aging, Caring for a parent, Mental health, mother daughter relationship

Light in the Layers

The sun’s customary rising spot is due east from my living room windows. It radiates through the tall firs from behind the hill and spreads its glow across the end of the verdant valley, first silhouetting Mt. St. Helens then lighting her up as the sky turns pink or orange, advancing west in extravagantly glorious displays.


This past Sunday though, the eastern stage was blocked by clouds, which usually means the show is cancelled. But for once the sun was not to be denied. The rays sneaked around backstage, shrouded behind the curtain at the mountain end of the valley, then broke out wherever they could find a rent in the fabric, turning the sky pink on the auxiliary southern stage.


It’s been one year since my sisters and I moved our mother from her home of 56 years of sunrises on this hill, just before Thanksgiving. It was a wrenching decision and one all of us wish we hadn’t had to make. For the past twelve months, we’ve been finding and creating light where we can.

Not many people can say they lived in their own home for 100 years. I wish it could have ended there; 100 years is enough time for anyone to live in the world. Mama wishes it could have ended there too. She’s not happy, her days are filled with darkness; physically because of failed vision and emotionally because of her cloudy disposition.

Gloom not withstanding, in her own resilient way, she has adjusted better than we thought she would. She can walk in the hall by herself, she can eat in the dining room by herself with an aide helping her get seated, she has taught herself the way around her room from bed to bathroom to chair, she can heat her rice bags in the microwave. She’s made some friends, and she remembers names like nobody’s business.

And it’s all hard. She can’t focus on what she is able to do because she wants to do what she used to be able to do. She wants not to be in this foreign land called Old Age. She wants the sun to rise where it’s supposed to, and she can’t see where it is rising. All she sees are the clouds.


In the car Monday morning, driving to Olympia to get Mama’s hearing aid cleaned, I listened to an NPR interview with gratitude specialists. “Happiness and gratitude are not the same,” one said. “An attitude of gratitude is a personality trait. Happiness is an emotional reaction. While the two can overlap, grateful people are not necessarily happy people.” (I wonder though, if true happiness is dependent on—or a product of—a constant flow of gratitude?)

Though I would never have called her a happy person, gratitude has always been at my mother’s core. The way she’s tended her gardens since the beginning of my memory; photographed mountains, plants, and rainbows; and learned the names of the flowers and birds that surround her are expressions of her gratitude for the beauty of the world. She has always written the most beautiful notes of thank you, sympathy, and birthday greeting in gratitude for her friends and family.

In her unhappiness this past year, however, she has often forgotten to say thank you to what is good in her life, particularly to her daughters, who visit every day, and look after her in myriad ways. One day recently, though, she surprised me as I was wrapping up a visit to her, during which she had worked overtime in the complaining department.

I had walked the halls with her, read newspaper articles about her locally world famous other daughter, argued with her about something or other and resisted arguing with her about something else, set her straight on an egregiously fabricated story and ignored others. I told her what I had done in the kitchen at the deli where I work and related a sweet story about my grandsons. I heated her rice bags, not the 40 seconds she always tells me to do it, but the two and a half minutes I know it takes, and then another 45 seconds when she told me they weren’t warm enough, all the while she was telling me about an aide shaking her down lap comforter and “now there are feathers everywhere!” (Not.) I settled her in her bed where I had adjusted the bedding per specifications (I hoped), and put artificial tears in her eyes. I was more than ready to escape.

Then the rays of the sweet person she is at her core sneaked around behind the clouds of her discontent and squeezed out where they found an opening, as if she suddenly remembered who she is.

“I still enjoy being alive in this world,” she said. “Thank you for being here with me, my sweet daughter. I love you so much.”

My cold heart warmed to her and I remembered who she is too. It was a sliver of light in the vast cloud-filled sky, and it was enough. You accept the sunrise through the rain and between the layers, wherever it can be found.

On this holiday of thanks giving, I am grateful for chinks in the clouds where the light gets through, for the readers of this blog whose support and stories keep me going, and for my sister who is here in the layers with me. I vow to focus my own vision on the light, rather than on the clouds, to learn to center on an attitude of gratitude, and to be the light wherever I can. I still have things to learn from my mother.


15 thoughts on “Light in the Layers”

  1. Sometimes I think it is in the most difficult circumstances that we are moved to our deepest gratitude. Cheers to living in the brightest of light. Thank you for sharing the gift of your story. And those sunrise photos … my god, they are just so breathtaking !


  2. So beautiful. I know that the day is coming (faster than I want) where I could very well be in your mother’s place. I hope I do a good job of being a mother at that time.


    1. As will we all. I hope i do a good job too. I wonder if thinking about it now helps, or if it is out of our control. My mother did not have an easy time with her mother, but it seems all she remembers is her own perceived failure, not how difficult her mother was.


  3. Having spent many hours on planes over the last week and experiencing the shifting perspectives of clouds and light, this feels especially poignant. May the light always find a way of streaming through to warm your heart and rekindle your connection… Thank you for your ongoing courage and dedication.


  4. Beautiful, Gretchen. A very happy thanksgiving to you and those you hold dear. We are headed to the wilds of OR to visit the family. As those of us scattered about find ourselves saying more often-than-not these days, “The grandparents aren’t getting any younger.” I am approaching the visit with some trepidation as my 93-year-old grandfather…always larger than life…gregarious, noisy, opinionated…has grown frail and quiet over the last year…at times finding it difficult to find his words. It hurts my heart.


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