Have To? I’d Love To.

Nan and Mom 2One day, several years ago, I was leaving work and in the process of saying goodbye to co-workers I said, “I have to go see my mom.”

Have to.

Mom lived in a nearby assisted living community. She was in her mid-80s and she was fit as a fiddle physically, but her dear mind had begun to play some pretty significant tricks on her. Visiting mom was pretty much a daily event. You know, routine. “I have to go to work, I have to go see Mom.”

I didn’t mean anything by it, that “have to” I tossed out there. In the moment, I didn’t really even realize how I had said it…or how it may have sounded. And I doubt anyone else gave it a second thought.

But I did.

On the drive over to spend some time with my mom, my heart reached up, tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey…you don’t have to go see Mom. You get to. Remember that. Because someday you won’t have to and you sure won’t get to.”

Oh heart, you wise and wonderful muscle! How right you are, I thought.

You have to go to the dentist. You have to pay your taxes. You have to take out the trash.

Mom and her girlsBut spend time with your beautiful 85 year old mom? Spend time with the woman who rolled your fine little girl hair on those pink spongy rollers every night in an attempt to have curls for even a minute the next day? The woman who made your family amazing fried chicken every Monday evening in the pre-cholesterol concern era? The mom who dutifully drove you to the horse barn every non-school morning and then repeated the trip to pick you up every single evening? The mom who encouraged your love of drawing and who saw a spark of something good in your early writing? The mom who was always 100% there for you, even when you didn’t really realize it?

That’s a get-to visit. A grab and cherish every moment you can get-to.

From that day forward, I consciously changed my phrasing and my attitude from “have to” to “get to.” Oh sure, some days weren’t easy. Some visits were taxing, emotional, and draining. My mother, in the grips of dementia, was not always the sweet, compassionate, gentle, fun-loving woman who raised me. Some days it seemed nothing made her happy.

But still, I did get to see my mother. And for each of the days, in the last years of her life, that were a bit of a struggle, there were 10 days that were great ones. Most of our time together we laughed, we sang, we danced, we held hands, we played with one of my dogs, we talked, we walked together, we conquered Bingo as a team, and we loved each other. Always.

Now, I don’t get to see my mom. It’s Mother’s Day and I don’t “get to.”

But I do get to celebrate her. I do get to remember her. I do get to feel her spirit alive and well within my heart…the heart she created and nurtured. She didn’t have to. She wanted to.

Do you have to, or get to? We should all think carefully about the ones we love, the ones who spent a lifetime caring for us, and who perhaps need to lean on us these days. “Get to” now because some day you won’t be able to, and you’d sure love to. I’d sure love to.

mom and donkHappy Mother’s Day, Margaret Kirk Gallimore. You were and are loved so dearly. You are missed every single day. What a cool, amazing, fun mom I get to remember.

Thank you for sending me seagulls and for popping into my head every time I find a button for our jar. 

A Different Kind of Mother’s Day

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“Do you have big plans for tomorrow?” said the grocery store clerk named Judi, according to her nametag, as she scanned the items from my cart. I know she was referring to the two bundles of roses atop my groceries and the obvious-unless-you-are-in-a-coma fact that it is Mother’s Day weekend.

“No, not really,” I replied. “Just a quiet day.”

This was obviously not the reply she expected. After all, I am a woman who has obviously seen her child-bearing years, but who is also still young enough to have her own mom around. After a brief moment of silence to mull the lack of a rosy-Mother’s-Day response on my part, Judi offered another opportunity for conversation.

“My son called me last night. It’s a busy weekend for his family and he wanted to be sure to wish me a happy Mother’s Day.”

“That’s so sweet,” I commented. “You have a very thoughtful son.”

And then silence as I scanned my credit card and punched in my pin number. Sorry, Judi, I thought. I don’t have much to offer in return. I am never quite sure how to answer these questions…how to join in this conversation.

“I got to talk to my grandkids too,” she nudged, hopefully. “I have a grandson who is nine and a granddaughter who just turned six.”

Ok, time to give this woman a nugget…she’s trying.

“That must be fun for you. I didn’t have kids and my mother passed away a few years ago, so Mother’s Day is a bit quiet for me.”

