My mother was very beautiful. Photographs of Marylu in her youth are like seeing a movie star with her classic features, elegant style and mischievous smile. Today when we page through the albums she remarks on these pictures with a laugh, commenting occasionally when they include images of her father, mother or brother. She often speaks of her Swiss ancestry and points to the furniture in the room that she inherited from her family and brought over with her when she came to America from Switzerland.
The fact that she was born and has always lived in this country no longer seems as important as it did when the mental slippage first started happening. Nor does the fact that she does not really know where she is these days, and can be confused as to exactly who her husband of 55 years is, and even, of course, who I am. My mother, like so many mothers and grandmothers whom we celebrate on this Mother's Day is living with some form of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
In earlier years, my mother hated the thought of ending up like this. She was vibrant, curious and motivated. Marylu had no tolerance for sickness or slowness and her children often had to run to keep up with her. I was never quite convinced that she wasn't trying to lose us in the crowds of the mall. She was an artist of both clay and photography, an activist in politics and an excellent golfer and tennis player. I remember her and my father joking that they wanted to die rushing the net.
But instead she is living today with severe arthritis, an uncomfortable and ugly skin condition, and a mind that cannot remember the very acts that we generally celebrate on Mother's Day such as the various and conflicted ways she loved her often unruly and ungrateful children over the last 50 years. Now, instead of caring for us, she is tended to by a staff of nurses, and by my father and my oldest sister who are involved in the extraordinarily burdensome task of daily care, and the mundane yet heroic efforts of being there for her when she is no longer entirely there for herself.
For me, who lives further away, the lack of shared memory is the most difficult adjustment when visiting my mother. We can no longer stand upon a foundation of past family experiences and view the future from the loft of accumulated recollections. We can't even discuss the meal we just had, or the activity of the morning. My mother's condition has disrupted the linear nature of time which had provided a comfortable road upon which we had traveled together regardless of present circumstances. In the absence of memory or time I flounder, seeking firm ground and questioning where to place the meaning of our shared lives.
It recalls the disturbing lines from the book of Ecclesiastes:
All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? ... The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
The word for vanity in Hebrew is 'hebel' and it's literal meaning is puff, steam, or whiff -- it refers to anything ephemeral, or insubstantial. The stones of memory we gathered to make the permanent foundation of our lives are crumbling into dust and blowing away before my eyes. The cumulative logic of life is confused as I also lose my sense of direction, feeling that we are moving backwards as much as forwards.
And yet, if I stay completely in the moment with my mother as I see her rapturously listening to Puccini, laugh with her uproariously at a silly movie, or listen carefully as she tells me a complicated story about her life that has no factual basis and no clear beginning or end; if I stay in the immediate present and hold her bruised hand not too tight, but tight enough so she knows I am here; if I honor all of her life that has brought her to this moment and love her in whatever way I can that will give her joy right now -- then I am proclaiming that her life is not in vain.
Instead of a puff of smoke, I see my mother as an orchid who has lost her petals, but who is eternally rooted in the Source of All Life. In that deep place of God we will never part, and we will celebrate Marylu's life -- in this life, and in the life that is beyond life.
I love you Marylu. This mother's day I will remember for both of us.