FADING AWAY

 

I called my mother on Sunday afternoon – Mother’s Day.  The phone rang a few times and her answering machine picked up.  Just as the familiar recording began, I heard Mom’s voice faintly say hello.  I knew then that I had awakened her from a nap.  I waited for the recording to end, for the beep of the machine to subside, and then I spoke to her.  She was confused for a minute as she tried to clear her mind.  Being roused from sleep always causes her to be very confused.  I told her who I was and that I just wanted to call her on her special day – Mother’s Day.  She was pleased, and as always, her ingrained politeness kicked in as she thanked me for calling.  It was almost as if she was talking to a casual acquaintance and not her daughter.
When I asked how she was doing, Mom told me that she had been in bed for awhile and that she really didn’t know why.  As we talked and her mind cleared, she was still very uncertain about herself.  Each time I talk to her, I can read between the lines and I know that she is failing mentally.  Actually, I don’t even have to read between the lines.  Her end of our conversations are most often very vague and this vagueness speaks so clearly of just how unclear she now is mentally.
We didn’t talk very long on Sunday.  Once the answering machine went off, she couldn’t understand me.  We said goodbye and hung up.  I called Jan then, and she told me that Mom was suffering from a bout of her severe colitis.  Bob and Jan, and John and Jeanie, take care of Mom as she lives in the beautiful assisted living center that she has called home for nearly two years.  They know all too well how her mental state is changing.  One of the saddest things that Jan told me was when Mom opened her Mother’s Day card from John and Jeanie, and she asked who John and Jeanie are.  It’s not the first time that she has shown that level of forgetfulness, but it’s always alarming to see.
When I call Mom and tell her my name, I’m not so sure that she always knows that this Patty is her daughter.  Her realization seems to come and go as we talk.  She never asks about our children by name but will instead ask me how the family is doing.  She is always pleased when I give her a report on Gary and each of our children.  Mom has that social politeness that is a part of her fabric, so she exhibits happiness as she hears about Aaron, Andrea, and Andrew.  But does she even know that these are her grandchildren?  And this polite conversation lacks the depth of familial closeness that we always shared.  Something is missing.
What’s missing is………Mom.  Her very being has slowly been drifting away as the effects of her dementia increase.  She is living and breathing and talking, but MOM is fading away.  We still have her with us, and yet we don’t.  It’s a different sort of death.  We watched Dad fight cancer for eight years……….eight mostly good years.  He kept his mind all through this time.  His kindness……his wit……..his dear humor and sweetness and awareness never left him.  We could still share life with him, hard as it was, even as his own life was slipping away.

But with my dear mother, there is very little sharing now.  There is surface talk and politeness, but the soul and the connections are mostly gone……..from her side.  For us – her children and grandchildren – we are always connected to her in ways that she probably no longer feels.  We must accept, though, that the motherly affirmation and expression that even as adults we still long for……..are for the most part gone.

So many times I have found myself thinking that I would call Mom and ask her for some advice……….ask her how she made a certain dish……..ask her for a bit of family history that I wonder about.  But then I know that most or all of this part of her is gone.  Forever gone.  This is a sobering realization.  My totally competent, amazingly organized and gifted mother, is now the one who needs Jan or Jeanie to organize and manage her daily life.

 

She no longer looks at her calendar and knows that March 20 is her anniversary or that May 2 was Dad’s birthday or that September 14 is her own birthday.  This past Christmas, Jan wrote a note that was taped on each of  Mom’s presents under her tree.  The note simply said, “Do Not Open.”  Yet shortly before Christmas day, Bob and Jan walked in to Mom’s apartment and found that she had opened every single present……….and was ready to put the tree away.  We smile as we see in that episode a side of our organized mother that is still there.  Let’s get the show on the road and then clean up the mess!

 

Mom’s wit and her love of jokes and puns is almost legendary.  Yet now, at least when I talk to her, she seems rather flat.  Conversation lags between us because she has trouble with making important connections.  It’s hard to find something to talk about when she can’t even remember what that thing is that her cat, Princess, sits in front of………and I gently remind her that it is a window.  “Oh yes!” she says.  “The window!”  And I am struck with just how deeply she is affected……….and how deeply then we all are affected by this fading of her mind and memory.

 

I love this picture of her, though, still working at The Hunger Challenge at Johnston Chapel.  Still serving and smiling and enjoying being able to help.  That part of our mother is still there, as is her kindness and her concern for others.  This exemplifies my mother to her core, and I’m thankful that she can still physically do these things, though somewhat limited.

 

This gradual letting go…….this sitting on the sidelines of her life and watching her gradually slip away……..is heartbreaking for all of us.  There is really nothing we can do but be there for her, as Bob and Jan, and John and Jeanie, are every day.  We can tell her about our families, even as we sense that she’s not sure exactly who we are talking about.

 

And we can, and do, tell her how much we love her.  Someday even those words won’t really reach her.  But we reach into our hearts and into our memories, and we recognize her value to each of us in so many different ways.  Our love for her is not based on her memory or lack thereof.

