baby steps toward making my dreams reality will help organize myself out of the chaos these years have been for me, even as Mama’s living becomes more chaotic. I see now that much of what seemed like a strong mind was probably her body knowing where things were and what the routines were, not her brain. Everything has changed now and her dementia that was already there is more evident. Time will tell if she is able to learn a new thing.
I believe she is enjoying a better quality of life already, but she is being forced to rely on other people and let go of controlling it all. I knew that would be difficult for her—she has resisted all my attempts, perhaps loathe to “burden” her children, and not understanding her insistence on control is the bigger burden. She has had bad days in the past—”we all have them,” Rebecca told her—and they will continue to increase in frequency, as they would have at home. “We just have to plan on tomorrow being a better day.”
Mama will face this new adventure with courage, as she has faced challenges all of her life. As I had hoped would be the case, as she clears away the burden of control, she is making room to find other ways to live her life. My sisters’ and my job is to get out of her path and let her, let her forget what she forgets.
And just as she will always worry about us, we will worry about her. Maybe that’s what love is.