Jul 21, 2011

September Tribute

“Thank you for being my mother”

By Margaret Toman

September Tribute

On the deck outside my bedroom I hear the scrabbling of a late feeding raccoon finishing off the last of the Meow Mix I put out last night. It is 3:28 a.m. I have slept hardly at all, anxieties circling my brain like planes with no place to land.

In her bed across the hall, my mother knows nothing of my pressures. Hers are the nightmares of dementia from depths I can’t imagine.

“I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying!” she cries.

I slide my feet into slippers and pad across the hall. “Are you alright, Sweetie?” I ask softly, gently nudging her shoulder, but she is breathing peacefully now, that memory lost along with most of the others from her nearly 97 years.

I have been in her life for a little over 65 of those years and Saturday afternoon, triggered by the shortening September days, I pulled my chair close to my hers, turned off the telephone and television, took her hand and told her what I remember.

“I remember how you read to me,” I said, “rolling your eyes as you acted out the characters in the stories. I remember falling asleep to the whir of your Singer sewing machine and awaking to your wooden spoon whacking around in a pottery bowl that I knew I would get to lick. I remember the long walks we took in the country and your delight in the trees and flowers and birds, how you knew what they were and talked to them as though they were your friends. One year you made me a tea set out of acorns.

I remember when we climbed the Statue of Liberty, twice, and how our feet almost froze to the ground during Macy’s Parades but we refused to leave.

Do you remember the day you tried to teach me the facts of life at the Museum of Natural History but I was more interested in the dinosaur exhibit?” I laugh, remembering her exasperation with me. I can’t tell if she remembers but it doesn’t matter, really. She laughs too.

My memories rise like bubbles from a deep ocean. “You baked a homemade 3-layer angel food cake from scratch every birthday of my life until you were 90 years old, slathering it with inch thick chocolate that you swirled artfully into a masterpiece. Once, when I lived away, you mailed it in a box that melted all over the outside to the delight of the mailman.”

“You were always a Star, I said, rolling my eyes.

I notice that she is smiling more broadly at this one. Such a beauty! You loved to entertain people, to design and sew a smashing dress and host guests for drinks and dinner. You designed striking centerpieces out of nature’s gifts, fringed your own placemats and napkins, invented gourmet dishes nuanced with herbs and spices and charmed our guests with funny stories. I used to think they’d never go home.

Do you remember the Christmas cards that poured into our mailbox?” I ask, squeezing her hand. “They fell like autumn leaves. You, who often couldn’t afford Christmas cards, made them out of scrap paper and leaves or whatever you could find, writing a personal message for each person with your instantly recognizable script.

I remember times you stayed up all night embroidering a dress for me or for someone else’s child, or baking loaves of bread that you would take to a grieving friend or to newcomers in the neighborhood. And the poetry you wrote! You won prizes for it. I have a folder brimming with poems.

You were a crackerjack salesman, gal, “ I say, rolling my eyes. She is grinning now.

“When you won the Salesman of the Year Award at Thalhimer’s everyone wanted to work in your department because you were so much fun. You worked in undergarments and knew a lot of wicked jokes which you told with perfect timing and grand style, laughing the loudest of anyone.”

At some point during my tribute our cat appeared in the room and memories of pets and animals surfaced that amused us for a long time. Not all my memories are good, of course. To care for an aging parent with dementia is to grow through a second adolescence, to come to terms with painful family dynamics that might otherwise be buried forever. But that no longer matters in this time for love and cherishing.

Darkness fell before I finished. I don’t remember all that I said but I will always remember the softness in my mother’s eyes.

“Mom, I grew up watching you embrace everyone you met with kindness, no matter how different or strange they were. I saw almost daily how generously and joyfully you shared the little you had; and how your easy, contagious laughter let people relax and enjoy themselves. I watched you forbear and forgive and quietly step back from judgment when others were clamoring. I knew you in private moments of grief and doubt and watched you lean on your faith and your inner strength.”

“I could go on for hours, days, weeks. The memories I’ve shared today are a small part of the gold doubloons in the rich treasure chest of my memories of you.

Do you know how much you have given me? Do you know how grateful I am?”

I said all of this and more to her without shedding a tear. She listened intently, her eyes never leaving mine, squeezing my hand even when confusion was on her face.

“Thank you for being my mother” I said, “for being the astonishing person you are, for being my role model, companion in mischief, my sweet, wonderful, funny, irreplaceable mother, my shining star.” I hugged her tightly as grief and joy arrived simultaneously in my heart, forged by the warmth of memories into a gratitude that anointed us both with sudden tears.

I walked down the hallway for Kleenex and read the quote by Albert Camus I keep in a frame on my bathroom counter:

“In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I know that life’s sweetest blessings often present themselves along its bumpiest roads. Chin up, I tell myself. Keep traveling. Keep loving. Forgive endlessly. Always be kind.

Thank you, Mom, for showing me how.

Margaret Toman is an Alzheimer's caregiver, and cares for her 97 year old mother, Lou Longest, who is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease. They live together in Garner, North Carolina.

Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room