Most of us want to avoid memory care. It’s typically not a place to enjoy enlightenment, but with help from five little globs of clay, it was the place where my mother found peace.
Mom was from a generation of women who often lacked straightforward power in their lives, so they maneuvered. When reality didn’t match their dreams, they did what they could to fabricate proxies of success to send home in letters and pictures. Mom did a lot of creating or obscuring, but during life with my dad, she rarely got to write her own script.
Finally, in middle age, she divorced Dad and charted her dreams. With terrific people skills, she built a successful career as a real estate broker who was genuine, honest, and hard-working.
When Mom chose a senior community for her old age, she picked one that had varied levels of service, but she always thought she could live independently. She went to the gym, she walked, she swam, and kept her body going like a wind-up toy. But her brain was failing, and Mom did dumb things like setting off a fire alarm at night when she was too hot. First, she went into assisted living and then, about two years later, her hitchhiking incident forced her into memory care.
In assisted living, the only things she liked were her view of the Willamette River and being closer to the art program. ArtWorks was run by two young women, Sandra and Carrie, who had degrees in fine arts and counseling. I tried to visit Mom at times when I could go to ArtWorks because it made her so happy. We would work on group projects, like our little stained-glass windows, and laugh when we knew they were so bad that we wouldn’t keep them.
It was all about the process and time together.
As filters on her words faded and frustration increased, people in Mom’s life could catch her ire. Even folks in ArtWorks. Occasionally, if she had been my pre-schooler, I would have removed her for retraining. But she was my loopy mother, and all I could do was hope things went better the next time she walked into the studio.
Usually, they did.
One day, I got a call from Sandra. After a few pleasantries, she asked if the family would approve individual art therapy for Mom.
“You know she won’t keep a schedule.”
“Oh, we know. We’ll catch her as we can and bill in 15-minute increments if that is O.K. with you.”
I approved, and fervently wished Sandra, “Good luck!”
With more individual support, Mom spent a lot of time working in clay. She was an amateur potter who loved making pots and playing with glazes. When I visited, I’d often take her to the studio to see if she had any projects that I could help her glaze. She usually did. The crooked little wonders didn’t always hold water, but they were treasures.
On one trip to the studio, I saw five nondescript figures on Mom’s drying shelf and asked her what we would do with them.
“Throw them out!”
“But you made them so you must have had a reason.”
“They are nothing. Just put them in the wastebasket!”
She scowled and pointed to the trash can, so I dumped them.
Later I noticed Sandra retrieve the globs and I realized that one of those little figures was probably me, and I was happy to note that I hit the trash at the same time as my two siblings.
A couple of months later my suspicions about the clay blobs were confirmed when Mom announced triumphantly, “I don’t hate Howard (my dad) anymore!”
“That’s great. What happened?”
“I’m so proud of my children, and I wouldn’t have them without Howard. So I don’t hate him.”
That was a change!
As Mom lost the ability to weigh her words, occasionally her contempt of Dad spewed out uncontrollably. He was a highly flawed guy, but also an emotionally present parent for me. When he died over a decade earlier, I felt I lost the only parent I ever really had, so her outbursts were uncomfortable for me.
As I listened to Mom speak about her new acceptance, I wasn’t sure it could last.
It was about three months after Mom’s serene revelation about Dad that I took her to lunch wearing my flashy jeans. Afterward, we decided to go to ArtWorks to see Sandra and Carrie. They were teaching when we arrived, so we greeted them and headed back to Mom’s room. Along the
way, she took off her glasses and happily posed for a picture to record our day.
At the door to memory care, Mom lifted the little card that had “Code” written on it and saw that the entry code was 1 3 5 7 9 #. She said slyly, “I can remember that.” When she got to her room, she wrote the numbers as she had before on good days. But that piece of paper would disappear, and even if she found it, she hadn’t written the “#.”
Hashtags don’t get noticed on the far side of the digital divide. She was still locked in.
I helped Mom into her recliner and showed her pictures of my youngest grandson as she proudly named the people she knew in each photo. She laughed at how hard it was to use her “poor deformed finger” as a pointer anymore.
She was so serene.
As I got ready to leave, she gripped me so tightly that her bulging knuckles looked like they might pop her translucent skin. She exclaimed, “How did this happen? You are such a blessing to me!”
Mom first used that “How did this happen?” phrase about a month earlier when she told me she never thought I’d be a blessing to her.
Since then, I’d been thinking about possible reasons, so I made suggestions. “Mom you were trapped when I was little. Dad was having an affair, you didn’t have a college education, and it would be embarrassing to go home to Iowa. I know you wanted to make your parents proud.”
She got teary. Silent.
Then she spoke, “I was trapped before you were born.”
I waited for her to organize her thoughts.
She finally continued. “When I told my Dad that I was pregnant with you, I thought he would be happy, but he just cried.” She pursed her lips and nodded quietly for emphasis.
“Was that because he knew you would have to stay married?”
“He knew I was stuck, just stuck with my choice of Howard. I could never go home.”
“I’ll bet you were thinking of leaving Dad before you got pregnant.”
Tears were streaming as she nodded. “I was so trapped. I never thought you would be a blessing to me.”
I reached over to hug her, “I was the one who trapped you, but see what you accomplished because you did your best.”
“Oh sweetie, I love you so much! I’m so happy right now.”
I told her that she was beautiful and showed her the photo I’d taken earlier. She looked and smiled knowing it was a record of a perfect day.
When I got to my car, I checked the traffic and then called Michael. “I found out how it happened that I’m such a blessing to Mom.”
“Of course you are.”
“No, not just a blessing but why my being a blessing was a surprise for her.”
“Did I wake you up from a nap?”
“Oops. You can get back to sleep, but the car-pool lane has already opened so I won’t be home anytime soon.”
Then I started my trip, but it didn’t take long at all.
It’s been five years since I heard why Mom felt trapped by my existence. She was a proud woman, so I’m sure it was utterly painful to be shackled to a husband she believed would never be faithful or financially successful. Her parents had warned her, but she married the good-looking traveling salesman who made deliveries by plane anyway. As Mom grew frail and needed more of my help, I’d worked hard to build bridges across our occasionally troubled relationship. But in the end, only she could unearth her secret and unlock the pain of my existence.
As individuals, there may not be much solace in shoveling crap alone, but we are never too old for gifted guides to help rout out our pain and mold it into peace.
I guess that’s why I signed up for another writing class.