Day 12 :: The Gift
The unexpected, unimagined phone call came when I was out of state helping facilitate a workshop. The emergency number was called and I was taken out of the group to call home. My brother, gently told me that my mother had had a stroke. He said it was not life threatening, that the troops had circled and that I did not need to come home. My mama, the strength, the organizer, the motivator, the matriarch of the huge, dysfunctional, “look good-be good” family, was in the hospital, unable to speak, unable to engage.
I went into shock and did what I was told. I stayed and continued to help with the workshop. But, OH ! how I acted out! I cried. I screamed. I thew props across the room. I yelled. I was scattered and afraid. It was the best place that I could be – a place where I could fall apart, be held and known and taken care of. If I had gone home, it would have been expected and much too easy to slip into my designated family role as caregiver and surrogate mother.
Days later, I saw her, her tiny self in an oversized, previously worn, light blue cotton gown on the Neurology Unit.
In a room full of noise and activity. Her husband, her kids, spouses, grandchildren. Medical staff came and went. Doctors and physical therapists and nurses and aides, all professional and kind. I wanted to scream, “Do you know who this is? This is my m.o.t.h.e.r. Do you understand how important she is?”
But there she lay, with unkempt hair, jewelry removed, no lipstick, a vacant look to her. She couldn’t speak in full sentences, this, the woman who had talked to everyone, all the time. She ate salad with her fingers, this, the woman who ate everything with a sterling (why save it for a special occasion?) knife and fork, always with a linen napkin. She brushed her hair with a toothbrush, once with a fork. She was confused and frightened and not sure where she was. She tried to talk. The words that came out of her mouth made no sense. She didn’t know her name. In an instant, she lost the ability to drive, to paint, to read, to knit, to cook, to talk. She couldn’t be left alone. She didn’t understand money or time, her medications or how to relate to others. And no one knew what to do. Or what to say.
In her 80’s, before the stroke, she hosted family gatherings of 50 people every holiday. She managed three homes. She created the flower arrangements for her grandchildren’s weddings. She knit blankets and sweaters and washcloths. She remembered every birthday, of every person, every year. She could organize the symphony, the community, and everyone else’s life. She could design and build a house, at the same time travel the world.
The gift is being with her and having conversations that mean something. The gift is time. The gift of seeing her, really seeing her because she no longer has a filter to hide behind. I see her as I always wanted to, had always hoped to, always dreamt of. Her defenses are down, her pretense is gone.
The gift shows up to be unwrapped each day as one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I am with her at her worst. Those days when she is confused and defensive, cryptic, unkind and unable to let something go. I am with her at her best. Those days when she is childlike, reading one word at a time, trying to remember, trying to find the words, trying to understand, trying to create. I am with her as she sings only the notes and knits one stitch at a time.
I am with her when we laugh until our bellies hurt and I am with her as she asks the questions that are most important to her:
“Where am I going when I die? Where will I lie down? I think of all the people and family. I’ll be a spirit, maybe mama and I will be joined at the hip. I think I’m really going to be with others …with my mama. I look at her all the time when I am at the beach. Is that me? My whole life has been a big vacancy. It is the unknown….gigantic. like a …it’s not a movie. I don’t hear with my ears. I don’t remember my dreams. What is it going to be like? My children need to tell me.”