As I watched my mother disappear, I was so inspired by the woman she became. I was able to recognize endearing traits in this child-like, scared, and fragile woman. Every day I went to be with her was a gift. Here are some of the moments I was able to hold in my mind. She passed a while back–that is how she would have said it. It means that the time since the passing was important, but the memories are more important than the details.

Webster defines memories as the ability to hold in the mind. This definition makes sense to me as I watch my mother. She has lost the ability to hold things in her mind. We have seen them flutter away like butterflies as she has struggled to catch a thought as it leaves. She watches it sometimes, looking up for a glimpse, other times she uses her hands in a familiar way to try to form the words.

My mother always used her hands to speak. As a child, I remember she had to prop the phone to her ear to tell her friend how to make the special marks on a pie crust. Her hands demonstrated the words she was using. As she told my father about her day, her quick hands would often catch one of us in the arm or head as we walked too close.

Now, her hands busily make graceful arcs and swirls that have no meaning except that they help her speak. I am careful of the things I hold in my mind. It is pretty to think of them. But it can be heart-wrenching if I think of the mom I had before and the mom I have today. If l allow myself too much time to think, mourning in pieces can make me miss the wonder of who she is today.

****

I remember her petite, meticulous hands making bandages, folding my laundry, and making my wedding dress. Now she folds things into perfect squares: Napkins, tissues, towels, toilet paper, washcloths. She matches corners and fusses over the folds and creases the edges.

****

About a year after her diagnosis, my mother could not recall tasks she had previously performed numerous times. The first time it mattered to me was the day my sisters walked into the kitchen and announced,

“Mom doesn’t remember making wedding cakes; I think we are on our own.”

As they usher my mother to a stool at the counter, she looks like she has made a mistake.

I smile at her.

“Mom, you look beautiful today.” She beams at me. I tell her, “My daughter, Savannah, is getting married tomorrow.”

She acts like she has never heard this news. “Oh, how wonderful.”

I showed her the cakes. I have made 6 layers for a three-layer cake in case things don’t go well today. Savannah had one request: she wanted her new sister-in-law, Mary, who is 13, and her Nonie to help with the wedding cake.

Mary and I had spent the weekend making yellow frosting roses, just like the ones my mother used to make. I confessed to Mary that when I was young, I would check the frosting roses in the freezer for imperfections and eat as many as I could. Frozen frosting roses remind me of my mom.

Now, as I look at the naked frosted cakes, I am wondering if roses will be enough. I fill a bag with frosting and select the tip my mother used to make lovely scallops along the bottom of the cakes. I absently hand her the bag as she reaches for it. I begin filling a bag with more frosting and attach the rosette tip. As I look at my mother, I see her making a perfect scallop line on the counter in front of her.

I lay the pastry bag down and tell my mom she is doing a beautiful job. I slide one of the cakes over to her and point to the bottom edge of the cake.

“Do you want to try to do that here?” My mom looks at me with such hope in her eyes, “Will that be ok?”

I swallow the lump in my throat, “Yes! It will be perfect.” My dad comes over and rotates the cake for her. She makes a move to add another line of frosting to the top, then checks with my dad, “Here?” she asks, and he nods. Then, my sisters and my mother placed the yellow roses Mary had made on the cakes. Savannah got the gift that she had hoped for: her wedding cake was decorated with love.

****

Years ago, when there were only sensible shoes in her closet and tubes of lipstick in her purse, she was a nurse. Now, at 4 in the morning, as I take her to the bathroom and try to coax her to hurry so we can all go back to sleep sooner, she washes her hands: fingernails, individual fingers, wrists, and elbows. Every part of her hand is given the attention of a surgeon scrubbing in for surgery. “Let’s go back to bed,” I say.

“I am not sure they will let me,” she answers.

****

The memories are leaving more rapidly now. She doesn’t remember where the bathroom is, and the kitchen no longer carries the smells of her cookies and cakes. She knows for sure that one or two Smurfs is good, but too many are bad because Smurfs are naughty when there is a group of them.

****

Her feet keep time to the music as her hand directs the orchestra, but she no longer remembers the words to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music. Today is a good day. She knows my name.

*****

Returning from the bathroom in the middle of the night always confuses her: “Who is that?”

I smile and tell her, “It’s Dad.”

“It’s Dad?” she asks, still confused. Her brow wrinkles. “Ok,” she says, “I was wondering.”

