If you are really lucky and blessed, you will have someone in your life who just loves you because you are you.
They love you not just in spite of your shortcomings, but because of them.
They support you and believe in you, even when it seems nobody else in the world does.
You frustrate them, disappoint them and let them down. But they never leave your corner.
Even in times when they could or should, they just never stop cheering for you.
For me, my four sisters and three brothers, that person is our mother Cattie. She is our biggest cheerleader, our number one fan and the most unabashed promoter.
She loves her children and grandchildren more than anything in the world. Her face lights up when they visit. Her smiles and hugs are addictive. And infectious.
Our mom is the eternal optimist. She sees the good when others can’t. She sees the light when others don’t. If the house was burning to the ground on a cold, winter night, my mom would be grateful for the heat to warm her hands!
It is also hard, almost impossible even, to offend our mom. All of us have tried time and again!
A classic example was this summer. As part of The Four Tellers storytelling show, my opening monologue was dedicated to my mother, and her quirks and antics that have brought us so much laughter and joy over the years. The monologue would always get tremendous belly-laughs.
During the final show of the season, my mother Cattie joined the audience. I have to be honest, I was more than a little bit apprehensive. Normally I tell stories about my father and those are much easier because he passed away in 1996. I never have to tell them in front of him. I convinced myself that I would just pretend she wasn’t there.
In the beautiful theater that is the King’s Playhouse in Georgetown, when you were on stage and the lights are shining in your eyes, you normally can’t see past the first two or three rows. My mom was seated about 10 rows deep. I arranged for her ticket and I wanted to make sure I couldn’t see her. But when I walked out onto the stage, she yelled out: “Hi Den!”
So much for pretending she wasn’t there!
With butterflies in my stomach, I began the monologue. My mother sat there, perched on the edge of her chair as I poked fun at her, while the audience rolled in laughter. Most others might be upset, even a tad offended perhaps, but not my mom. She laughed harder than anyone. She clapped louder than anyone. People who were sitting beside her said her laughing and smiles were funnier than the story itself. I was only mildly offended by these comments! I could hear her laugh and chat throughout the show. She was having a fantastic time and it made, for me at least, perhaps the most enjoyable show of The Four Tellers season.
Following the show, I sat for a few minutes in the change room, as I often do, staring blankly into the mirror and reflecting on the evening. I was overcome with a range of emotion.
I was saddened to think that I never had the chance to perform stories – on the stage in front of an audience at least – for my Dad. Being a gifted storyteller, he would have loved the show so much.
Mostly though, I was so grateful and appreciative for the chance to do so in front of my mother. I suppose as we get older, we begin to have a deeper appreciation for the time we get share with those we love. Life teaches us that far too many of those precious moments are gone before we realize. And that we are deprived of far too many more.
It is that time of year when we reflect upon those we are grateful for, for those we are thankful for. I have been thinking a lot about my mom lately.
See, we are losing our mom, just a little piece at a time, and it is heart-breaking for all of her children and grandchildren to witness. Two years ago, our mom was diagnosed with dementia. We noticed that she was “slipping” as she might call it, forgetting little pieces of information that normally would come easy to her.
In the beginning, it was more frustrating for her, and us, than anything. She might forget someone’s name or phone number for a second. Nothing too serious. Just enough to piss you off a bit. It has gotten progressively worse since.
Upon receiving the diagnosis, none of us really knew what to think or how to feel. Fortunately, the process has been slow for mom. I am not sure if science backs up my theory, but I do believe that because she has the daily stimulation of her children and grandchildren stopping in to see her that it has helped keep her brain and memory sharper than most expected.
There has been a mixture of laughter, frustration, sadness and harsh reality over the past two years. Dementia not only changes the people it lives inside of. It changes those who love them too.
Mom, as we could have predicted, seems to have taken it all in stride. She is mostly impervious to the reality she faces. She has faces her demons with a smile. And if even if she isn’t doing it consciously, she seems to be making it easier for her children to face what none of us want to face.
In the face of her struggle, she laughs and she brings us laughter, helps us to create even more memories.
When I wear my glasses, and since I’ve lost 65 pounds, I look and sound like my older brother Mark. It’s uncanny really. One day recently I stopped in to see my mom. She thought I was Mark and started to ask me a bunch of questions. I figured I would just play along, for the fun of it. This was our conversation.
Mom: “Do you ever see that Denny fella around?”
Me (playing along): “Oh ya, I talk to him every day. We have lunch in town quite often.”
Mom: “He must be busy. He hardly ever gets down to visit me.”
Me (trying not to laugh): “Well, he has been pretty busy with the storytelling and he has that book on the go. He’s on the go a lot.”
Mom: “Do you think he’s making any money at it?”
Me (turning away to shield my smirk): “I’d say he’s making a clean fortune, Mom.”
Mom: “He’s pretty tight with it.”
Me (busting a guy laughing): “You think so? But I guess he works hard for it so he should be careful how he spends it.”
Mom: I suppose. Imagine though! People playing money to hear him go on with all foolishness!”
God how I love those funny moments. They almost make the sad and frustrating times, which seem to be becoming more and more the norm, tolerable. Mom will ask, over and over again, what grade the kids are in and how they are doing. She will ask me if my son Cal likes being a goaltender. And if Camdyn and Jake like school. And if they are doing well in school. She will ask and ask, then ask again.
Since she loves her grandchildren and never tires of hearing about them, I never tire of answering the questions. But it often makes me profoundly sad. To see someone, once the rock in your life, failing and falling, hurts the heart. It makes you feel helpless. It makes you question why life goes down the road it goes, why it has to take such a toll on the ones we love so much.
As Mom changes, we change with her. I am ashamed to say there are days when I pull into the parking lot of the seniors’ home in Georgetown, and I think about not going in to visit. Sometimes I think that it would be easier for me to keep going and that Mom, being in the state she is in, wouldn’t know enough to miss me. Sometimes, and I am sure my siblings feel the same, you have to muster a little inner strength to undertake a task that you once couldn’t wait to do.
So far, I have always found the courage to visit. I hope I always can.
Of all the horrible diseases, and there are many, dementia ranks right up at the top. Dementia doesn’t take you quickly, at least not the case of our mother. It just kind of picks a little piece at time, like a crow picking at your garbage, like the backspace key on your computer keyboard. And you never know what pieces, what memories are being deleted or picked away.
Always on our minds is the reality, that at some point that will come all too soon, dementia will pick away until all her memories are lost. The job of remembering those times will fall to us. The job of being in her corner, when it is frustrating and disappointing and confusing, will fall to us. The job of supporting and being there, when nobody else in the world is, will fall to us.
I am thankful that our mother has taught us well.
I am thankful, and better appreciate, the many great times we have shared.
I am thankful for, and relish, the times when her brain lines up and she is able to carry on a regular conversation.
I am thankful and grateful, that she continues to smile and laugh and love.
I am thankful, relieved and somewhat emboldened, to know that though dementia will eventually claim her mind, it can never conquer her heart. That belongs to her children and grandchildren.
It always has. It always will.