"Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
--- Joni Mitchell
On August 18, 2016, at the age of 88, my mother took her final breaths. Her passing marked the bittersweet end to a 15-year battle with Alzheimer's, a journey that was alternately tragic, sobering, funny, painful, and full of love.
The experience was, for both of us, a never-ending process of letting go. For me, it meant letting go of my concept of identity and personhood, what it means to live life, and the fixed nature of relationships.
For my mother, it meant letting go of who she knew herself to be, terrifying for a woman whose sense of self was wrapped in her intellectual capacity. But eventually, as the disease progressed, there was also (thankfully) relief. She let go of the past disappointments and future worries that had marked so much of her adult life, and in the end, there was nothing but pure presence.
On August 18, 2016, confronted with the final letting go, I wrote these words to her.
Anyone who knows me knows I am rarely at a loss for words, and yet, how do I begin to describe a woman as complex, as gifted, as courageous, and at times as confounding as you?
How do I begin to describe a relationship of so many years, and of so many tears, both of joy and of pain? A relationship that has been so much a part of my life, for so long, that it is woven into the fabric of who I am?
Your legacy, your lessons, and your gifts are embedded (sometimes to my dismay) in my very soul.
Tolerance AND Discernment
You taught me tolerance and compassion for all people. Everywhere. And you taught me the world doesn’t end outside my door, that prejudice and injustice are unacceptable, and that I have a responsibility to be part of the solution.
That being said, you were VERY discerning about the individual people in your life (just ask any romantic partner I brought home to meet you).
You had no patience for self-aggrandizement and buffoonery. I can only imagine what you might think if you were to witness what is happening in the country and in the world today.
The Thrill of the Hunt
You taught me that when you go shopping, you always start at the back of the store, because that’s where the sale rack is. And long before secondhand shopping was a thing, you made adventures out of trips to Salvation Army and Goodwill. You taught me that finding an incredible bargain is something to crow about, a tradition I carry forward proudly.
I remember sitting with you at the doctor’s office as you were going through your first dementia assessment. I knew that you knew what was happening (though you weren't ready to acknowledge it) and that you were terrified. The doctor was giving you a short quiz, and he asked you to list a few words that started with the letter “a.”
In my mind I thought “apple” and “aunt.”
You paused for a moment, looked up at him, and said, “aspidistra…apostrophe.” And I knew whatever happened, your strength and your dignity would prevail to the end.
If You Feed Them, They Will Come
You taught me never to show up to a lunch, or a dinner, or a party at someone’s house empty-handed, and that if you are hosting, you are required to have at least three times as much food as your guests could possibly eat in order for the occasion to be a success.
Always Do/Be Your Best
You taught me to always do my best and that any job worth doing is worth doing well, or better than well.
You set a high bar. And the more you loved someone, the higher your expectations, not necessarily for what we would DO, but for the kind of person we would BE.
You taught me self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. As a child, I remember coming to you whining:
“I’m bored. What should I do?”
“Go bang your head against a wall. It feels really good when you stop.”
I knew I was going to have to figure it out on my own.
You taught me that life is paradoxical, that joy can be bittersweet, that sometimes we hurt the ones we love, and that tragedy often comes with unexpected gifts.
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Life is paradoxical; sometimes we hurt the ones we love; and tragedy often comes with unexpected gifts.
You gave me the gift of your heart, even when I couldn’t see it. Over time, I have come to understand that the conflicts we experienced in our relationship originated from a profound love.
You gave me the gift of your deep emotional core. Only you forgot to give me the part where you know how to contain it, and how to never let them see you sweat.
And you gave me a gift that few children ever receive: the opportunity to see who you were before life let you down.
People who knew you as a young woman describe someone outgoing, enthusiastic, passionate, funny, smart, vivacious, and energetic. But life happened. And while I witnessed glimmers of that young woman at your core, on the outside, you had become a pretty tough cookie.
Then you got sick. As your dementia progressed, for a long time you didn’t know what you didn’t know. You had forgotten the unpleasant memories you were carrying and you had no sense of the future and no anxiety about what was to come. In that place, you became relaxed and unselfconscious and cuddly and silly, and you laughed longer and harder than I had ever heard you laugh in my life. I believe in many ways you were finally at peace.
In the end, you gave me the gift of love beyond words. When we no longer had language, you would express yourself gazing into my eyes. You would snuggle up onto my shoulder and hold my hand (you had an iron grip to the very end), and there was nothing that needed to be said.
There were three things I wanted for you (and for me) in your final days.
First, I wanted for you not to be in any pain. Thankfully, you were not.
Second, I wanted for you to always know my face. Which you did.
And finally, I wanted to be holding your hand as you passed. Graciously, in death, as in life, you granted my wish.
Thank you, Mom, for the lessons.
Thank you for the gifts.
I love you. I will always love you. Your legacy is alive, in your children, in your grandchildren, and in generations to come.