Until one night it was different.. She looks at the lump of pillows and blankets that is my exhausted father and looks at me with the pure joy of a child.

“Is that mine?” she asks.

“Yes, that’s Dad,” I reassure her.

“Oh, I forgot I had one!” she said with so much joy. I laughed out loud.

*****

“I don’t know these people.” She says of her favorite sister-in-law. We used to run around and bring pictures and tell stories, hoping that we would stumble upon the right combination that would allow a window of her shuttered past to open a bit and give her peace. That was before when there were moments that could return. Those windows are shuttered tight.

Now it is enough for both of us when I tell her, “That’s ok. They know you. They love you so much. They are coming just to see you for a minute because it makes them so happy when they see you. You are very dear to them. Is it ok if they come to see you?”

Then she smiles and says, “Yes, that will be alright. Let them come. I would love to meet them.”

It is her southern manners and her kind heart that is winning this battle of her mind.

*****

On the days when there have been many conversations in the room and many faces, she usually ends the day with, “This has been nice, but I am ready to go home now.”

In the beginning, we assumed she meant her house in Illinois. We told her about the move and reminded her that she lives in Utah now, in this very house. We show her all her things and remind her that her Illinois friends call and check on her. We try to comfort her because we need the comfort. We lose our direction and hope when she is lost while in our company.

I want to go home. Now we are sure she is talking about Heaven. Her days are hard, and the nights are harder. Sleep is filled with busy dreams that keep her talking all night in barely discernible words. A constant conversation, with so much inflection and emotion that we strain to understand what is happening in her mind that causes such passion. The words are never clear, even though the sounds are so familiar that they are consoling. There is laughter, sincerity, and love in these conversations she has with herself. Memories of conversations with my mom echo in my mind.

That is when we realize home is not a place. It is a feeling. When she tells us she wants to go home, we take her hand and tell her how much we love her and watch Disney shows. She smiles at the familiar opening credits and relaxes when the music begins to play. She is safe now.

*****

Where is Dan?

If he is not sitting in the room, that is her question. Where is my anchor?

Sometimes, he is sitting in the room, but her mind searches for the handsome black-haired chemical engineer she fell in love with. The white-haired gardener who works on crossword puzzles is a stranger.

And with all the love of their years together, he will get up and leave the room, only to return in a minute and greet her as if he has been gone for a while.

“Hey, honey. How are you?” She looks at him with just the slightest bit of annoyance, “Where have you been?”

*****

On drives through the mountains, she wonders how the rocks stand so still and who puts them there. Who cleans these mountains? The ridiculousness makes us smile, and we entertain each other with answers to her earnest questions.

Those are the days that weigh upon our souls. We remember the woman who made 7 tier wedding cakes with intricate lacy frosting and taught powerful lessons on the pure love of Christ. We mourn for the mountain of memories locked so tightly in her mind while looking at the majesty of all that God has created. We know there is a plan. Her memories are not lost. They are safe. She will have them again. We are sure about this because the mountains are there. Evidence that there is beauty and life in everything.

****

Sometimes she will swing to Elvis’s music, sometimes she forgets how to walk.

****

I used to be able to, but now it is. There is just no.

She runs her sentences together as if the missing nouns are not lost in her mixed-up mind. Sometimes, we can supply nouns in rapid order that make sense to us but leave her still searching for the words. Sometimes, our acting skills are so great that she feels as if her message has been delivered sufficiently for us to understand.

But other times, we just keep supplying a litany of words. We are desperate to help her be understood. But it becomes a problem. Too many words clutter the thoughts. Sometimes too many words can send her mind on a side trip that completely steals the original thought.

I try not to mourn the loss of those precious thoughts, but it is hard. I want to help her say the words, but sometimes it is the words she is not saying that I hear: I am scared. I feel lost. I don’t know where to go.

****

She looks up from the chair at me earnestly, pleadingly. That is when I think I understand.

“Mom, your memories are all right. They are waiting for you to need them again. Right now, we are keeping your memories safe.”

She smiles and says, “That is good. They are safe.”

*****

Busy hands follow her busy mind. Sometimes it makes her bite her nails, sometimes she shreds tissues into tiny pieces of confetti. We hold her hand, talk to her, and gift her with a fidget spinner. She thinks the fidget spinner is valuable; everyone wants to take it from her. She hides it in the couch cushions, a forgotten pocket, or a candy jar. Even on the bad days, when she sees her fidget spinner, it is like watching a child behold a Christmas tree for the first time. She is afraid that the real owner will come and want it back, so she enjoys it with furtive glances.

