the gift

Day 12 :: The Gift
The unexpected, unimagined phone call came when I was out of state helping facilitate a workshop. The emergency number was called and I was taken out of the group to call home. My brother, gently told me that my mother had had a stroke. He said it was not life threatening, that the troops had circled and that I did not need to come home. My mama, the strength, the organizer, the motivator, the matriarch of the huge, dysfunctional, “look good-be good” family, was in the hospital, unable to speak, unable to engage.
I went into shock and did what I was told. I stayed and continued to help with the workshop. But, OH ! how I acted out! I cried. I screamed. I thew props across the room. I yelled. I was scattered and afraid. It was the best place that I could be – a place where I could fall apart, be held and known and taken care of. If I had gone home, it would have been expected and much too easy to slip into my designated family role as caregiver and surrogate mother.
Days later, I saw her, her tiny self in an oversized, previously worn, light blue cotton gown on the Neurology Unit.
In a room full of noise and activity. Her husband, her kids, spouses, grandchildren. Medical staff came and went. Doctors and physical therapists and nurses and aides, all professional and kind. I wanted to scream, “Do you know who this is? This is my m.o.t.h.e.r. Do you understand how important she is?”
But there she lay, with unkempt hair, jewelry removed, no lipstick, a vacant look to her. She couldn’t speak in full sentences, this, the woman who had talked to everyone, all the time. She ate salad with her fingers, this, the woman who ate everything with a sterling (why save it for a special occasion?) knife and fork, always with a linen napkin. She brushed her hair with a toothbrush, once with a fork. She was confused and frightened and not sure where she was. She tried to talk. The words that came out of her mouth made no sense. She didn’t know her name. In an instant, she lost the ability to drive, to paint, to read, to knit, to cook, to talk. She couldn’t be left alone. She didn’t understand money or time, her medications or how to relate to others. And no one knew what to do. Or what to say.
In her 80’s, before the stroke, she hosted family gatherings of 50 people every holiday. She managed three homes. She created the flower arrangements for her grandchildren’s weddings. She knit blankets and sweaters and washcloths. She remembered every birthday, of every person, every year. She could organize the symphony, the community, and everyone else’s life. She could design and build a house, at the same time travel the world.
The gift is being with her and having conversations that mean something. The gift is time. The gift of seeing her, really seeing her because she no longer has a filter to hide behind. I see her as I always wanted to, had always hoped to, always dreamt of. Her defenses are down, her pretense is gone.
The gift shows up to be unwrapped each day as one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I am with her at her worst. Those days when she is confused and defensive, cryptic, unkind and unable to let something go. I am with her at her best. Those days when she is childlike, reading one word at a time, trying to remember, trying to find the words, trying to understand, trying to create. I am with her as she sings only the notes and knits one stitch at a time.
I am with her when we laugh until our bellies hurt and I am with her as she asks the questions that are most important to her:
“Where am I going when I die? Where will I lie down? I think of all the people and family. I’ll be a spirit, maybe mama and I will be joined at the hip. I think I’m really going to be with others …with my mama. I look at her all the time when I am at the beach. Is that me? My whole life has been a big vacancy. It is the unknown….gigantic. like a …it’s not a movie. I don’t hear with my ears. I don’t remember my dreams. What is it going to be like? My children need to tell me.”

the shoes

Day 11 :: The Shoes

6 ½ AAA

How is it possible to remember her shoe size and not her presence.

It seems like only yesterday that she could wear glamor. I can see them clearly.


Roger Vivier shiny black patent leather with gold pilgrim buckles

Manolo Blahnik classic stilettos

Kitten heels, dyed to match

The shoes on her feet were an expression of her place in the world, her status, her so-thought sense of self and acceptance into a society that she never felt a part of.

Maybe one more pair of shoes will get me in? Maybe the right pair of shoes will make me acceptable. Just one more pair. Just one more.

Now she will only wear Mephistos.

Red leather. Black suede, bejeweled sandals, snakeskin, leopard skin, all with a firm, solid sole, each fit with an arch support. Many with velcro straps. Tiny tennis shoes or shoes that tie up, and fit snugly so that she can walk with confidence.

Occasionally, maybe half a dozen, at least, Dansko’s in all colors and patterns.

In 1973, I wore a pair of white patent leather platform shoes for my mother. I wanted to be barefoot at my wedding, but the fight was not worth it. Now I wear comfort.

