Thursday, April 13, 2017
They say that a scent is one of the most powerful tools for bringing back vivid memories. As I sit here typing in a most life-changing time of my family's journey, it is the aromas from the Easter's and Spring's of my youth which evoke just such recall.
I smell the grassy scent of palms distributed in my old Catholic church, the cool feel of the long stems as we waved them around during mass and the way my Nonna or Mom would weave them into intricate little decorations to be placed around the home.
I smell the light fragrance of Springtime flowers; I see their colors popping up around my childhood home as Dad orchestrated his little prizes in our yard.
I smell the plastic candy scent of rustling green Easter grass in the basket so lovingly put together by my mother; the mouthwatering scent of good Anderson's chocolate--our best neighborhood chocolatier. I smell the fruity scent of dozens of multi-colored jelly beans laying amidst the fake grass.
There's the acrid tang of vinegar poured into cups dissolving the egg decorating tablets that will color a dozen beauties.
And there's food--oh such food. . . mouthwatering ham, gooey sweet potatoes, and our family's most favorite of all: sweet Easter bread. The aroma from the baking of this gem would last for hours giving our home the flavor of a touch of anise, a hint of orange.
All of these make up the memories of my childhood. A simpler era when thoughts of old age, dementia, health issues and even death weren't even a thought in a little girl's head. I knew time would stretch on forever and my parents would always be there.
Where did it go? Wasn't it just yesterday that I got that new Easter hat, and that pretty pink Easter coat? Wasn't it only a short time ago that I was an innocent child untouched by harsh events and life-threatening illness?
They say cherish the old times, but don't tarry there long. For if you have family, even amidst life's changes, you still have everything. I will do my best not to stay long visiting old moments, and I will treasure every single breath my mother still has on this earth. For no physical problem, lost memories, or frail body will keep the deep love this family has always had from going on forever even beyond time.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Where to begin? A year ago, six months or perhaps only three weeks ago. This has been a life-changing, earth shattering time for our family. It was about this time last year that I noticed my father acting differently. Usually cheerful, our rock and our strength, Dad began to complain more than ever about how he was feeling, how difficult it was with Mom's worsening dementia, every bill he got in the mail, etc. Dad always had such joy talking with me about Spring and flowers and seed planting and birds. Simple morning conversations that I could live on for the rest of the day. That ended around this time in 2016. Little did we know we would lose Dad later that summer. That he was winding down, and the time had come for his well-deserved rest with Jesus.
Now our little family is going through this with Mom. Words cannot describe the feeling in my chest--of my heart splintering into tiny fragments, each one burnished with a memory good and bad alike. Only three short weeks ago we were able to take her out to eat, go for drives to her favorite stone bridge and listen to the creek. Three short weeks ago we saw a high school play and Mom sang along to the Disney tunes she knew and loved so well.
Yesterday we moved our mother into a care facility. I saw a woman before me that I barely recognized, completely devoid of emotion. Gone is the laugh that was so cute. Gone now are the stories told over and over, stories we all knew better than her, but listened patiently as they were told once more.
Her eyes hold a tiny spark of light when she sees either me, my brother or son. But I'd give anything to rejuvenate life back to her; of memories that would fill her with emotions once again.
She was wheeled into her new room and as she looked around at perhaps a few familiar items, my brother handed Mom a beautiful dolly he got her a few Christmases ago. One story our mother always told us was about a doll she received one year from a family friend. She would describe the beloved doll in great detail, and my brother tried to replicate one by searching many sites and finding one that Mom claimed looked exactly like the one she'd had.
Mom sat in her wheelchair stroking her dolly, covering her with the blanket that lay around her own shoulders. My eyes filled with tears and it was difficult to remain stoic. I stayed with her until much later in the day, watching old movies, trying to get her to eat in the dining room with new friends, seeing if talking about cooking and baking would bring her around just a little.
I left last night with the feeling of a tight band around the upper part of my stomach. The band of fear and uncertainty, for it was with me last August when my father was in the hospital. It is a hated companion this familiar tight knot of tension and worry.