Judi’s response?

“Oh.”

And then she proceeded to scan my groceries a tad faster. I spared her the awkward silence by asking her a few questions about her grandkids. She loved this line of conversation and I am a very good listener. Awkward moment averted.

Her son, who lives in Kansas City, actually calls her every single night on his way home from work. He has done this since her older son passed away a few years ago. He likes to make sure Judi is ok. Ah Judi, your son. That’s a tough one. I see we’ve all had our losses, I thought to myself.

“You have a very good son,” I said with a smile. “I just bet he calls you tomorrow even though he wished you a Happy Mother’s Day yesterday.”  Judi smiled and agreed that he probably would. We loaded my bagged groceries back into the cart, the flowers placed carefully on top, and I told her to have a very happy Mother’s Day.

“You too,” Judi auto-replied as I walked away.

“Thank you,” I said, “I will.” And I will.

Mom and her girls. Cindy was the oldest, Terry was the middle child. Me? Yeah, I'm the little one in the fancy glasses.

Mom and her girls. Cindy was the oldest, Terry was the middle child. Me? Yeah, I’m the little one in the fancy glasses.

Mother’s Day is not a sad day for me. I had a wonderful mom. She was loving, supportive, funny, fun-loving, compassionate, and a whole lot of other great adjectives. My mom was a stay-at-home kind of mom. She was the cook-a-big-meal-every-day kind of mom. She was a put-every-scribbled-drawing-prominently-on-the-fridge kind of mom. She was a tuck-you-in-at-night-even-when-you’re-a-little-too-old-for-it kind of mom.

She was a great kind of mom.

Mom passed away in October of 2010, after a long battle with dementia. Disease robbed my sister and I of our mom years before we actually lost her, but our memories serve us well and I still feel her presence with me. My mom is gone in the traditional sense, but she’s really not gone at all.

Mom is everywhere. Wherever I am, Mom is there too. I see little things all the time that remind me of her.

A beautiful little finch coming to my bird feeder? My mom delighted in each visitor. I learned to enjoy bird watching thanks to my parents who kept their feeders religiously filled and marked each new species sighted in their bird dictionary.

A dead tree stark against an otherwise green grove? Beautiful! My mom would want to stop to photograph the gracefully bare branches, ignoring the flourishing leaves all around it.

A precious little baby offering an innocent smile and a gurgled laugh? Melt a little. Mom sure would.

A beautiful shell washing up on a beach? You can’t have too many. Take it home to add to your collection.

In fact, anything beach related was something my landlocked mom appreciated. She loved to make pilgrimages to the beach in Texas or Florida as often as possible. Since she was, as I mentioned, an avid bird watcher, she was particularly drawn to the birds found at the ocean. Pelicans were among her favorites. The seemingly clumsy, comical birds just fascinated her as their unlikely bodies balancing those shovel-inspired beaks somehow lifted gracefully into the air and then plunged into the water to find the morning’s breakfast.

She also loved seagulls. On vacations, she would take little snacks down to the beach at sunrise delighting in finding herself surrounded by the demanding aerial acrobats.

In fact, I am quite convinced that mom now uses these particular little feathered reminders quite often. Though we are nowhere near a shoreline, there are seagulls in Oklahoma. They fly along the shores of the Arkansas River. You don’t necessarily see them all the time, but they’re around.

I truly believe that my mom sends seagulls to me when she wants to say hello, or when she knows I need her. It has happened since the day she passed. I’ll be driving along, or I’ll be out for a walk and a random seagull will appear to hover over me for a bit and then soar away. I always smile and say “Hello, Mom. I love you.”

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Amazing seagull image captured by my dear friend, Lesleigh Shaefer. Leigh is a talented photographer and when I told her how much I loved her seagull photos and why, she immediately shared some with me. Thank you Leigh…I will treasure them as much as I treasure you. This photo used here with Leigh’s blessing.

One day, not long after Mom had passed, I was having a bit of a rough day. I missed her terribly. There were things I wanted to share with her and ask her. I wanted to sit with her. I wanted to hug her. There was no denying it. My heart was heavy with a healthy bout of grief.