Chuck Taylor All Stars



Doc Martins


I bought a pair of red boots. She bought the same ones.

I got a pair of red Mary Janes. She bought a pair.

She wants my red converse. She tries them on and they don’t fit. Why aren’t they Mephistos?

She wanted my purple hiking shoes, settled on brown and wears two pair of socks with a full insert to make them fit. But hike she will, in mother-daughter matching boots.


She wants what she cannot have.


She wants what she used to have. A driver’s license, the ability to read and knit and cook and travel. I imagine she wants to wear Ferragamos. Only yesterday we went through her closet, deciding what to keep and what to give away. She wants to keep it all. And there is no reason to take them from her. There will be a time to give it away. But not now.

She is 84 years old. She had a stroke two years ago, has difficulty speaking and has (just a little memory loss) early onset dementia. She easily walks four or five miles a day. She does exercise class sitting down, with a theraband and a ball.

She dipped the tag of a teabag into hot water. At lunch, she tried to eat her salad with her knife. When I asked if she would like another knife she looked at me, then the knife and we both fell into a fit of giggles.

She lives fully as she slowly slips away. Walking down the hallway her right foot scuffed. A bit later, closer to the stairways, it dragged slightly as I moved to catch her. She didn’t fall. She giggled and blamed her new khaki tennis shoes.

I knew I should have bought Mephisto’s


the tears

Day 9 :: The Tears


so cliche’.

big girls don’t cry.

i was a big girl at age 4 or 5, i don’t really know. we moved four times by then.

don’t attach to people, places or things.


i walked the railroad tracks alone to a school called opportunity.

my mother would nap with my kid brothers.

i made my own snack, took my own nap and waited alone.

i didn’t cry when we left.


a move to the panhandle, next to a clear lake, a mink farm and flora the bridge player.

the big school bus would pick us up at the edge of nowhere.

that day, my mother was ironing in the kitchen. she might have been crying. i don’t know.

the president was dead.


a move to the suburbs, another state and i didn’t cry when we left.

a new school. a new house.

that surgery to remove a birthmark that embarrassed the family.

still, i don’t remember crying.

i don’t know where my mother was.

maybe playing bridge.


another move, another house.

another move, another house.


four years in a house painted fire engine red, wall to wall red carpet, red flocked wallpaper.

filled to the gills with seven children, 14 and under.

the irony was not lost on me, even then.

mother was too busy.

cleaning and baking and sewing, changing diapers, taking care of kids, painting.

playing bridge and tennis.

searching for herself.

staying alive.


there wasn’t anything to lose, nothing could be broken, i couldn’t get lost or hurt.

i had learned my lesson well: don’t attach to people, places or things.

just stay alive.



pregnant with my third child.

left sitting on the side of the road, alone in the summer heat.

my grandfather watching from the picture window.

two preschoolers playing in the yard.

i don’t know where my mother was.

maybe playing tennis.

maybe playing bridge.




quiet. no need for words. just being.

six months, like clockwork, i sat, staring out the window, wordless.

sitting with a wise man, willing to wait for what would come next.

december flakes of snow began to drift, the first tear fell gently.

opening the door.

being present.

being seen.






did she ever cry?

did she ever know her girl

needed to cry,

wanted to cry,

had something to cry about?

the secret

Day 8 :: The Secret

prompt from

how complicated a secret can be, especially when it is known to everyone and said to no one.

my father golfed with the pastor, my mother sang in the choir, i wore white cotton gloves, did what i was told and attended confirmation. it breaks me open to say i can’t remember my two younger brothers.

she sang with his mother in choir as well as the other woman, all together like the trinity, walking down the red carpeted center aisle. his parents (a little snooty) were best friends with her parents (owners of an ice cream joint). or at least that is how lore goes. churches can do that. they can make social friends out of anyone. i think he may even have sung with them, but that is part of the trickiness of my memory, of untold stories, of pretense, of trying to be good enough.

i remember sneaking home one night, walking from the park, following the winding backstreet, up the red cement stairs, through the iron gate to the back door. there was a tiny porch-light, i’m not sure if it was on the wall or lit from above. the door was locked. i couldn’t believe i was locked out of my own home. i was too young then to have made a backup plan, which came later in life when i would shimmy up the clothes line, cross the garage roof and climb in through my brothers bedroom window without anyone knowing.