I cannot find my laughter right now. I am not enjoying much. My work days are filled with stress and I don't like who I've become. I snap in anger over situations that I used to handle a little better. I'm not reading for pleasure, doing much writing, except these cathartic blogs. Most of my thoughts are of Mom and wondering how her day is going when we cannot be there with her every minute.
I've read about others who have gone through this before me. I see their smiling faces, their grandkids or trips they've gone on. I see that life does return and there will be rainbows and sunshine again. This is a season in my family's journey. The tale of two parents both so very loved and a life so very missed. My brother and I will hold on to what we have of our mother until her own story ends. And then we will make new memories and remember with fondness the old ones so lovingly tucked away in our hearts.
Friday, March 24, 2017
Several years ago I read a book by a then unknown author. It was called "The Shack," and it had a feel to it as if I was not only reading a great story, but learning a lesson in the process. The story stayed with me as all good tales do, and I would think of it on many occasions through the years.
Nothing prepared me for the reaction I would have to the movie, however. Seeing such a heartfelt, deep story playing out before me on a huge screen would leave me with many, many emotions. I felt anger and horror along with the main character and what he was going through, yet there were many moments of humor and delight. I believe that I learned more about God's love than I ever thought possible while watching it. Deep thoughts and questions began to form. I knew I wanted to share this movie with loved ones who may not understand the nature of God, and I prayed for the right timing.
One of the biggest things I realized is, we all have our own "shack." As the author, Wm. Paul Young pointed out on a television special, there are deep places of hurt within all of us, our own shack, so to speak. A place where unspeakable issues may exist. Perhaps trauma from childhood, rejection, an unfair situation that occurred in our lives. Loss of loved ones too early, physical problems or situations that feel unbearable as we are going through them.
Some of the shacks in my own life were built by me; there were times I went my own way and made the stupidest mistakes, yet other shacks were thrown at me with their splintered wood and rusty nails.
We can think of one instant or several in our lives where we cried out to God for His help and mercy. We had never felt so alone or abandoned, thinking He was nowhere to be found. It was in these darkest nights of the soul that I learned more than ever to keep my eyes focused on Him.
There's a scene in the movie where Mack, the main character is on a boat. Clouds gather, the water turns murky, and the boat begins to fill with water. It was the PERFECT metaphor for what it's like to be overcome by trauma. I loved it when Jesus said, "It's not real! Look at ME, look at me, keep your eyes on ME!" It was then that the storm and the flood waters began to calm. If only we could remember to keep our eyes on Jesus in times of trouble.
Recently I felt overwhelmed by fear and I pictured laying my head against Jesus and holding His hand. I cried out for Him to give me the courage to go through the situation. Peace settled on me almost immediately, and I found the strength to go on.
In the movie, Jesus is an ordinary, likeable guy. Mack feels the closest with Him because He is human. We put Him in a "holy box" sometimes, thinking He is too far above us because He is perfect, good, righteous and holy. We forget that He came as a man for US. We are His delight. It blows my mind, but also humbles me. He calls us friend.
What is your shack? What do you hide in the secret recesses of your heart? Do you think it's unforgivable? Are you so ashamed of something you've done, secrets you keep, or hurts that were done to you? Let them go. Free yourself of the bondage. Forgive the person who hurt you, maybe not to their face, but in a letter you may never send. Write, write, write. It's very cathartic. Keep a journal and pray about the things you write.
There was pain in my childhood of times when I wasn't sure my mother would be restored to our family after the stigma of mental illness. There were moments of bullying so bad in middle school that I would cry every day, and retain some of the hurt for many years. There was the betrayal of a husband in my early twenties, a man that I thought the sun rose and set on, and the feeling of unworthiness attached to the fact that he chose another over me. There was a dark time in my son's teenage years that I felt my heart was breaking.
Keep Your Eyes on Me. Jesus says.
Well if my eyes are on you, Lord, then they aren't on my problems any longer. If my eyes are on you, then I'm not seeing the past and the breaking of my heart. I'm able to let go, forgive those who hurt me and hurt my loved ones. Forgive myself for bad choices and mistakes.
