I find parts of my mother are falling off. I don’t know how to put them back on her. I want to pull out my needle and thread and sew them back on. I think, If only I was a better seamstress. If only I could thread the needle faster. Why are my fingers so clumsy? Of course I cannot sew her back together. I see pieces of her fall to the ground, yet they are invisible. Where is my fireball mother? Where is her sharp mind and quick tongue that always cut me off impatiently; two women competing for words as only a mother and daughter can do? They are gone. Ha, the irony! Years of me screaming, “God, you never let anybody get a word in edgewise!” Now, my mom’s words are slow and sloppy. I must wait while she searches for them. I want to scream, “’Cold!‘ You’re looking for the word ‘cold’. The opposite of hot is cold.” That may sound callous. Why, you might ask, am I so impatient with a woman who is losing her mind and cannot help it? Welcome to the illogical world of love.
Yet, this journey teaches me over and over what life is about. Life is not what we want it to be. It’s just not. The pain of losing my mother and her sometimes inability to say my name, or to remember what I told her five minutes ago has stretched me into forms and dimensions I never dreamed of. Scorpion pose or hanumanasana don’t hold a candle to the way my heart has been torn but stretched wider. What ARE these poses anyhow, but metaphors for the expansiveness of our hearts?
I took my mother out to dinner the other night. Not easy. She uses a walker. No one knows why her spine crumbled into a doughnut about four years ago at the age of 58, making her look elderly. She is taken for my grandmother constantly. It’s evident to me the cause is her Alzheimer’s. The parts of her brain that decode spacial interpretation are dying, so she looks down at the floor all the time as if she is trying to get close to it, convinced that the patterns in the carpet or sparkles in the granite on the sidewalk are actually three dimensional and rising up at her. In the time it takes to walk four steps with my mother, I could have walked two city blocks in Manhattan by myself.
I guided her into the restaurant and we made our way, slowly, to the table. I am fast by nature. Moving, talking, dancing, I find my mind’s demons released through speed. But, there is no speed with my mother. I must find peace with this slow, confused walk. Tripping on her feet. Banging into chairs if I do not guide her. People look. I am learning not to care. I am learning to find equanimity that is evolving through loving my mother.
I order for my mother whenever we go out. She gets confused. She can’t remember what’s on the menu, or where she is. I request baked ziti for her and eggplant parm for me. When her food arrives she repeatedly tries to use her spoon. Being an only child with a family who can’t often visit, I find myself in these surreal moments alone; moments where the boundaries of life and what is “real” are tested. Do I let her use her spoon if she is successfully eating, thereby not embarrassing her by telling her she is doing something wrong, or do I take away her spoon and replace it with the fork? I decide on the latter and as I suspected she gets angry, “Oh, I guess I’m not doing something right again!” she barks. I change the subject. Make a joke. She laughs. We are over it. Let go. Just keep letting go.
The greater revelation of course is that this has nothing to with a fork or spoon at all. How disillusioned I have been to think that just because one knows how to use a fork he or she is well, and those who don’t are not. The questions must be asked: What is it to be “well”?
Here is a roundabout way of offering an answer to this question:
Sings at the top of her lungs. (All the wrong lyrics mind you, but she sings damn it).
Says Hello to everybody she passes, people she doesn’t know, people she has just said Hello to three times, and she tells them that she is happy that they are there, and that they look beautiful.
Becomes like a child when I touch her, when I hold her hand or hug her. (But, what is a child anyhow, but an open, generous and sweet being?)
My mother also gets angry.
She pushes picture frames and books off the table looking for things.
She leaves door and drawers open and puts toilet paper in the sink.
She becomes irritated when she can’t remember where the bathroom is or how to get to the lunchroom.
In these moments I gently tell her she is all right. That it’s going to be OK. This usually calms her down. In other words, she rises to the light. No matter how scared or confused she is, when she is met with gentleness and kindness she smiles. When she doesn’t, I am reminded this is what love is: Being present with her as she is instead of how I want her to be.
I’m learning to let go. Not in a nihilistic way or in Pollyanna way, but in an honest and courageous way. If I stubbornly cling to “but she should know how to use the bathroom,” or “she should know how to use a fork,” then I will miss her.
We only say “should” anyhow because we are afraid. We don’t know what to do with things that don’t remain same, solid, stuck. When I say, “should” it’s because I’m afraid my protector is slipping away and I’m not sure if I can rise up to this new role of being HER protector. But, she is slipping away, of course, and I can rise up to this role because I have.
It’s all slipping away. Everything we have in this world will. Best, to have gratitude for each moment.
My mother is well. She loves and responds to love, and in between moments of confusion she pipes up with, “Be a river, Rachel. Just let it all fall away and go towards what you love.”
We are doing the best we can, all of us. Be here fully and honestly and open yourself to the pain and to the joy that comes from being with what is instead of how you want it to be.
The heart is an ocean. As the poet Maya Angelou says, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
I am learning to stop trying to sew my mother up. She is full and whole and beautiful as she is. She is teaching me the fragility of being here. She is teaching me that we all have masks, personas, and armors, but below it all we are like flowers leaning toward the light always. Reaching towards the song, the touch, and the softness. In other words, we’re leaning towards love. We’ll always be able to understand that, with a fork or a spoon between our fingers.