My Mom was in the thick of Alzheimers when we had one of the deepest most honest conversations ever. Love you Mom! For our full story on Dancing with Dementia click here.
It was the last day of Thanksgiving weekend, 2007, Mom and I were off to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Cloudless skies and seventy-degree weather gave an illusion of spring. It was a magnificent day in the bay area and we felt like two lucky schoolgirls who had escaped from KP duty. We were on our own. I was 53. Mom was 78.
I don’t get many days alone with Mom. This outing was the kind of together time that we long for but rarely give ourselves. She and her partner, George live 400 miles south at Lake Elsinore and until three years ago my visits with her had been reduced to annual trips at Thanksgiving.
As she and I drove onto the San Francisco bay bridge we noticed old buildings, a big white blimp hovering above the Oakland Raiders game, and the construction of the new bridge span. Having a keen eye that looks at the world with joy and enthusiastic curiosity when she tried to remember the word for building, I laughed and said, “ Today Mom all you and I have to do is be in the moment.”
She nodded, laughing and said, “Yes! That’s it.”
Somewhere around Treasure Island, unable to resist asking one of those mother-daughter questions I generally asked, I queried, “How do you think George is doing?” Her partner for thirty years remains her constant friend and lover.
“Oh, he’s doing good.” She paused with a smile, “Of course its hard for him too.” I reached over, putting my hand on hers and a door swung open for her to say more. She held onto my hand. “I don’t have family any more,” she said. “They are all gone. There was Wes and,” she searched for her younger brother’s name.”
“Yes, Carl. But they are all gone.”
“You have me, Mom.”
“Look, there’s San Francisco,” I said, not wanting her to miss the view as we swept by the waterfront and skyscrapers, The Golden Gate bridge looked painted on the sky like a movie back drop and Alcatraz quietly pretended to be an ordinary island in the middle of the bay. If ever there was Oz this must be it.
“Yeah,” she said. “This is a good, good day.”
We exited at the Van Ness off ramp to avoid traffic, wound past hilly Buena Vista Park and up Duboce Avenue towards Golden Gate Park. Mom didn’t question the route. Instead she focused on telling me about the challenge of raising kids and trying to love people.
“I never quite knew how to do it. Did I do OK? Am I crazy to ask?” she asked. “I just want to know.” She looked at me with clear, teary eyes.
She wasn’t crazy. As a mom of an 18 year old, I watch my own daughter’s increasing independence trump everything. I feel like an empty nester whose child hasn’t even moved out. Earlier that day I too questioned the choices I’ve made about schools I’d sent her to, if I should been more present to her, or traveled less for my work.
“Mom, I’ve always thought of you as a really practical, loving person.” I said, feeling inept. After a pause, I added, “Life is hard, isn’t it Mom? “ It was my ridiculous understated attempt to share in the awareness of the tragic parts of the road traveled by our families.
Her response was more adept. “This is a good day. It’s just what we need. I’ve worried about it all so much, wondering what I could have done or given to each person to make it better.” Laughing and crying at once, tears running down her face, she reached into her black nylon purse and pulled from the stock of tissue she always had in there, then focused on me, “Really, I just want to know that I am loved,”
I felt her words appear suddenly like a lost child coming around the around the corner. Her simple need for reassurance came into view at last. A burst of emotion welled up in my throat. Holding it together, I grabbed her hand again, “I understand. I love you.” Something unspeakable between us connected. She offered me a tissue.
Driving up the panhandle of the park, she shook her head and said that she had learned that worrying about the past doesn’t help. “You just have to put it over there,” and physically gestured as if to place her worries to the side.
She went on. Looking at me she said, “This is what it’s all about. You there. Me here.” Her hand danced back and forth between us like a bird between our two landscapes. I felt the immediacy of her movement and words and tried with all my might to take this in.
We marveled as we entered Golden Gate Park. Every Sunday the major artery of the park is blocked off for walkers, bikers, and skaters. It hadn’t occurred to me that we couldn’t drive right up to the Conservatory of Flowers. Dropping her off was out of the question. We made our way to the new Museum of Natural Science and the parking garage. She dug into her purse for her blue handicap placard. After we confirmed that there was a tram to the conservatory, the parking attendant waved us in
Mom and I walked out of the underground garage into bright autumn light. “It’s a good day,” she sang again. We grabbed each other’s arms. After getting directions to the conservatory from a bus driver, Mom and I slowly, intentionally started walking.
The new Natural Sciences museum was abuzz. In front, a dad and young son tossed a football. When the kid caught it Mom exclaimed, “Good one!” The dad smiled.
Seeing a prominent sculpture of a woman with a cone head Mom laughed “Get that out of here,” flinging her sarcastic quip at it.
