A whole heart in a broken body

The first time my husband, Len, introduced me to his mom was in January of 1987. I was nervous and awkward…she was poised and gracious. Four months later when Len and I married, mom and I began our journey as in-laws.

Mom and I were very different. She had a place for everything while I had everything out of place. She was a gifted seamstress while I duct taped the hems on my boys pants. She was a meticulous cleaner while I nurtured dust bunnies under every appliance. But she never made me feel bad. Instead, she loved me “as-is” and we bonded over the thing we had in common — our love of family.

For Len and I, some of our fondest memories were when we would jump in the car with our boys, Walter and Jack, and head to Mamma and Ghee’s house. In five short hours we could be sitting at the long counter at 101 Matthews Drive in Slidell, Louisiana stuffing our faces with mom’s shrimp po-boys and frosty Barqs root beers. We laughed, lounged, and played games. If the whole family was gathered, inevitably someone would say, “remember the time…?” The siblings would embellish and argue about the details until mom reminded them of the facts. Mom also had a deadpan way of telling those same stories that made them even funnier than they were.

There was something about being in her home that made you feel like you could go off duty. (Guess that’s because mom had been on duty preparing for two weeks prior to our arrival.) We descended on them like the proverbial plague and left them, as mom liked to say, “ruined” by the end of our visit.

How someone who liked things “just so” endured the chaos we dragged into her house is a testament to mom’s love. We were loud and messy. And while the three-ring family circus swirled in her living room, she was quietly observing…taking the emotional temperature of those around her to make sure all her babies, actual and grown, were all doing well. We might have been a unruly brood, but she had a mother’s intentional heart — saying or doing just the right things to encourage us individually.

We were fortunate to have so many good years with mom. We’re blessed with memories of celebrating birthdays, holidays and countless significant life events. And we could write volumes about the times mom and Jack rode in like the cavalry (if the cavalry pulled Airstream trailers) to help us out with a home repair, a new baby, or a crisis.

The years flew by as we raised kids and tried to make ends meet. We slept a few times and all got older. It’s just that the same number of years added to mom and Jack’s stack of time shifted them into a stage requiring more help.

The decisions families are forced to make in the face of aging and declining health are brutal. There are no great options. For mom this meant moving to Ruston in 2014 to be near Len and I. It was a move from a city she had called home for 50 years, from a husband of 37 years, and from a whole community of her people. She was understandably upset and confused.

The three of us spent the first months trying to learn our new normal — Len and I adjusting to caring for someone who used to care for us and mom out of her element and out of control. She was lonely…but refused to leave her room for activities or meals. She obsessed about “going home” to the point of packing her walker to make an escape.

But eventually we found a rhythm. She would always be surprised and thrilled when I walked in the door. My first order of business was to fetch her a “good cup of coffee.” We would visit, running through the same talking points everyday. She was happy to sit in her favorite Lazy-boy recliner and watch the nursing home world parade by her open door. In true Southern style she would kindly speak to the people when they reached her doorway, and then, speak about the people after they passed.

It took a while for me to change my perspective from the sadness of mom’s condition to recognizing the beauty of this stripped down version of a person. There was no pretense or distraction. No yesterday or tomorrow. Only the moment we were sharing. I couldn’t change her situation, but I could ride it out with her.

For all of the downsides of dementia, these past two and a half years I’ve had the privilege of watching the cream rise to the top of mom’s life. The qualities she spent a lifetime cultivating couldn’t be squelched by her mental foe. They might not have presented in a way we recognized at first, but there they were: loving, helpful, orderly, purposeful, thankful, and a lover of God.

On more than one occasion during this difficult transition, mom would suddenly close her eyes, bow her head and pray. While I was busy fretting or raging against some new obstacle, her default mode was to go to the source of all comfort and hope. Even in her confused state, her faith put me to shame.

Before mom lost her ability to communicate, she would often protest fretfully that I was doing so much for her and she couldn’t do anything for me. I would remind her that she had already done so much for all of us through the years and now it was our turn to help her. She would give me a puzzled look and say, “I did?”

I would run through an abbreviated list of the countless, selfless ways she had loved our family. I would tell her of our visits to her home in Slidell and how she would roll out shrimp, “mamma chicken” and ice cream pie. She listened like a child hearing about Santa Claus for the first time — with pure wonder.

We tell stories with our lives — with our words and actions — and pass them down to the next generation. And then when we can no longer remember our own stories, our children tell them back to us.

One of the last coherent things mom said to me was, “You’re a good carer.” It was tender and precious. But it was really the story she taught me with her life. It was an honor to remind mom of her story for the past two and a half years.

She lived a great story.

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