What about death? Can we keep our eyes on Jesus then? For we've all lost someone we love. There's another scene in the movie "The Shack" that fills my heart with such happiness, I feel like I could burst. I want to sing and clap my hands. I want to cry beautiful tears of joy. Mack is permitted to see his daughter Missy playing with other children in Heaven. Missy knows her father is there watching, and walks over near him and with the most incredibly joyous glee, she shows her happiness, her contentment, and her love. Her father sees her as she is, not who she was, and his own heart is filled with hope. It is then that he realizes he was not at fault for her death, and that perfect love does indeed, cast out fear.
My mother had a near death experience in the early nineteen seventies. She had a cardiac arrest and felt herself being pulled into an unexpressable love. She could barely describe the feeling of warmth, all-encompassing love as if she was the only person who mattered. When she returned, she told us that she wasn't afraid to die. I think that scene in the movie with Missy conveys that feeling of absolute joy--a joy that nothing can ever take away. Think about it. If our departed loved ones feel that rapturous joy, if their eyes are fixed on Jesus, then even death does not triumph.
I hope if you have the chance, you will see this life-changing movie. Is it one hundred percent gospel, well, is anything except the Bible? Take from it what the author intended. A story of healing and forgiveness; a story of God's perfect love. I happen to think you, too, will come away changed and with a new sense of wonder, awe, and your eyes on the One who matters.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
I'd been planning this little excursion for weeks. One of Mom's favorite Disney cartoons had been "Beauty and the Beast." She watched it over and over with her grandson, my Matt, when he was very little, and then with me just as many times. I knew she would enjoy the local play.
Sunday arrived, and with her dementia, Mom kept asking, "Now what is going on today?" I'd explain that me and Matt were taking her to a high school production of one of her favorite movies. She seemed okay. Okay, that was, until we got her out. She complained about the weather; it was way too cold. The wind was blowing, and she had to walk pretty far to get inside the school and into the auditorium. What if she had to go to the bathroom? The list went on and on. I had a really bad moment where I lashed out and said, "Fine, if you're going to be like this, let's just turn around and go home." I meant it. All my planning for a perfect day, shot down with her negativity. I couldn't remember her Alzheimer's in that moment. All I could think about was me.
When the lights finally dimmed, Mom innocently asked, "Is this "Cats?" It was a question she would repeat at least twenty-five times or more. For some reason the musical "Cats" was stuck in her head. Then when the cast broke into a song she knew from "Beauty and the Beast" Mom would sing along, out loud mind you, and she appeared as if she was enjoying herself immensely. Then all over again, she'd say, "I want to see "Cats." My stress level was through the roof. I thought about getting up and leaving with her, but something said: stay until the end. This is a day for everyone to enjoy. Don't worry if she's embarrassing you. Don't think about the people around us who were hearing her say things out loud every so often. And not that I don't care for the feelings of others, but there have been many times in my life when I've sat near special needs children or adults. Yes, I'd always been understanding of what was going on with them.
When the play was over, Mom sat crying with the story she'd loved so much. The Beast is dying, and Belle's love saves him. It was a tale she'd told me as a little girl many times. And it was in this moment, that the little girl began to emerge in my mother. As we walked out of the auditorium, we spotted many of the characters from the play talking with friends and family. The lovely Belle posed for pictures with little girls who seemed enamored of their favorite character. Mom shyly asked, "Can I have a picture with Belle?" My heart cracked into two right at that moment. That little girl again, showing up through the wrinkled skin, thinning hair, and wheeled walker. "Of course," I said, and we snapped away at a few poses. In them, I can see Mom almost puzzling out why she was standing next to this lovely princess. In her mind, she may have been eight or nine again, believing in magic, beauty and love. Who was I to take that from her?
I think back on that day right now, and feel a pang of guilt at my impatience at Mom. Yet I also glow when I see how much she enjoyed herself.