As we crossed the boulevard, a group of Lindy Hoppers danced in the street. “Ever do the Lindy Hop, Mom?” I asked thinking of her days as an award winning roller skater. She shrugged. Like me, social dance made her shy.
I noticed a massive bronze shrouded by bushes. “Lets go in there and see what it is,” she said as she stepped onto the soggy grass in her faithful white keds. We balked. Too soggy. The sculpture was of Thomas Starr King, founder of the Unitarian Church. “Courage, Strength, Faith” said the plaque.
I asked a passerby how far it was to the Conservatory of Flowers. She answered, “A ten-minute walk.” Mom eyes sparked in determination.
“Can you do that?” I asked. She’d had more knee surgeries than pieces of pie.
“Of course. Lets go.” Arm in arm, away we went.
“We can sit down if you need to.” I offered.
“We can sit down, lay down, stop.” She replied. I laughed at the thought of the two of us lying on the grass, sprawled out.
At each corner she questioned whether it was the place to turn around. I reminded her that the conservatory was a block or two.
“Oh, that’s right.”
I stopped a tram headed in the opposite direction to make sure we could catch it on our return. This little jaunt was farther than Mom ventured most days.
When the white, gleaming shell of the Conservatory of Flowers finally came into view, I suddenly remembered how proud Mom was of the potted plants on her patio. Nurturing them and taking out leftovers to neighborhood cats were her two remaining rituals.
“Wait, wait,” I said, orchestrating my camera to take our picture in front of the conservatory, “Put your head next to mine.” Click.
“Let me see,” she said peering at the digital image. Seeing our faces squished together, she exclaimed. “That’s it! That’s a good one. Send me that one,” she said with the joy of a Mom on the first day of school. We hugged.
I bought tickets and we went inside. Shards of rainbow light hit giant leaves. Moist tongues of clean black dirt, vegetation and flowers licked at us. “Can you smell that, Mom?”
We wandered through small, lush rooms. As soon as we swung the door into the aquatic room, Mom gasped. The intense humidity forced us back out into the high altitude room where we naturally complained of the cold.
In the room of potted plants, we sat side by side in redwood chairs among the beautiful arrangements. Mom waved at two little girls on their way to the holiday model train exhibit. Shyly, they waved back. We were bathed in a world where all was well, even when it wasn’t.
Growing hungry, we headed out to the tram. Sitting on a bench, the sun hit us full on. “We need hats, Mom. I joked, “Got any collapsible hats in there?” She unzipped her black nylon purse again and tugged. Out came a blue-billed cap. Unbelievable.
The tram driver pulled up and we boarded. Inching up the boulevard at seven miles an hour we disembarked at the De Young museum, walked past the now pulsing mob of Lindy Hoppers, and made our way to the museum café, Mom devoured a corn beef on rye and I indulged in a pear and prociotto salad. Hundreds of people dining inside and out enjoyed the last day of Thanksgiving weekend. Walking back to the car, Mom reaffirmed, “It’s a good, good day.”
I drove the long way home by the Cliff House where twenty years before she and I took our picture together. As we skirted the Veterans Hospital, I asked, “You used to go to the VA Hospital didn’t you, Mom?”
“Oh, yes.” She nodded, remembering visiting her dad at the Los Angeles VA hospital. As we followed the road by the Palace of Legion of Honor and around Land’s End overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge she reflected on how much she loved her father and reminisced about his ability to fix so many things, all except for his alcoholism.
“We tried and tried to get that,” she said,” but never could.”
“It’s a terrible disease,” I said.
I took the road by the Presidio Pet Cemetery where we laughed at quirky memorials to the Fluffys, Goldys, and Butches of military years gone by. She pointed up at a huge kite on the Marina and as we turned toward North Beach where I pointed out the strip clubs and Italian cafes before plunging into the canyons of the financial district and back onto the bridge to head home to the East Bay. I didn’t want it to end. I grabbed her hand every time I didn’t need it to drive.
Back in Alameda, we came through the door of the condo feeling victorious. George and my husband asked, “How was our day? Did we have fun?
Mom clutched her arms to her chest. Shades of sadness and distance descended. I showed George the brochure from the Conservatory.
“Is this where you went?” he asked her.
Mom studied the brochure for a moment and shrugged.
Did the Conservatory exist anymore? I looked at her, caught her eyes and said, “We had a good, good day. Mother-daughter bonding, huh, Mom?” Mom smiled back at me.
Every time I’m with Mom these days, in spite of Alzheimer’s disease, I feel my love deepen. I call her at least once a week to tell her I love her and to get her to laugh. Both of these are pretty easy to do.
I think it’s time to call more often.