How Did This Happen?

It wasn’t a crack in Mom’s façade, just a tiny fissure that age and warmth made too worn to hold all its secrets. Then, when I didn’t expect it, a fraction of a mystery oozed out for me to see. And it began to change me.

I had gone to visit Mom in the memory care unit where she ended up after her unfortunate hitchhiking trip. I was on a random reinforcement schedule with each journey across Portland to see her. Some days I visited a confused crank, but on others, I could savor her joyful self.

When I arrived that day, Mom was waiting to see me and dressed to go out for lunch. So we headed to Burgerville.

In earlier times we’d drive to trendy Sellwood. I’d double park close to a restaurant and get Mom and her walker out to wait while I found a place to park. She didn’t like waiting, so she often went shopping. I had to look for her and hope her walker hadn’t knocked an antique off a shelf while she browsed.

Finally, I convinced her that eco-conscious Burgerville with its sustainability practices listed right inside the door would be fine. It had a parking lot. She could share a fruit smoothie knowing it was non-fat and made with yogurt. We’d split a sandwich, or she would get fish and chips, although she never ate wasted calories like chips.

Eventually, even going inside a burger joint became too hard. We got our lunch in the drive-thru and drove to the Willamette River to eat it.

On this day, we watched a stand-up paddleboarder remain upright as a fishing boat created a wake. Mom marveled. “How does he do that? He must be so strong!”

We observed fishermen throwing lines of futility into the water. Mom observed, “They just want to get out of the house.”

We counted each little gosling in the families of the Canada Geese and looked to notice if there were any “bad” birds to threaten the little balls of fluff as they practiced paddling.

With each observation, Mom seemed so content with life.

Then the sun broke out, and I opened the sunroof so that we could bathe in the warmth. After a quiet time of reflection, Mom exclaimed, “I’m so happy!” And then she reached for my hand and held on as tightly as she could her with crooked and gnarled fingers. I was amazed at the strength of her grip.

Eventually, she exclaimed, “How did this happen?”

“How did what happen?”

“You are such a blessing to me.” She gently nodded with teary eyes.

“Why is that so surprising?”

She responded with pursed lips and downcast eyes.

“Is there something you want to tell me?”

Silence. Then again she said, “You are such a blessing!”

“Mom, I’m the person you raised me to be.”

She looked doubtful.

“Mom, what are you thinking?”

“You are such a blessing. I love you so much!”

“You are a blessing to me too. Do you want to talk more about this?”

She remained mute.

I suggested, “Are you surprised a child of Harry’s was a blessing to you?”

Pursed lips held tightly to her thoughts. Eventually, she smiled and said, “I just love you so much!” The warmth of the sun and her love enticed me into staying longer than I planned.

After I got Mom situated in her apartment, I went to my car and called Michael to let him know I’d be too late to go to the gym. Then I rattled, “I had a crazy conversation, or sort of a conversation, with Mom today. She took my hand and held tightly and said, ‘How did this happen?’ When I asked her, ‘How did what happen?’ she just said I was such a blessing and she loved me so much.”

“You are a blessing.”

“O.K., but why should she make it sound like my being a blessing was such a miracle? What happened earlier to make her think I’d never be good to have around. God knows she often acted like I wasn’t a blessing, but why? That is my issue. It has always been my issue. ”

“Does it matter now?”

“Well, it’s hard not to think about why I’m such a surprise to her. Was her silence protecting me from knowing something I’d done early on or was she shielding me from something she doesn’t want me to know?”

Michael said, “I just wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried. But I’m sure as heck curious.”

“That probably won’t do you any good.”

I rattled on, “Lord knows I have this crappy commute to see her because she didn’t want to be too close to me when she moved to retirement living.”

“You are wonderful to her now. So don’t worry about it. Enjoy it.”

Michael is good at creating CliffsNotes versions of social support, but right then “Just don’t worry about it” was a red flag waving in front of my face.

“I do enjoy it. But why is being a blessing of a daughter such a big surprise? That’s my issue.”

“One never really knows what your Mom is thinking so don’t think about it. And for that matter, at this point, she may never know.” He continued, “You need to start driving—the longer you wait, the worse the traffic will become.”

He was right about more than the traffic, so I started the car and headed north into roads that were just as cluttered as my thinking.

Michael’s perfunctory mental health advice often gets ignored, and I couldn’t help wondering why I was such a surprising blessing, so I developed a two-pronged approach. First, I gathered evidence in pictures, scraps of letters, and memories to see if I could figure out a timeline of when I first fell from her grace. And then I would get to Glacier Lily as often as I could, and hope to find an opening in the labyrinth of her crumbling brain.

I did take one piece of advice from Michael. “Just be happy you know you are a blessing,” became my mantra each time I searched and watched the fog swallowing Mom.