I was home alone and had walked out to the barn to check the water troughs when suddenly I heard a familiar screech.  I looked up to see a few obviously lost seagulls circling the barn.

As I smiled and watched, the sky suddenly started filling with seagulls. Not a few, not a dozen, literally hundreds of them. Maybe this is a scene you might find near a fleet of fishing boats, but it’s certainly not a common occurrence in the skies over Mounds, Oklahoma. Our farm is not anywhere near the river. Seagulls do not flock to my little farm pond.

I just stood in awe as the air over my farm filled with hundreds of seagulls swirling and soaring overhead. Their performance went on for several minutes. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. I searched the brilliantly blue sky for any stragglers and didn’t see even one.  In that moment I knew that I had just received the most spectacular hug my mother could deliver.

Through tears and laughter I thanked my mom for reminding me that she is still with me. No matter where I am, she can find me. Her seagulls can always find me. And leave it to mom to send them when there were no other witnesses to confirm or deny my sanity.

Tomorrow, I will take flowers to her grave—the very flowers I purchased today from sweet mom and grandmother, Judi. I will brush the dust off of her headstone and I’ll talk with her and with Dad as well. I’ll arrange the roses nicely in the urn that marks their little place in the earth. I’ll sit for a moment to enjoy the peace and beauty of this place.

And I won’t be one tiny bit surprised if I see a clever little seagull supervising my visit. Not one bit surprised.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you too.

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A Letter From Mom

Mom on silly photo day at the memory care home where she lived. This was a very good moment.

It started with little things. Stories repeated. Tasks performed 15 minutes earlier, completely forgotten. A phone call to ask for directions to a destination she had visited a hundred times before. Just little things that were so easy to explain away.

But those little things kept tapping on my shoulder, nagging me to wake up. It was as if there was a little elf sitting on my shoulder urging me to speak up, telling me that soon, denial would no longer be an option.

I remember the day that my sisters and I had “the talk.” We had all noticed the little things individually, and they were starting to add up. Now it was time to admit that there was something wrong with Mom.

Together we approached Dad, fearful that he would deny our observations. Afraid that he would try to tell us we were overreacting. Instead we were met with a flood of relief from a man who was also seeing signs, but just couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud.

Next we had to voice our concern to Mom directly. And here is the very cruel reality of memory-related disease—Mom had noticed the little things too. In the early stages, she was very aware that she was starting to “slip a little” as she called it.

Then came the doctor visits with all of the tests designed to confirm what we really already knew. I sat with mom while they asked her questions.

“Who is the President of the United States?”
“Where were you born?”
“What month is it?”
“What year is it?”
“How many children do you have?”
“When is your birthday?”
“What year did you say it was?”

Then they gave her a drawing of a very simple house. It was the kind of line drawing that a five-year-old might have created to hang proudly on the refrigerator. They asked my mother to duplicate it, exactly.

I had to sit on my hands and bite my lower lip in an effort to stop myself from showing her that she forgot to draw the chimney. That she forgot one of the windows.

“Are you finished?” they asked so kindly. “Yes,” said Mom. “All done.” And she smiled a smile that showed she was sure she had done well. And I smiled back.

Alzheimer’s, age-related dementia, memory loss…call it what you will…it is a scary, confusing diagnosis and there really is no how-to manual out there to teach you how to help someone live with it. It’s a personal journey, a gradual progression and you just try to make up the rules as you go along. Then you find out that there are no rules, so you truly take it one day, or even one moment at a time.

I have always wished that my mother could have written a Dementia for Dummies book. They have those yellow how-to books on just about every other possible topic, so why not? Her wants, needs, likes, and dislikes were very clear in her mind. So now, more than four years after her death, I’m putting myself in her shoes and summing it up in a letter to her loved ones on her behalf. I think this is what she would want us, and everyone whose lives are touched by this disease, to know.

To my dear family,

I guess I am not going to age gracefully. I wish I could change that. I wish there was a miracle cure for me, but there is not. I know that my disease is not because of something I have done wrong. It is, quite simply, something that is happening to me. I can’t control it, don’t ask me to try. Let’s just get through this together, the best that we can.

