The Night Before

It has been more than three years since my mother moved into a seniors’ home. But time hasn’t made the memory of the eve of her move less heart-wrenching.

THE NIGHT BEFORE (May 2016):

 Tomorrow we are moving my 89-year-old mother to a seniors’ residence.  She has been in transition, living with us for the last 10 months when it became clear she could no longer live alone.  It has not been an unqualified success.  We live in the suburbs and it is lonely and isolated for her, especially since I work full-time.  So, tomorrow, she is moving into a residence closer to her old neighbourhood. The thought of this frightens her in the same way a child’s first day of kindergarten might. “But I won’t know anyone,” she tells me. I try to reassure her that there are activities she can join where she will meet people without even leaving the building. There is a music evening every Wednesday, a movie night, Bingo and much more. I can tell that right now, there is no comfort in this.

We spent the last two weeks shopping for everything she needs for this new chapter of her life:  sheets for a twin bed, a micro-wave oven, even many of the little things we use every day without thinking like scissors and a can opener.  My brother will be here early in the morning with a small truck to load up all her worldly possessions.  We’re all tired and as I head to bed on the last night my mother will spend under my roof, I push open the door to her room to say good night.

Her night table lamp is on but she is asleep in her recliner, jaw slack, breathing deeply. She has had a very sore back for the last two days and I suspect it is because this is the third night in a row she falls asleep in her chair.  “Mom,” I whisper. I say it again, more loudly this time, and her eyes fly open.  Her face is deeply lined and her once luminous hazel eyes are now almost hidden, like dried raisins, beneath drooping eyelids. But there are still traces of the local beauty pageant contestant she had once been. Beneath the aged skin is still a fine bone structure. Her rich auburn hair, now a faded blonde touched up by the hairdresser on a regular basis, is still surprisingly full.

 “We have a big day with an early start tomorrow. You should go to sleep in your bed,” I say. She looks at me and I can tell she’s disoriented, but whether it’s from coming out of a deep sleep or anxiety, I don’t know.  Finally she says, “Tell me again what’s happening tomorrow.”

This is more familiar territory. She knows she’s moving tomorrow and the stress is wreaking havoc on her brain.  The same thing happened a few years earlier when her last remaining sister passed away. It’s the details that keep escaping her:  the schedule, the who is doing what and how. So I patiently tell her again how we are heading to her new home. That my car is already packed with the little things.  That my brother and a friend will be here with a truck to move her dresser, recliner, sewing machine, and other bigger items she is taking.  That I will stay with her for two days in her new apartment and then my brother will stay for another two to help her get oriented.  

I see her processing this information yet again.  Then she looks at me and asks, “But am I coming back here tomorrow night?” And my heart breaks into a million pieces.

A Place at the Table for All

I stopped to watch from across the room as my 92-year-old mother carefully wiped down the silverware. She rubbed a knife gently with the soft cloth clutched in her arthritic fingers, then held it up to the light for inspection. Her shoulders are stooped, her fingers gnarled, and cataracts have formed like invisible spider webs in both eyes, but her expression was one of such intense contentment it almost hurt to see.

I had picked her up from her seniors’ residence for a family lunch at my home. I went to get her early because I know the pleasure she gets in the preparations of a family meal. Her life is slowly winding down, and with it her sense of purpose is dwindling badly. Though simple, the tasks I asked her to help with made her feel needed and useful.

For me, it brought back a memory of a Christmas at my grandparents’ home when I was a child. Dinner was over and my mother and her two sisters were washing and drying dishes. They, along with my grandmother, had worked hard preparing the meal:  peeling, cutting and cooking carrots and potatoes, checking the turkey and setting the table. Close to 30 people including children, husbands and cousins – had sat down to the holiday dinner.  Now, while everyone else relaxed in other parts of the house, the three sisters continued to work.

I had come back into the kitchen and could see them standing at the sink with their backs to me.  High heels had been discarded and they stood in stocking feet. They had tied aprons around their waists to protect their holiday outfits from gravy splatter, carrot stains and other remnants of the meal. The number of special-occasion plates, glasses and silverware they handled was staggering. Yet they talked and giggled like school girls and the sound of their laughter was like tinkling glass – pure, clear and joyous.

Now, all these year later, I observed my mother without her knowledge again. She moved slowly, as if extending the task for as long as possible, carefully laying the silverware at each place setting. The family has shrunk – her husband and parents are gone, and she is the lone surviving sister. As she held the knife up to the light, I think she saw more than a spotless stainless steel blade. I think she saw their faces and the memories of other meals when they had a place at the table.

Soundtrack to Heartbreak Part 2

SOUNDTRACK TO HEARTBREAK:  PART 2  (See Part 1 HERE)
ELTON JOHN:  MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER

Connor pursued me fiercely and persistently. As flattering as it was, I wasn’t interested in him in that way at first. I eventually agreed to go out with him because he wore me down. And, if I’m completely honest, because I was tired of being alone when almost everyone I knew was in a relationship. I should have known better. I should have BEEN better.

He was a great guy – generous and loyal to a fault. But he attached himself to me too quickly and held on too hard, and I didn’t know what to do with that. He loved my family too and tried to make a place for himself within it. His intentions were pure; he didn’t have a manipulative bone in his body. He bought my mother a gift for Mother’s Day and he once bought my father a fancy wine jug when he found out he was making elderberry wine. My Dad was just puttering around, though. He rarely drank and he certainly didn’t know what to do with the gift so it became an exotic knickknack in the living room.

Connor’s own family was complicated. His mother was a sweet lady who at times wandered through life listening to voices no one else could hear. Other times she was a shadow of herself because of the medication to keep the voices at bay.  She had 7 children from 3 different men. When I met Connor, three of her children, including him, were already living on their own; two were in foster care and the youngest two were living with their mother in a small, dark apartment.

Connor was a small, wiry man with a physical strength it was easy to underestimate. He was also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He didn’t go to college and instead took a job in a local restaurant. I think it was something he felt he had to do because a fair amount of his earnings went to his Mom. The novelty of having money made him more generous with everyone he cared about too. He bought gifts often and liberally for many of the people in his life, including me. One of the most memorable was the Madman Across the Water album by Elton John.  I loved that album and listened to it over and over again. It’s only now that I realize that it was so dark.

Inevitably, things began to sour between us. I began to distance myself and, in response, he just came on stronger. He called all the time or turned up wherever I went, even if we weren’t supposed to see each other that day. I know, it sounds like he was stalking me, but he wasn’t and I was never afraid. It was the only way he knew to show his love. Then it got hard to look at him or think about him without feeling irritated. I didn’t like who I had become in this relationship and I knew I had to end it.

I expected him to be hurt; what I didn’t foresee was how distraught I would be at being the one causing that hurt. I went home and listened to Madman Across the Water in the darkness of my bedroom and cried all night long. Over and over again, I heard Elton John sing about Tiny Dancer, Levon and Razor Face and, of course the Madman himself. The pain was physical. Every time I thought about the hurt in Connor’s eyes, I felt a spasm grip my stomach and squeeze hard. The weight and guilt of having caused someone pain felt unbearable but I thought it was a punishment I had earned.

I guess the old adage “Time heals all things” is true. We both went our own ways but always stayed connected through our friends. Later in life, Connor became a strange character – a rough, semi-recluse –  but you only had to scratch the surface to see the soft, generous person with the big heart beneath. I think that big heart was his downfall. Twelve years ago next month, Connor passed away of a heart attack in his sleep.

I can’t listen to Madman Across the Water anymore; I find it too depressing. And wherever he is, I hope Connor is listening to something uplifting and that he loves and is loved by someone who deserves him.