that night though, standing outside of my home, he was the one that let me in. in the darkened house i saw him come from my parents room, turn right and walk through the dining room, into the kitchen in his white skivvies.

as an adult the dates and houses and events have been documented by my brother. but as a child, as a kid, as a teenager, i didn’t really remember when my father left. the summer we were at the lake we returned and he was gone. i’m not sure when the other moved in or when they married. one day he was there. he never left. then we moved. then his three sons came and we became the Brady Bunch, all boys, one girl.

then the baby was born, two months early. whatever that means.

early October, 1967 my 35 year old mother gave birth to a son.

we didn’t talk about it. the secret was set.

the laughter

Day 6 :: The Laughter
there is nothing there 

my memory is empty 

simply blank. 

why can’t I hear her laughing?
maybe he scared it out of her

maybe she was too exhausted

self absorbed, unaware, unable

maybe she never knew how
she couldn’t teach me

what she didn’t know.

the meal

Day 5 :: The Meal       

prompt from

randomly. it just happened. last night I cooked “The Meal” roasted whole chicken

the “meal” was on weekly rotation with hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes. franco american spaghetti with chopped, crisp bacon. ‘stringy meat’ pot roast (don’t forget a bay leaf) with carrots, peas and potatoes, followed by hash made out of the left overs. liver and onions. spaghetti sauce cooked all day. chicken soup with orzo or rice or homemade egg noodles always followed “the meal.” all meals paired with homemade bread and real butter, not margarine. never, ever margarine.

she had nine mouths to feed, nine tummies to fill. six growing boys with bottomless appetites and one picky daughter who didn’t like her food to touch. she could stretch a meal, add another plate or two to the table, another tomato or grated carrots to the sauce, another cup of stock or water to the soup.

i drift into food memories. mashed potatoes with steaming gravy, peas perfectly cooked and sometimes, carrots glazed with brown sugar. two chickens, side by side, browning in the oven, the smell of warmth and love and creativity and provision mingling with the noise and upheaval of so many kids jostling for a spot at the table. chocolate cake rising while we eat.

taste and smell have become sacramental senses wrapping me with bittersweet sacredness.

she no longer cooks. only “mush” and an occasional scrambled egg. her apartment doesn’t smell like the home of even recent memories. there are no garlic braids, no yeast, no fresh cut fruit smells. her spice drawer is empty, the olive oil might be rancid. her refrigerator is full of individual yogurts, bags of grapes and apples, carbonated juice bottles, and styrofoam boxes of leftover food from the dining room. her freezer is stacked with one scoop portions of rainbow sherbet and husks of bread in baggies.

the pin prick of grief comes with the realization that she isn’t aware of what is missing. i offered to cook “the meal” with her in her apartment. i’d bring the chicken, the rosemary, the butter.

she told me to get a costco chicken.

the music

Day 4 :: The Music        

prompts from

as a self conscious, self absorbed, normal 13 year old, i could hear her contralto voice ringing above the entire congregation. i wanted to slip away from her, sliding under the lutheran pew or at least to the end of the row. the vibrato, the passion, the volume, the long held soaring notes spotlighted everything that i wasn’t.

i see her tiny frame, chin up, processing down the long aisle of st. margaret’s with white robe flowing, stainless cross hanging from a satin cord, requisite black shoes, arms extended holding her hymnal. as an adult, i see her differently as she sings from her heart, her belly, quite possibly from her soul.

two years ago the stroke took away her words and some of her understanding. it took her freedom, her perspective, her life as she knew it.

monday’s, almost without fail, we go to Backstrokes, a circle for anyone who has had a stroke and their families. three women from a care facility, two with limited speech. a man in a wheelchair, only able to say his name. a native american man and his wife, always with a hand drum. a young woman and her dog, “brother.” a retired judge, able to use only her right hand. ukuleles, a harmonica or a tiny banjo, a guitar, a melodica and a basket full of shakers.  

for an hour she is lost in the music as she sings leonard cohen’s hallelujah. don’t fence me in. these boots were made for walking. i did a double take the first time she sang wish you were here by pink floyd. her toes tap, sometimes her eyes close, she shakes her rattle and hits every note. not with the words, but with her aging contralto. it is then that i want to slip closer to her, to hear the sound of music.  (and oh my, that sounds cheesy!)