33: The Next New Step

33: The Next New Step

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

The Next New Step

What is a mom but the sunshine of our days and the north star of our nights.

~Robert Brault, www.robertbrault.com

I barely pulled off the road before the tears spilled onto my steering wheel. I turned off the engine and finally sobbed the long, panting, private sobs of despair that I had been holding deep inside me. I had just left my mother at her new home in an Alzheimer’s care facility.

I found myself talking with my mother in my imagination. “Oh Mom, you held me when I broke up with my boyfriend and cried through the night. You took me from store to store to store to find the perfect prom dress. You went to all of my concerts, helped me fill out college applications into the night, and gave me advice on the curtains for my first house. I helped you find a new apartment after the divorce, and later had lunch with you at the new office you were so proud of. Together, we got lost driving, worried about whether Thanksgiving dinner would come out right, created homemade Christmas cards, and cried through my wedding. You cared for me when my first baby wouldn’t stop crying. And now, today, we cry separately. And that is what hurts most.”

After a while, the sobs quieter, I realized that I couldn’t sit forever in a car full of tears by the side of the road. So I slowly put the car into gear and drove home.

The next day I went to visit Mom in her new place and found her happily folding napkins. I sat down to join in, privately thinking how sad it was that we were reduced to napkin folding. But, fold-by-fold, we watched a neat pile of smoothed napkins growing between us. She seemed okay with it all, and I found some of my own tension lifted when I left that day.

“Thanks for a good day, Mom,” I thought, as I punched the numbers into the security lock to go outside.

A few weeks later, I thought it worth a try to go ice skating. Someone had said that activities from childhood were good for those with dementia, and she had loved to ice skate. I was not hopeful, thinking of the balance involved, the cold, the new-ness, and the frustration of wrestling into tightly laced skates. Leaving for the rink, I noticed she had mismatched shoes and I groaned inside. This was probably a mistake.

Later, after lacing up the skates and hiding her shoes under a bench, I helped Mom gingerly step onto the rink, and then she was in front of me skating and laughing. I couldn’t help a few familiar tears as I watched her remember her way across the ice. She turned and caught me crying, then skated on.

“Thanks for the wonderful day,” I said when we were done skating.

Slowly, I learned what worked and what didn’t. A trip to the store made a lovely afternoon, especially if we stopped for ice cream. I began to notice that the pressure of trying to think of new and interesting things to do was going away. Nothing earth-shaking was required; it was good to simply sit and eat ice cream or walk through a garden. Each day Mom stopped at more or less the same place and noticed the flowers in bloom and the birds flying by. Soon I did, too.

Later, when Mom was unable to leave her room, I found it best to just sit by her side, without trying to talk. We listened together to the pleasant sounds around us and when it was time to leave, it was a simple “Bye, Mom, thanks” that completed the day.

And so it was that the world I had mourned so deeply that day in my car was replaced with a new world — a world that Mom owned, controlled, and embraced, once I gave her the chance. And then, magically, it was a world she allowed me to enter with her after I let go of my own tangled expectations and let her show me how it was done.

It was a world with lovely flowers to smell and smooth, graceful napkins piling up into a beautiful stack. It was a world of quiet, gentle walks, delight in the adventure of a trip to the grocery store, a world where mismatched shoes do not matter, and an afternoon on ice skates was all we needed on our agenda. In her world, she showed me the beauty of the quiet and the completeness of two chairs side by side.

Oh Mom, you held me and helped me when I was small and when you were the grown-up. Now, just when I thought it was my turn to be the grown-up, you have showed me yet again how it is done. It should be no surprise that one thing has not changed at all — it was you who took my hand to show me how to take the next, new step.

Thanks, Mom, for all the wonderful days, then and now.

~Jennifer Harrington

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