The next morning, my mom woke up and on her way to the bathroom, she fell and hasn't been the same since. After a short hospital stay, she is now in a rehab facility. She can only speak in soft, garbled phrases. They aren't sure yet if she's had a stroke, or what might have brought this on. More childlike than ever, she is smiling and sleeping a lot. She talks in hushed whispered tones and can't answer most questions posed to her. I watched her during one of her moments of slumber and noticed she was talking to herself a little. I wonder if she's chatting with my father, her own Prince Charming who passed on before her. I wonder if he's there even now near her, whispering the words of love he's always said to her. I see her smile in her sleep and can only imagine.
Monday, March 6, 2017
I lay awake at four in the morning, totally unable to find that cozy spot once again or to stop the thoughts which pummel me from all sides. Will Mom be alright today? Will she eat and take her pills? What if she missteps and takes a fall? Is her health okay?
On the days I am with her, I try to give her my all. We begin with a scrumptious breakfast, bacon, french toast and coffee. I do my best Lumiere impression from "Beauty and the Beast" for her to "Be My Guest" as I serve her. I love to make Mom laugh, and it's no easy task always thinking up a barrage of chatter so she won't go down any of the paths of depression. Dementia is enough without the added sadness she sometimes carries.
I glance around for tasks which need done; wanting to be of help to my brother who is her nighttime caregiver. He does so much, and I want to make life a little bit easier for him too. I'll begin the wash, take care of the cats, do a light dusting, help Mom to dress or heaven forbid, take a shower. For this has not been easy and on the days I can coax her, I end up getting almost as wet as she does. I know she feels badly. It can't be easy having your daughter insist you do something that has become almost scary. For the tub isn't easy to maneuver with her bad leg, and getting her onto her shower seat takes patience and a little muscle as well.
Some days I take Mom for a drive to a favorite spot near a lovely creek and small stone bridge, knowing she and Dad loved to drive there each week. We may even grab a little food while we are out, but taking a walker in and out of the car and making sure she doesn't fall, gives every trip a little added stress.
I orchestrate all her doctor, dental, eye and foot appointments like a well-oiled machine, seeing that she is cared for. And getting her to them is another feat in itself.
Once she is situated back home, I make sure that Mom has taken her late afternoon pills; or days when I am not there, try talking her into taking them on the other end of the phone. It's exhausting, these simple tasks, and sometimes as part caregiver, I want to vent and scream and even run away.
My friend Goldie reminded me that we must care for ourselves. We are no good to anyone if we don't first take time to do something nice for us. As another of my friends, Paula mentioned the other day, if you were traveling on a plane and in an emergency the oxygen masks came down before you, you would first put the mask onto your own face so that you'd have enough breath to take care of your loved ones around you. We cannot help someone else if we can't breathe.We cannot thrive without oxygen, and that's what the caregiver needs; sometimes one small breath at a time.
It's been easy to fall into a trap recently--an endless pit of despair at times. Poor me, why me, etc, etc. But when I actually listened to these two remarkable friends, my spirits lifted and the shackles of depression began to abate. Some people find a little solace in having their nails or hair done, or purchasing a fun new outfit. Others enjoy a good workout at a local gym. There are those who take in a movie with a good friend, or share a cup of coffee with another. A long, hot bath, good music, all great for the caregiver. And some of these are easily accomplished.
I got to thinking: Hmm, I'm not one to buy clothes, spend money on my nails, or heaven forbid, purchase a membership to a gym. (Well, at least not yet anyway.) But there is something I took the time to learn about and indulge a little in. My skincare.
I've always been told I do not look my fifty plus years. My father's family had great Italian skin, and Dad looked way younger than his eighty years. I'd begun to notice some under eye baggage; a few lines and darkening that wasn't there a short time ago. And those darn marionette lines--what the heck are they anyway? Frown lines--well, I can guess what those are from.
Friend Paula who I mentioned above is a skin care advocate. I'm fortunate enough to work with her at my job. She has gotten into a company called Nerium, and I listened as she told some of our patients about the products that are slated to turn back the hands of time. Okay, I thought, let's give it a whirl. For I don't indulge in other spending, why not on my skin then?
Can I mention that it was love at first pump? The wonderful, enriching lotion sucked into my crevices and I saw results that were almost instantaneous. And over time, I see better and better looking skin. It's to the point that my husband noticed something "different" about me, and others have remarked as well.