****

When Dad snuggles with her in the morning, coaxing her to leave the safety of her dreams, she snaps at him while her eyes are still closed, “Do not mess up my chairs!” I want her to correct herself. Fix the mistake. Did you mean hair, Mom? Do not mess up my hair. Is chairs the only word that would cooperate with you?

****

Lessons from a dancing solar snowman:

“My Little Darling, are you going to move for me today? I know you want to. I can see your little smile- it’s gonna be a wonderful day, isn’t it, little darling? I am going to watch you, and I want you to do it. Get busy.”

She keeps sending encouraging smiles over to the little snowman. When the photocell has gathered enough energy to move and the snowman waves his Happy Holidays sign exuberantly over his head, she smiles and tells him he is doing a great job. Her words are clear and almost perfect. She has nouns and adjectives and will talk to him for long minutes in secret whispers. His easy, steady expression and constant smile gave her the comfort that our worry and concern took away.

****

She looks at the ketchup bottle for a minute then pours a generous amount on her salad. Last week she put Dr. Pepper on her steak. It is the muscle memory that mixes her up.

*****

Some days her love and kindness spill over the top. She complements my hair, my clothes, my glasses, my computer. She looks over and says,

“You are just such a dear. How long have we known each other?”

I choose to let that really mean, “I love you”, and tell her it has been a long, long time; all my life, it seems.

She smiles and says, “I thought so. You are a good friend.” Is there anything better than being your mom’s friend?

****

It seems as if my mom is moving backward. She needs help dressing, eating, and using the bathroom. I have recognized so many childlike attributes. She gets scared, upset, and nervous, and she is also curious, happy, and joyful. I love the joy. She looks at her feet one day, and after moving them around for a bit, she says, “Well, look at those!”

“Those are your feet, Mom,” I tell her, watching her face for the sign that she is a little offended at the assumption she doesn’t know about feet, but it isn’t there.

“Wow, they are really something!” she says.

****

She sometimes recognizes that she is no longer holding things in her mind. She taps her head hard with her finger, “I’m just a nincompoop.”

I can’t help it; I laugh at this word I have not heard for so many years. I give her a hug, “We are all nincompoops. Let’s start a club!”

****

“When I was a child, I spake as a child and I did childish things… “

Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians about the highest form of love and used those words. As I watch my mother watch her feet, I can hear her kind voice as she comforted me after my first heartbreak.

Paul describes the person who has become full of this perfect love with the words: suffereth long, is kind, envieth not, is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, doth not behave unseemly, is not easily provoked and rejoiceth in the truth.”

These words come back to me now as I help my mother dress and walk with her to breakfast. We offer waffles or cereal. She doesn’t know what we are talking about. We show her the pictures.

She is sinking so fast into a world where words have no meaning, and for the first time since her diagnosis, I want to cry. I think again of the lovely words of Paul and the description of such a love, and I receive a tender mercy. I remember in clear detail the way my mother lived these words every day in small and big ways. I feel that Paul used the pronoun she because he was describing my mother. She taught her children these attributes, but more important than her words, she lived them.

Before she spoke, she thought. Before she acted, she prayed to know what to do. Her philosophy was that if a task was hard for her, that was ok. But if she could make the task easier for someone else, she always did. I remember once I asked her why everything she wanted me to do was so hard, she said,

“Doing the right thing is usually the thing that hurts the most, and it teaches you the best lessons in life. Always do the right thing, the hard thing.” It really wasn’t the words that taught me so much. It was the actions.

So, I am sitting here, not sleeping, because she needs help to use the bathroom. I am here listening to her mixed-up words and confusing sentences because she needs to be heard, and I am here to hold her hand because she is scared. She taught me in her exemplary way what unconditional love looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels like. This is my time to show her I have learned those lessons so very well.

****

The last time my mother was awake, she was laughing. I made an origami puppet and used it to talk to her. She was delighted, just like the children I entertain on the seats in front of me at church, she laughed and laughed. We turned on the movie “Encanto” and listened to the fun music. While we were laughing about not talking about Bruno, my mother slipped into her last lucid days. The last sound I heard of my mother’s voice was her laughter. I also believe it was the first sound I heard of my mother’s voice.

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