Sometimes time crawls. I am frozen.
The empty space is just a matter of fact. Everything else goes on. The landscape changes. Her house, my house, which I see out my front window, becomes less recognizable by the day. I can never go back in.
Distracting images float into my thoughts regardless of what I am doing or thinking. The last time I saw her, realizing just how very much I will miss her crooked fingers.
How can someone with such a huge presence be gone?
In my mind, I often find myself in that room where we found her nearly every day. We are watching M*A*S*H or looking vainly for a good movie. I am watering her plants and my husband is shooing away one of the wandering residents. Or we are wheeling her out of the dayroom to the gazebo, an escape she loved for as long as possible, to watch the sky over the trees past the other resident buildings.
Or she is still at home. We are sitting with our feet up on either end of her couch recliner, watching episode after episode of Law and Order, or old movies on TCM. Later I’m in her kitchen baking this week’s cookies.
Or I am sitting by her bed on that long Friday. On Saturday my siblings are arriving gradually, one by one, faces distorted briefly as they come in. I’m staring at the picture over her bed in which she stands between my two brothers looking fully twenty years younger than she was.
Mostly I find myself just hovering there in the room with the afternoon light slanting in then dimming toward evening. My husband and I are just with her.
How can such a huge presence be gone?
Here is a conversation from one of those afternoons under the gazebo. My mother, with dementia but articulate as could be, had been indulging in a confrontation with some of the staff. Now, calm:
Mom: What are those buildings? It looks like a school.
My husband: No, it’s just some of the other buildings here.
Mom: …Maybe they’re teaching manners to the elderly.
My husband: They assume they already have them.
Mom: … …Obviously we don’t.
She never lost her true self. I have stories.
Now, no matter what happens, or what I do, I just cannot feel right. I imagined that grief was a little ball of black twine inside of me. I’m getting along OK, I don’t feel any way in particular, I’m just getting through each day. I will feel normal in awhile. Just wait. I am frozen.
Then it occurred to me that my image was wrong. The ball of grief is not a little thing inside me. I am in it. My world is inside of grief.
I can only wait until it wants to go. The grieving person does not control the grief process. No matter how prepared you were for your loss, grief takes its own course. You are at its mercy.
It’s helpful for others to know this. Rather than trying (however sympathetically) to tell someone how to get through (or get over) their grief, we should walk with them through it. No matter how long it takes, or how unexpected the path. Just be kind and present. There’s really nothing else you can do. Or maybe the best thing you can do is to leave them alone with it and let them work through it.
I wish I had written down more of her memories. Let me tell you a little about my mom from my memory.
She was creative. Before she became too impaired to sew anymore, she had been sewing for about seventy five years. She could make almost anything. She never followed a pattern without creating her own alterations. My friend and I were looking at tote bags today at Hallmark and I remembered the huge, wildly printed, sometimes waterproof-lined totes my mom made. With handles that would never fall off. She loved color and loud prints. She was always stylish in her one of a kind handmade dresses. She made her hats, she made our Easter dresses and spring coats every year, she made my sister’s formal prom dresses (several), she made the wedding dresses for all three of us Mercer girls. She loved to make my children clothes: flannel lined denim baggy jeans with huge pockets and elastic waists, delightfully patterned little girl dresses, baby clothes, doll clothes, roomy fleece sweaters with reindeer and snowflakes.
How many of her carefully sewn gifts do I still have? Not that many. How did I let them go? This feels like infinite regret now.
She also loved cooking and was creative there too. There was a health-conscious era where all baked goods had what we called bark and gravel. There was always cake and the smell of cinnamon buns or cookies in the oven signaled the holidays. I have carried on her baking traditions, so at least that isn’t lost.
At the center of my mother’s personality was a diamond hard gem called Self-Determination. Maybe it was really called Opposition or You Can’t Make Me. She died with advanced dementia but that nucleus at the center of her being was untouched.
To the end she knew two things. She knew her children and their children, and she knew nobody was ever going to make her do anything she didn’t want to.
She gave up going to bed when her dementia was advancing. No amount of persuasion would get her out of the recliner and into bed. So there she sat 24/7, dozing sometimes, awake sometimes, regardless of night or day. I once marched over to her house at 2am to convince her to get into bed. By 3:30 I retreated home, angry, exasperated and unsuccessful. The more I persuaded, no matter how I persuaded, the more her heels dug deeper.
She never gave up the idea of going home once she was in the nursing facility. This got her kicked out of the first place because she, with her wheelchair and strength of a kitten, was actively trying to escape. The second place had the locked-down unit where they’re supposed to be prepared for wanderers and escapists. They had to invent new safeguards and change procedures after she arrived. She pulled the fire alarms. They had to hide the elevator button. She was going to bed when she wanted.
In her last conversation, aware that she had had a stroke, confined to bed, she was still asking if I thought she’d be going home soon. She. Was going. Home.
This is one of my favorite Mom stories from my childhood. She would not mind my telling it. My mother was well educated, articulate and intelligent. But few things in the neighborhood made my mom madder than people letting their dogs “go” on our property. If she caught some dog walker allowing their dog to do its business in our yard, or even our sidewalk, they would get an earful. One day she saw a neighbor lady from around the corner doing this and my mom had had it. When the lady tried to justify herself my mother asked her: “How would you like it if I sent my kids over to go in your yard?”
Neighbor lady went off shocked. Little did the woman know that my brother loved this and would have been glad to do it.
I could fill a book with things to tell you about my Mom and maybe someday I will. She deserves it.