“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…” The song playing on my mom’s stereo jolted me out of my trance tinged with sadness. That’s my grandma’s favorite hymn!
Waves of memories of my dear grandmother washed over me: The many years of happy visits to her home in southwestern Minnesota. The cookies we baked together. The baby pines we picked out, planted and marveled at their growth through the years. The visits to the farm where she raised her family. And, most vividly, the walks we took through her garden admiring her beloved moss roses and dusty millers. As my grandmother lived to be 96, I had nearly four decades of precious moments spent with her, scattered like blooms across my garden of memories.
The shrieks and giggles of a little girl and her grandma playing together on the couch brought me back to the present. While my mom and my daughter played and played, I was washing up some dishes at my mom’s place: A small, one-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility in the Cities. This is how it goes these days: They play, I clean.
The truth is, I don’t really know what else to do with myself while we are visiting.
Things have changed so much with my mom in just the few short years since my daughter was born. Though Mom wasn’t driving up here on her own anymore, when I was pregnant she was still able to help me with projects around our house. And she was always up for the marathon shopping adventures that became a hallmark of our visits over the years.
But the changes really started happening years before. All the little reminder notes scattered across her dining room table that never seemed to get cleaned up. The social withdrawal. Hours and hours spent in front of the TV. The anxiety about being able to manage her bills and paperwork. The reluctance to come visit us because it was just too much of an effort to pack. And all the comments about how she just can’t remember anything anymore.
The changes in my mom came as stealth and silent as fog rolls in from Lake Superior. When they were held up against everything I knew about her, I always defaulted to the mom I have known my entire life – not the mom she was becoming. But when each change piled one upon another into a dense, disorienting fog, I finally had to turn a light on to what was happening. The mom, my mom, that I had known my entire life was slipping away just as uncontrollably as grains of sand are pulled back into the mighty lake with each crashing wave.
Along with this realization came sadness, and guilt. I should have spent more time with her. How come I didn’t recognize what was happening? And then it struck me – when you are moving through life with someone you love, you never know if the moment or experience you are sharing with your loved one is the last time you will have that moment or experience. This fact really hit home when I realized there would be no more visits to our house in the country, no more drives up the shore, no more marathon shopping adventures. And what about my daughter? What precious moments will she share with her grandmother? How many blooms will she have in her garden of memories?
In early 2014, my brother and I knew that our mom could no longer manage on her own and moved her to an assisted living facility. For a person with memory loss, leaving your home of 18 years can be a devastating and disorienting experience. And for her, a woman who elevated shopping and acquiring things to an art form, giving up most of her precious belongings was like giving up a part of herself. So when she asked me where her bathroom was after she had been living in her new place for a few days, it was like someone punched me in the stomach.
Now it was my turn to live in a fog. As mothers, we are all too familiar with the overpowering, almost uncontrollable urge we have to protect and care for our children. What I wasn’t prepared for was how this same protective instinct sets in when its your parent who is hurting and vulnerable. Living two hours away from my mom doesn’t turn off the frantic desire that I must do all I can to help her and make sure she is as comfortable as possible. For the first several months, I was tormented by guilt when I wasn’t with her and so torn between wanting to be there for her and wanting and needing to care for my family at home.
So, when I am with her, I simply cannot help myself. I clean. I organize. I try to pare down what little she has left to prepare for her eventual move into an even smaller space. I keep busy – because I am not really sure what to do with this new person who is my mom except love and care for her.
But my daughter knows what to do.
From the first shriek of “Grandma!” to the last tearful hug, my daughter’s self-assigned job is to play with, love and nurture her grandma. Showing Grandma all her treasures. Snuggling up next to her on the couch. Playing ball with a rollup-up pair of socks. Getting their glam on with scarves and jewelry. Heading to the community dining room with her hand on my mom’s as she guides her walker down the hall.
And what is truly special is that my mom, my new mom, is able to enjoy every single precious moment of it all. A little girl and her grandmother have been brought together at a time when each is able to live in just this moment, to enjoy everything just as it is, right now. And it is so beautiful to watch.
My little girl arrived at the perfect time to enjoy her Grandma and for Grandma to enjoy her. All of mom’s and my old dynamics and most decidedly adult ways of casual conversation and marathon shopping adventures – the kiss of death to a child who just wants to play – have been cleared away. And all my mom was burdened with – the anxiety and depression, the fog, the stress of loud, rambunctious children, the worry about something getting broken or messy – has been completely removed and the only thing that remains is the capacity to live in and relish each joyful, precious moment.
Something meant to tear down and destroy has been turned into something good. And I have gently been ushered out of the way and put into the business of caregiving so that my daughter and her grandma can get about the business of planting their garden of memories – one shriek and giggle at a time. Oh, such a blessed gift! A gift that is slowly but surely healing my grief over losing what was and turning it into joy for what is.