I took in a movie the other day also. And I've been taking time to read good books, listen to music I enjoy, and on occasion, even paint my nails with glitzy, fun colors. Yes, it's true--we must caregive ourselves a bit from time to time or we lose a little of who we are and all that we can do for others.
So, buy the new shirt, read that book, indulge in the dark chocolate you've been wanting. Call a friend and vent. Then vent some more. Laugh at a funny movie, or be inspired by a touching one. Do something for you! It makes the spirits soar and helps us to be a much-improved caregiver. Remember to breathe.
Below you will find my friend Paula's site for the amazing Nerium products. Oh, and while you're at it, consider becoming a partner for the company, those of you who may need an extra income or who enjoy working from home. But one thing I know, you will adore the results!
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Count your blessings, they say. Think positive. Easy enough for people who aren't going through major life changes or depression.
I left for work this morning sulky and downcast. Though inspirational music played cheerily on my car radio, I couldn't muster one good thought. I arrived at work and the day began. Little by little, the routine began to settle me. I found that being busy was good for my spirits. And when a co-worker and I took a long walk during lunchtime, I turned my face upward to the shining sun and whispered a prayer of thankfulness.
As we returned to the office, I received a phone call from my son. He was going to spend a little time with my mother, his grandmother today. She had a doctor's appointment and he had volunteered to take her. He had questions for me, and I could hear in his voice that he was a little agitated, but he patiently answered the receptionist at the clinic while being respectful to my mother who kept talking in the background. My heart cracked in half as I thought of my son's goodness. It can't be easy for an almost thirty-year old to "hang out with grandma" one day a week. It can't be easy watching her mind failing, and answering her questions over and over, or listening to stories he's probably heard hundreds of times by now.
He took her out to eat after the appointment--something he does each week. He made sure she took her afternoon pills, knowing how much I worry about this every day. My mind could settle a bit as I relaxed and knew that Mom was in good hands. Matt is my mother's shining star, you see. She adores him and still refers to him as "My Darling." This is a name she has called him since he was a baby. I would walk into the house with Matt in my arms, and the minute he'd hear her say those words, his little feet would start kicking and he'd get the biggest smile on his face.
When she asked the other day who Matt was to me, my heart sank. But then I thought: at least she knows him. But I couldn't believe she didn't realize he is my son.
Matt is my shining star too, though. He is the blessing I am most grateful for every day of my life. His name, Matthew means gift of God, and it is appropriate. Any time I'm really down, I think of Matt and smile. His good heart, his infectious grin, his passion for causes that are right. Such a good young man. The best.
I am proud of him for more than this. He is someone who picked himself up from his own bout of depression. He cast off shyness that he'd had as a child, and did something about it. Matt took his passion to a whole new level and began doing what he really loved. Playing crane machines and making kids and their families happy. His YouTube channel and popularity have skyrocketed and I cannot think of a more deserving person.
I watch him at meet and greets when fans line up to talk with him. He takes time with each and every one of them, asking where they are from, and still humble enough to be amazed when they say they've come from out of state to see him. I see the looks on the faces of the children, the excitement of meeting their idol, and the joy from being there with him and it warms my heart. Matt gives of himself going above and beyond to make sure each child and family get plenty of attention. He's helped several kids who have been depressed as he shared a special story on his YouTube channel called "Draw My Life." And he donates his many wins to special charities and events. Yes, I cannot help but smile and feel very, very blessed when I think about the amazing person my son has turned out to be.
God, thank you for Matt, this gift you've given, this shining star for so many of us. And if anyone should be a true star in every sense of the word, I pray that Matt's popularity would grow and flourish even more in the years to come.
Hey, if you have a minute, check him out. Subscribe to his channel. I think he'll make you smile, too.
Matt's Facebook Fan Page:
Matt's special story: Draw My Life:
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
I have chosen Valentine's Day to share a few small stories that I hope will encourage and bless you. If you are a caregiver of an elderly family member, please know you are not alone. And know that there are moments, these sweet moments that you will remember forever.
