Friday, February 10, 2017

When Mom Found the Light

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.


  1. Beautiful story and beautifully written. God does work in mysterious ways.

  2. What a beautiful story! My mother had Alzheimer's and though her illness was brief before she passed away at 86, the hardest part was she didn't remember my dad. That was the worst part for him. She developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for three weeks before she was sent home with hospice. While in the hospital she seemed to get in touch with her memory of Dad. She lived for another month and that month was like a gift from God to my dad. I miss her, but feel blessed too that I'll see her again, free from the illness that took her. Thank you for sharing your story, Karen - it's touched my heart!

    1. Wow, your own story is powerful and poignant as well. Thank you for sharing that, Rebecca and thank you for commenting.

  3. Oh Karen, this is absolutely beautiful. I can only imagine the emotional anguish you went through as a child. And your mom and dad, wow, what a rock of a marriage. It is amazing what faith can do. Xoxo

    1. Thank you, Joanne. Yes, that was a very strong marriage. God is good!! Thank you so much for commenting, dear.