Here are some things I need to share with you…

I know you’re trying to be helpful, but please don’t correct me. Don’t try to tell me I’m repeating myself, even if I have said the same thing a hundred times. Don’t tell me I know something when I clearly don’t know it any longer. Your constant reminders of my failing mind only serve to frighten and frustrate me. Perhaps, as I am working to learn about acceptance of my situation, your job in this journey is to learn about patience.

Don’t try to make me be the person I once was. While that person is still inside me—and there will be cherished days when that person will surface—I encourage you to also get to know the new me. Accept who I am in this moment. Love the person I am right now, even if I’m having a bad day. It’s still me…I’m doing the best I can.

Don’t try to tell me what I do and don’t like. I may not even realize it myself because I’m changing. Help me find wonderful new things to enjoy.

There will be times when I am sad, frustrated, or even angry over things I can no longer remember or do. Just help me through it. Help me perform the once simple tasks that now seem so hard. I may not remember things, but I still have emotions, I still feel embarrassment. Just help make it all OK. It’s no big deal, right? Believe that when you say it to me.

Help me simplify my life. I get overwhelmed so easily. New places, too many faces, too much noise—everything closes in on me and scares me. I need space. I need routine. I need someone to gently and consistently help me follow that routine.

Be willing to accept help from others. We can’t do this alone. I trust you to make good decisions for me. I trust you to keep me safe.

Let me hold your hand when I need to. Those times will be frequent. Please also understand that there will come a time when I may reach for someone else’s hand instead of yours. It’s not personal, it’s just my mind playing games with my sense of loyalty. Please don’t let your feelings be hurt.

Tell me stories about once upon a time. If I don’t recognize the stories, I’ll still enjoy your company. Let me also tell you a story and act as though you’ve never heard it before, even if I just told it an hour ago. Don’t let it bother you, or me, if I get some of the facts wrong. And tomorrow, be willing to hear my stories all over again with a smile and the good grace I know you possess.

Look at photographs with me. Don’t make it a test, just tell me names and a little bit about each photo. I may remember, I may not—all that matters is that we do this together.

Buy me clothes that are soft and that fit loosely with no elastic to bind. I want shirts that slip easily over my head. Yes, I’m a bit picky now. Find me shoes with Velcro, not laces. And I need a good sweater. I get cold easily now.

I like to be clean. Help me bathe. Help me brush my teeth. Make sure my hair looks nice. It all still matters to me, though I no longer think to do these tasks for myself. I love to hear you tell me that I look beautiful today.

Celebrate with me. Hug me. Walk with me. Dance with me. I love to dance. Sing with me. Did you know I can sing now? I can!

I need moments of joy. I need a stuffed bunny to hug. I want apple pie for breakfast. Don’t tell me that it’s wrong, just sit down and enjoy a piece with me. There really is no harm in having apple pie for breakfast, is there?

Help me smell flowers. Help me touch the soft, warm fur of a gentle dog. Help me enjoy the sunlight on my face. Make me laugh. Let me make you laugh. It’s OK to laugh at the silly things we do and say.

Please understand if I don’t always know who you are. Your visits still mean the world to me. You bring a smile to my face even on the hardest days—it’s your gift.

Finally, when my time comes, don’t ask me to linger. Don’t ask my body to try to do things it can no longer remember how to do. Just be with me. I won’t be afraid if you are with me.

Look into my eyes. I’m in there…you’ll see me. Everything I need to tell you, a lifetime of love, will be shining in my eyes. Accept my gift to you. Tell me you love me again and again, though in this moment of divine clarity, I will know that you do. Tell me anyway.

Then tell me I’m going to be OK. More importantly, tell me that you’re going to be OK. I need to know that you are OK.

With this peace of mind, I will go. Hold my hand for just a moment longer. Then embrace all of the people you love. Let yourself cry. Let your memories comfort you. Then go. Go have a wonderful, joy-filled life. It’s all I have ever wanted for you.

I will be watching. I will feel every beat of your heart. If you find that you need me, I will always find ways to show you I’m with you. You’ll know it’s me.

Love always,
Mom