Love in the Golden Years
Love in the senior years: A true inspiration to me. My parents were married over sixty years. Sixty years of ups and downs, good health and bad, happiness and sadness. But one thing remained: a steadfast love. It was this love that inspired me to write stories; theirs, and another couple: my husband’s elderly aunt and uncle.
Louise, my husband’s aunt, had a stroke several years back and was hospitalized and eventually moved into a nursing home. Her husband, Hubert, took the time every single day to drive to see her. He helped her eat, talked with her even though she couldn’t speak well, and made sure every need of hers was met. There came a time he couldn’t drive any longer, and he would wait as the senior bus picked him up, not wanting to miss one day with his wife.
When he suffered his own health crisis, he ended up in the same care facility. Though they weren’t in the same room, Uncle Hubert would wheel himself down the hall to spend time with his beloved each and every day.
Hubert and Louise didn’t have many family members, so I became a regular visitor of theirs. I watched as love appeared to grow even stronger as Hubert sat by his wife’s side, gazing upon her as if she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and talking to her as if she was the only person in the world who mattered.
Then came the day when we had to tell him that Louise had passed away. Brave man that he was, Hubert made it to the funeral. When he stood from his wheelchair to give Louise that final kiss, I thought my heart would break.
He would live another two years without her, and it was during that time that I would grow closer than ever to him.
One Christmas morning my husband Jim and I went to visit Uncle Hubert in the nursing home after Aunt Louise had passed away. We signed the guest book in the front lobby and walked through the doors to the hall that leads to the patient rooms. A little way up the hallway, Uncle Hubert was sitting in his wheelchair, the only patient in the immediate area, an expectant look on his face which broke into the most beautiful smile the instant he saw us. "Merry Christmas," he said, extending both arms toward us. We embraced and went into the dining room with him to chat. A lump formed in my throat as we spoke, realizing we probably got the most wonderful present by giving our time to this dear man. "I knew you were coming," he said to us. It was the strangest thing. We could have chosen any time that day for a visit, yet he knew in his heart it would be then. All our love, Uncle Hubert....
Basket of Love
There is a basket my mother keeps near her kitchen table, spilling over with love letters and cards that Dad sent her through the years. We lost my father only four months ago, and these writings have become a beautiful link to his love for Mom.
Every so often when I’m visiting, Mom pulls a crumpled page out and asks in a shy, giggling, school girl kind of way, “Did you ever see some of the notes your father wrote me?”
In her dementia, Mom doesn’t realize that I’ve heard the letters read many times now. But to her, it’s the first time. It’s a way to reignite the passion she and Dad shared, and makes her see herself as my father always saw her: as the young beauty he once courted.
Though the ravages of aging are upon her, the thinning, gray hair, bent body, and same sweatshirt stained with jelly from the previous day; inside is the young girl. The one my father loved.
Friday, February 10, 2017
I've debated putting this story out there. It was difficult to go through and not easy to write about. Yet I feel that if it blesses someone, helps another person if they, too, are going through either of the family issues I speak of, then God has led me in the right direction.
I've been trying to get this story into Guideposts and other magazine publications and so far, I've hit dead ends. So for you readers of my blogs, my true inspirational stories, I give you something deep to ponder today. A true story that I hope will bring you comfort with its message of light.
With Valentine's Day approaching, it is appropriate. For part of this tale took place on a Valentine's Day so long ago in my family. Appropriate also, because it is about the heart in many more ways than one. . .
When My Mother Found the Light
Karen L. Malena
“Do you have the earrings I gave you?” Mom asks. “You know, the ones with the rhinestones?”
Mom’s wiry gray hair stands on end around her face; food from the previous day stains her pink sweatshirt. She’s seated at the small, round table nibbling the corner of a jelly donut, licking her fingers like a little kid. It hits me hard how truly childlike she has become. My heart cracks like fragile porcelain.
Familiar sights and sounds bring me a bit of desperately needed comfort as I stand in my parents’ kitchen. The old percolator-type coffee pot, stained from years of use, comes to a boil on top of the stove. The harvest gold refrigerator hums the same tune as always, and white ruffled curtains flutter in the light breeze that floats through the open window.