 

I also realize how important it is that I say to my children the words that I want them to hear from me.  Someday I may not be able to say them, even though I may still be here physically.  Words of encouragement, instruction, family history, and love………words I hope they store away in their hearts forever.

 

Our sweet little mommy is fading away, but her example and influence is as strong as ever.  In fact, her impact in our lives is eternal and we are all so thankful for that fact…..and for her.

 

We can smile through our tears and be thankful for all that she was…….and still is today.

 

 

Quilted With Love

Some of my earliest memories of my mother revolve around her amazing skills as a seamstress.   I remember being very young and seeing Mom sitting at her sewing machine, turning out something beautiful and seemingly perfect from all sorts of fabrics.  She kept us girls busy in those early years while she sewed by giving us pieces of felt in various colors.  From this soft felt we fashioned  clothes for our little troll dolls, cutting and fitting each ugly troll as if it was a priceless and beautiful doll.  Mom provided glitter and sequins and odd buttons for us to glue onto our awkward handiwork.  We stayed busy for hours laboring over our important creations.  I don’t remember all the mess we must have made, but I do remember laboring over our little troll dolls while Mom labored over her more important sewing jobs.   Mom made small, meticulous Barbie doll ensembles which she sold in a local craft store, and also made some for us to keep.  Yet her most loving works of art were the countless pieces of clothing she made for her girls to wear.
 
Every Easter we had new Easter dresses.  I especially remember the Easter that she made all of us girls pink gingham dresses – and then made one for herself, as well.  I thought it was wonderful to not only match my sisters, but to also be dressed like my mother!   I remember the trips to Penny’s in Bluefield, the bigger town that was near our hometown of Princeton.  I loved the escalator ride down to the bottom floor, where we would choose patterns and fabrics and buttons for our new clothes.  Never did we go to the ready-made clothes upstairs or enter a dressing room.  Our clothing was there amongst the bolts of fabric, waiting to be matched to patterns and later sewn into pretty dresses and jackets and blouses.  I do believe that I took the longest to select the fabric to match the patterns as I had such a difficult time seeing the finished product in my head.  I would stand there, rubbing the fabric between my fingers, trying to visualize a finished product that somehow wasn’t materializing in my mind.  I can imagine Mom’s frustration as I lingered there trying to make this important decision………..as well as the rolling eyes of my sisters who had finished this process long before I did.
 
Mom worked full-time after we were all in school, yet still managed to sew all of our clothes.  She was a natural at this art, yes, but it still took lots of time.  She would sew late into the night, her dedication undeterred by her tiredness.  I never gave enough thought to how tiring this effort must have been to her until I had children of my own.  How did she do it all?  I have no idea, really, but she did.  Her work was not only beautiful with matching plaids and perfect zippers and flawless fit, but each stitch was filled with a love that wasn’t recognized by us until years later. 
 
One of my most special memories was of the year when we were teenagers, and Mom made us skirts for Christmas.  I don’t know how many skirts she made, but there were quite a few.  Then she not only began looking for matching sweaters to wear with each skirt, but matching knee socks as well.  She did not give up this quest for the correct colors of sweaters and socks until each skirt had what it needed to make it a perfect ensemble.  We learned about this later, from Dad, who accompanied her on many of these trips.
 
Dad, who was color blind and absolutely no help when it came to matching colors of anything, would patiently take Mom on many of these shopping trips.  I can still see him standing silently on the sidelines in the fabric stores, hands behind his back and a sweet smile on his face.  He never rushed Mom or any of us, but stood there until we had come to the point of methodically selecting every button and every spool of thread.  I can still hear him say, “Did you know that there are 53 light bulbs in this ceiling?”  Or, “Did you know that there are 271 zippers in that display?”  Dear, sweet Dad!
 
John and Jeanie’s Quilt

When Mom and Dad both retired, Mom only continued her sewing.  She had sewn for her children, for grandchildren, for friends, for the Crisis Pregnancy Center, and who knows what else.  Upon retirement, she decided to take up quilting.  Of course, she was a natural at this skill.  She practiced by making her and Dad a lovely quilt, and then took up the goal of making each of us five children and spouses a quilt.  These gorgeous works of art were each sewn entirely by hand with no sewing machine used.  She had us each pick our pattern and our colors – there I went again, having to make this difficult visual choice!  Mom never wasted a minute in any day, and before long she was completing our individual, personal, 
gorgeous quilts.  Dad took her to countless stores and quilt shops, patiently waiting over and over again as she selected just the right fabrics.  Each stitch was a labor of love……….each completed quilt a perfect picture of her devotion to her children.  I keep my quilt hanging in our kitchen area so that we can see it every day and enjoy its beauty, and bask in the warm memories that it evokes. 

 
Mom made many, many quilts during the next few years.  She made quilts for missionaries; she made a special quilt for a dear friend who had no mother of her own to make her one; she made a quilt for the Prophet’s Chamber at church where missionaries 
stayed when visiting; and she made a memory quilt that has special fabrics and mementos from each of us children and our children.
 
