I spent some time with Mama this afternoon. Just the two of us. She sat in a chair while I mopped the living room floor and vacuumed the rug and opened my mail. There wasn’t much real conversation though there was constant talking. The disease that has been slowly taking her from us for nearly 10 years limits her verbal interaction to unending repetition of the request to go home and painful inquisition about things like my identity.
When I moved into the kitchen and started unloading the dishwasher, her tone became sharper. “You need to stop doing all that,” she said several times with the same inflection I remember from 50 years ago when she was reprimanding me and my brother.
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “I’m just putting up the dishes.” I closed the cabinet door, started pulling the canisters away from the backsplash, and squirted the countertop with cleaner.
“You just need to stop that,” she repeated, through slightly pursed lips. “Don’t you ever just take some time? Don’t you ever just take half a day to do something you want to do?”
The realization came quickly. She may not, at that exact moment, have known who I was, but she saw, in me, herself. She saw the wife and mother and business owner who was always scurrying. Always doing laundry or sweeping the porch or scrubbing the sink. Who did not sit down to watch television or read magazines or talk on the phone.
A few weeks ago, at the end of the day on which I’d attended the funerals of two friends, a day that had worn me out in every way possible, Mama and I had been having another visit. The same questions as always – When can I go home? Who are you? – resulted in the same answers – In a little while. I’m your daughter Kathy. But she had other questions that day as well.
Do you go to church? Yes, ma’am, every Sunday just like you taught me. Do you read your Bible? Yes, ma’am. Do you talk to Jesus? Yes, ma’am, all the time.
The answers appeared to be satisfactory as she nodded her head a little and leaned forward in her chair toward where I was sitting on the floor. “Well,” she said, “you just keep caring, keep loving, keep paying attention.” Those exact words.
On the wall in my study is a hand-painted canvas on which I stenciled lines from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes”: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” My mother has never read Mary Oliver. On my website the banner reads: “Attention-Payer, Storyteller, Writer.” My mother has never seen my website.
For a moment there was no time, no space, no Alzheimer’s. For a few seconds there was only my mother as she would have been had the disease not stolen her from us. And me, understanding that while reasoning and logic, intellect and memory, facts and figures can be taken, the spirit can not.
“You just keep caring, keep loving, keep paying attention.”
I will, Mama. I promise. I will.