The back door creaks, and Dad walks in, cane in one hand, well-worn prayer book in the other. Dad: my rock. Our eyes meet for a moment and he smiles a tired smile.
Mom asks again about the earrings. Dad and I look at each other, and this time he winks at me. We’ve talked about this before. We are amazed that she is able to recall a gift she’d given me long ago, but thoughts from only a few minutes ago evade her entirely.
Dementia, the sneaky robber, is slowly stealing my mother’s mind, replacing it with simple conversations and yet oddly leaving a few precious memories of times past.
I promise my mother I will look for the earrings when I return home later.
Dad sits, and I count their pills out of endless medicine bottles. Mom talks excitedly about the old high school yearbook she discovered last evening. I know better. She really found it last month, and I know exactly how the conversation will go. I listen as if it’s the first time she’s telling the story, oohing and aahing at the proper times, while Dad complains about another hospital bill.
I wash a few dishes left from the night before, and look out the window into the backyard where my brother and I had so many marvelous adventures. The countless haunted trails we fabricated to frighten our neighborhood friends, and the paths we cleared to explore deep into the woods; lawn darts, badminton, family picnics. Life has been quite an adventure, I think to myself. A sigh escapes, and I wipe my hands on a well-worn kitchen towel. I promise to visit again soon, and kiss both of my parents on the forehead before I go.
Later, at home, I bring out the jewelry box from my childhood looking for the old earrings. I root through, fingers brushing past a cherished heirloom, my Nonna’s beloved locket, and then pushing aside a small faux gold seahorse necklace I haven’t worn in years. A torn, yellowing piece of paper sits at the back of the box and I reach for it; the childish scrawl, a page ripped from the diary of my youth. Mom went to the hospital by ambulance today.
I sit down hard on the edge of the bed, and memories pepper my brain like the sting of tiny wasps. Emotions run through me in succession: shame, fear, anger, and finally, guilt. A silent scream forms in my throat: It’s happening again. It’s not fair, Lord!
Tears well up in my eyes and make their way down my cheeks. The paper is clutched in my hand and the writing begins to blur. I was eleven years old, only eleven. The words, a litany of the small girl I’d once been, afraid as her mother was taken from her and not for the first time; a little girl who’d been lost and alone due to the descending darkness of her mother’s mental illness. I wipe at the tears, overcome with emotion.
When my mother had gone to the hospital that long ago snowy day in February, it hadn’t been one of her moments of insanity, or even one of the imagined illnesses she sometimes had. This time it was much more serious. She’d suffered a cardiac arrest. The doctors saw that they were losing her and assembled a team quickly to resuscitate her.
That Sunday is indelibly etched into my mind--a snowy, windy day, cold and bleak. I remember my father running into the house, his face careworn from all we’d recently been through. I see myself alone and confused as ambulance attendants take my mother from me. I wouldn’t learn until much later what had happened that day. I never could have known that I’d almost lost my mother.
For the second time in my life, Mom is leaving me; but this time it’s the memory thief.
Mom, where are you going? I have so many stories I want to share with you about my own life. I miss you.
I know I’m fortunate to still have her, but this doesn’t feel like my mom. It’s a shell of who she once was. Conversations have now been replaced with questions, so many questions. We replay past moments again and again.
Sometimes I feel as if all the good years in between never happened. This isn’t the strong woman who once ran several businesses of her own.
I glance down again at the scrap of paper, the diary entry from a February in nineteen seventy, and a shiver runs through me.
Nobody had ever given me and my father a complete diagnosis of Mom’s mental state. I’d only heard snippets of cruel words from insensitive people: depressed, crazy, suicidal. While growing up I’d watched as my mother returned home from other hospital visits, a haunted look on her face and the smudges of dark circles beneath her eyes.
All that I’d seen, the spiraling depression, and secretive whispering, threatened to pull me down. I became a nervous, hyperventilating child, preferring to retreat into the fantasy world of books and movies, making up my own tales where everyone lived happily ever after and mothers didn’t talk crazy. Sadness and fear became constant companions and it became difficult to talk about my feelings. I daydreamed about having a normal family, but at times, I thought I might never see my mother again.