 
Bob and Jan’s Quilt
Jimmy and Kathryn’s Quilt

Mom has Alzheimer’s now and lives in an assisted living center.  Tomorrow she will celebrate her 86th birthday.  Dad knew that Mom was showing distressing signs of forgetfulness before he passed away nearly four years ago, and he worried so about her.  He would be happy with her living arrangement now and with how well cared for she is.  She doesn’t sew at all now.  She’s even forgotten how to put her jigsaw puzzles together that she loved so much.  Sometimes she doesn’t remember all of our names, and definitely not the names of all the grandchildren and great-grands.   But she is sweet and she is happy and she still seeks to serve others.

 

Bob and Mary Beth’s Quilt
Gary and Patty’s Quilt

And just as our keepsake quilts will always be an heirloom to pass down to our children, even more so are the pieces of our lives that she shaped and fashioned together with her tireless love and effort.  She took care of us, providing the atmosphere of a happy and warm home to treasure as she sewed and cooked and played and laughed.  She made sure that we had family devotions every morning before school because Dad was at work and so it was up to her.  She took us to church when Dad was working late, and didn’t just drop us off – she was there, too, worshipping and serving.  She  showed us how to love and how to work and how to pray and how to laugh and how to persevere through hard times.  She exemplified great care in 

how she took care of her mother for 14 years, as well as her mother-in-law for part of that time.  And she loved Dad, totally.  She never left his side, especially for the eight years that he fought cancer.  Even when they no longer could share their bed they had slept in together for 59 years, she slept right beside his hospital bed, her arm and hand resting on him between the bed rails. 

These traits of our mother are the stitches that are sewn into our very being.  The pieces of our lives were begun by her, thought-out and cut, measured and pieced, day by day.  As the years marched on, the shapes of our lives began to unfold.  The beauty of the various patterns began to be seen.  These are the treasures that are eternal.  These are the heirlooms that have more value than any quilt will ever possess.  And while our mother may not remember much anymore about the details of the past or the present, we have the evidence in our lives of her love and her faith…………a beautiful quilt of a life well lived.

The Legacy

We just went on a very special trip to visit my mother. Actually, it was a surprise for her 85th birthday. And was she ever shocked when she walked into that banquet room at the steak house and saw all of her five children there, as well as many grandchildren and great-grands! The look on her face was priceless; the tears, hers and ours, were genuine; and the love shared was a treasure. I’m so thankful that all of her children were there for her and that we got to rally around her at this very important time. You see, it wasn’t only her birthday. She has also just moved into an assisted living center and so we were able to visit her beautiful new home, help her with a little of the settling-in process, and get a close-up look at her lovely surroundings and amazing staff.

One other thing we kids did while we were there was to meet at the home she just vacated. This home isn’t the place where she and Dad raised us five children. They sold our family home in 1996 in order to downsize and make their lives simpler as they aged. Through Dad’s two cancers, and two more moves, they continued to downsize a little more with each change. Now as I walked into the garage where many of her smaller items were sitting in boxes or on shelves, perched on chairs, or leaning against the walls, I was determined to approach this as objectively as possible. Even in the kitchen and the living room I was able to remain composed. However, when I walked into the bedroom and began to help take clothes out of her closet, I was overcome with emotion. This was the last home that she and Dad had shared together. This was where I had spent the last month of his life as I helped Mom care for him. Memories of that month, especially, washed over me. Mom is now living in a place that Dad never got to share with her. The change in her life is striking, and the end of one chapter is really the beginning of the last chapter of her life.

It would be easy to look at the “stuff” in the garage and scattered throughout the house and think, “Is this all there is now?” As we children divide the casserole dishes and Tupperware that she’ll never use again, or discuss what will become of the larger items later on, is there something of more value to my parent’s lives than just “stuff?” Eventually, Mom will perhaps have to downsize even further if she moves into the nursing care section. Bit by bit, her life is being sifted of all earthly belongings. Eventually, she’ll be left with absolutely nothing. On the day that her body ceases to live and her soul is in heaven, she will not take even one little spoon or one little memento with her. And what will matter on that day?

What will matter the most is that my mother knows Jesus Christ as her Savior. She has the confidence, as do her family, that she will join Jesus and my Dad in heaven. And we, her children, have the legacy of a godly heritage left to us by parents who dearly loved the Lord and dearly loved their family. While earthly items are divided, our godly heritage is safe in each of our hearts and homes. Now this heritage, this legacy, is being multiplied as we have tried to raise our children to know and love the Lord. There is no earthly value that could ever be placed on such a spiritual treasure! No executor of an estate ever oversaw a will that held anything more important than this God-honoring example that our parents have left to us. This legacy isn’t an item that will be put on a shelf in our homes to later be divided among our children, but is carried in our hearts and hopefully lived by our example and passed to our children each day of our lives. Thank you, Mom and Dad. You have left us rich indeed.