Those that were there to bear witness when I read this piece live, thank you. Thank you for putting up with the long pauses while I tried to keep myself (somewhat) together. Thank you for listening intently, learning more about my mom and easing some of the burden of our journey by feeling it with us.
In the 80’s, when my mom would pick my sister and me up from childcare, I remember a sense of awe, like she was a superhero (superheroine?), with her big hair and long always-painted nails. She worked full-time and she loved it. On Sundays, the only time this busy woman would sit still, for one hour, in church, I would study her hands, falling deeply in love with their fine details, the slender long fingers and soft good-smelling skin.
It was hard to nail down my mom, throughout the week, she was in constant motion, working, cooking, cleaning. There was no stopping, until those Sundays in the pews.
As a mother, I have trouble sitting still as well. I prefer being busy to any potential for possible boredom, or god forbid, getting.behind. (I’m always behind.) And it’s like I’m trying to get my physical motion to reflect the chaos of my busy brain and anxious insides. Once I start something mundane and not totally necessary, like cleaning closets, I cannot seem to stop. I cannot sit until everything is finished and since that goal is impossible, I rarely sit. This is one way that I am exactly like my mother.
I have too much insight into this insanity. People with anxiety often do, and that can lead to guilt which can lead to sadness. My mother and I, we wear out our bodies and our minds so thoroughly, and we cannot seem to stop without help. So my mom functioned how she functioned in my childhood, and I understand her now, even if I resented her speedy frequent absences at one time. Today, I admire her tenacity. I can see that much of her busy work in the world was born of her gigantic heart. I see that she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders as I do, and staying in motion, constant motion, was a way toward relief, a way to help others and maybe a way to try not to feel so much.
My mom always showed love with food. She faithfully made dinner every night, flustered as she may have been. She blew in after work, still smelling of perfume, with a furious focus on meat, potatoes and veggies. To feed us was to mother us.
On Christmas Eve this past year, this is what she was doing. Working on the big meal. So my mother and I stood in the storage room of the home I grew up in while she was digging around in the overstuffed freezer in another frantic attempt to prepare everything perfectly, and she was trying to just. keep. going. She was keeping her hands and legs busy enough to not think or feel, but it wasn’t working.
There are cracks in the staying-busy-defense, limits to its success, you see. Sooner or later, we do feel. The Bigger Things sneak in and bring us to our knees, which is where we need to end up anyway. In surrender.
Next to the freezer that Christmas Eve afternoon, my mom began this surrendering process with tears. It started because she could not think of the word “pan.” Her inability to recall and speak the plainest of nouns, people or places has been going on for a while now. We, her family, have been filling in the blanks, like language fixers. She pauses as she speaks, every few sentences, and we throw out the words that won’t come, like doing so will mean this is not happening.
This cannot be happening.
“I don’t want to do this to you,” she said, last Christmas Eve. “It’s all I can think about…I can’t do this to you…I can’t do this to your dad.”
I put my arms around my mom on Christmas Eve and tried to make her believe that she isn’t doing anything to us. Her brain is doing something uncalled for and completely unfair, by calcifying and causing doctors to diagnose her with “dementia of an unknown origin.” Her guilt about this is as pointless as mine, when I focus so hard on what I don’t do well as a mother. We forget all the ways we are amazing and good and even exceptional.
My mom laughs easily and often. She helps me clean my house and watches my children. My boy Asher says that she has a magical way of making people feel better. She has taught me that there are more ways to be a good mother than to spend hours playing pretend, like I somehow believe I must, but I’m terrible at it.
My mom’s latest trial has shown me that time will slow even the most active of us down, and that maybe I should do it sooner, rather than later.
I watch my mom sit and read with my kids. I watch her stand in my kitchen doing our dishes, every single time she visits, how she never leaves them to dry, but dries them by hand and puts every last one away. I watch her bake cookies with my Elsie or work for hours on a jigsaw puzzle next to me, and I know that we are all a work in progress. That we become mothers and don’t become perfect, but that we are accepted and loved by the children we are granted, even if they don’t always know it.
My mom has always been there, unconditionally. I know because she has not once asked me to change. Not when I moved once a year through my 20’s and 30’s, needing parental help with boxes and furniture and money, most every time. Not when I admitted I was an alcoholic and needed help. Not when I announced my impending divorce. My mom may be in constant motion, but her movements have always surrounded me–in her kitchen, in and out to the store and up and down the stairs to the laundry room, out on the road and always back again.
We are now beginning a walk on a new path that means some terribly hard things. But I want her to know this: Her heart and soul will always know us, always, and we will know that. And I will be there with her and for her, in the constant motion of taking care of her and my own family, while working on remembering to sit down, just to hold her beautiful hand, like her child in church.