Through it all, my father became a tower of silent strength. With deep faith, patience, love, and even a sense of humor, he handled each crisis with grace. I never heard him speak unkindly to my mother, nor did I ever feel that he was giving up. He would attempt to make me laugh with silly stories and a ridiculous language he invented. He listened patiently as I sniffled over some school bully’s infraction, or helped with nightly homework. We attended church most every Sunday, and prayer became a way of life for my father. His Bible was never far from him. We adjusted to life without my mother for months at a time, and my grandparents stepped in to help raise me.
One day Mom returned home after another of her particularly lengthy hospital stays. I noticed a dramatic change. The dark circles were gone from under her eyes, and her face glowed. When she talked, she spoke clearly, and made complete sense. Confusion, anxiety and sadness had vanished and I saw lightness in her step that I’d never seen before. I was so elated to have a normal family once again, that I never asked about the transformation.
Only Dad seemed to know something the rest of us didn’t. A huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders, and like a secret he meant to keep, Dad didn’t talk openly about the fact that a miracle might have occurred. In the quiet of his heart, he knew.
Laughter replaced hushed voices and secrecy. Warm conversation and affection rooted my parents’ love more deeply. Life settled into the kind of boring routine I’d envied from my friends.
Though other trials followed, Mom showed strength I didn’t know she’d been capable of. She delivered my brother at age thirty-nine, even though doctors had warned her that a late pregnancy could be devastating to her health.
She stood by during my own health battle with scoliosis, a source of comfort and courage during a frightening time of surgery and my torturous year-long body cast.
Mom became an antique dealer; something she’d always wanted to do. Then she and Dad bought a small Mom and Pop grocery store in our small town. The customers gravitated toward my mother’s welcoming, compassionate personality. Her infectious laughter carried through the opened door on warm summer nights.
Many of the patrons grew close enough with Mom to share stories of their lives and daily struggles. To those who were hurting, Mom began to tell her story of faith; one I’d never known. She told the story to anyone who needed hope.
It seemed when my mother had gone to the hospital that long ago snowy day in February, when she’d suffered the cardiac arrest, she felt herself being lifted from her body and headed toward a long, dark tunnel. The faster she traveled a feeling of complete love began to wash over her, surrounding her. She explained that it was almost indescribable, all-encompassing, and put into simple words, it was as if she was the only person who mattered.
After a few minutes, she felt herself being pulled rapidly back into consciousness. As her eyes opened, she heard the technicians and doctor exclaim, “She’s back!”
Mom hadn’t understood at first what had happened, but later would say she had seen a glimpse of what is to come, the feeling of God’s love complete and overwhelming; a personal, individual type of love. St. Augustine put it this way: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”
If she sat in a doctor’s office and someone spoke about a sick loved one and how frightened they were for them, Mom would tell the story. When people talked about a family member who had died, and how unbearable life was without them, she would tell the story. Whenever she felt it would bless another person, my mother would recount the few moments she’d spent wrapped in the miraculous love of God.
This happened to her in the early nineteen-seventies before talking about near death experiences became popular; a time when it wasn’t fashionable to speak of such things. Mom knew that she’d been given a true gift. A new chance at life and the opportunity to share about the light of God’s healing presence. Though Mom’s earlier years had been spent wandering in darkness, she arrived on the other side bathed in radiant light.
I need to remember this now as I think about her dementia. It’s not the same as mental illness, though it feels like it at times. But the thought that sustains us, my father, brother and I, is that we know where Mom is headed no matter when her life should end. We know that miracles can and do happen, and we experienced such a gift in the face of some of the most horrific events a family should ever go through.
I find Mom’s earrings, and hold them in my hands. The stones wink in the overhead light, reflecting so many memories of better times. I’ll call her later, and she may or may not remember that she asked about them. It doesn’t matter. For this tiny spark contains a lifetime of precious moments: love, lessons learned, and miracles.