Sadness Connects

Rose Valley, Pennsylvania

The poignancy of Mom and Dad’s decline is in my face. The increasing decrepitude of this house I grew up in mirrors their stage of life. Sadness is in my hands as I wipe Mom’s bottom and vagina – a deep communion with that sacred gate from which I emerged into the world. The sadness is here as I put her arms into sleeves and her feet into pant legs, read her bedtime stories and tuck her in with a goodnight kiss.

I’ve done this several times in the last five years as her helplessness does its odd up and down journey – a pattern all its own. Alzheimer’s is a long slow leak.

What’s different this visit is that Dad and I are learning how to let me help him too. Right now it’s his journey of bladder stuff. Going to the doctor’s with him and giving him moral support for learning to put in the urinary catheter himself.

Sadness – a kind of middle point on the continuum – is certainly a reasonable reaction to all of this. I’m noticing that if I let myself really feel that sadness then something opens and flowers in me and everyone around is party to that.

I felt that happen last night when reading to Mom – such a rush of pain that it was a children’s book instead of Mary Oliver. Yet as I almost sobbed aloud, Mom turned to say how fun it was to be curled up with a book together. A little later she said that what she loves about me is that I know how to be like a child, Implying, I think, “to be childlike with her.”

And I have been – that is, when I’m not being her parent: “No, no more butter on your gingerbread.” Last night both of us were deeply in the picture books and their precious old words. She read parts of the Mike Mulligan to me with all the familiar inflections and then we recited the Madeleine. Her mind was deliciously there for a bit in a simple way, our roles very blurred, dancing in and out of each other.

Then there is the sadness of Mom’s closets. Going through them is like an archeological dig. For years we’ve all just been adding layers on top. Were we expecting maybe that she would rise up and reclaim the space? That she would purge the 50+ old pantyhose and 25 travel toothpaste kits I’ve found. On the floor now is a huge pile of almost identical blue cotton shirts from LLBean and Lands End. She must have just kept ordering new ones.

Of course, until recently she resented any digging or tossing away – was not willing to admit she wasn’t capable of such decisions or distinctions anymore. “I’ll wear that scarf again.” “I’ll be thin enough soon for that. I made it myself.” And, wanting to believe her, we weren’t emotionally able yet to have her angry with us for taking over. To rock the boat – risk making her worse somehow. Was she embarrassed at all she was hiding of her increasing disorientation and therefore disorderliness? She who had always been so organized. There’so much to learn about her in this process. Perhaps she was just protecting that dildo, black negligee and marijuana stash I found at the very bottom!

She watches me now working on the closet without much emotion. Once she would once have enjoyed finding the momentos tucked in the elegant tiny purses along with the Kleenex, Alka Seltzer and the emergency dime. Now the nametag from the Polish architectural society elicits no story of her sneaking food out to the hungry Solidarity students in Krakow. Is there nothing more I can learn from her about a seating assignment from a Hong Kong reception or a ticket stub from her beloved Philadelphia Academy of Music?

Now as I sort, she sits right there saying over and over how surprised she is to find out that I had grown up in this house and that she’d had five children here. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? Does Lou know?” and “Who can I ask for more stories?” That she and Dad traveled all over the world with the Union International des Architects, and might have been given this shawl in Russia or worn that jacket in South Africa, barely registers. There is a lovely moment, though, when a garland of purple silk flowers worn at her engagement party 60 years ago inspires her to don some lipstick and waltz down the hall to show Dad. Later that afternoon she keeps going to admire herself in the mirror wearing an elegant black wool hat (after she tries unsuccessfully to get Dad to try it on).

Soon I will tackle Dad’s closets to throw out the most tattered things and try to wash out the stains he can no longer see. What secrets is he protecting? What is the next level of independence he is willing to give over?

Often in the last couple of days, times of deep sadness have brought something precious out of him. It’s like his own channels are more open and he’s so much more willing to be present with his feelings. What a healing we might yet have?

I am grateful for every unexpected droplet of evidence of his love for me that I’ve had to infer so much of my life. Could we actually be present with real feelings?? Not have to stuff them in? Me to eat or him to be grumpy to control them. He didn’t have to hide his fear and anxiety from me (or the nurse) in the catheterization process and that may have been a huge release for him. I love the metaphor and aptness of him releasing feelings as he releases his bladder – albeit with technical help. We’ll take whatever we can get. Amazingly, he has been able to tell me that he’s glad I’m here while he goes through this.

Funny how it’s my parents’ sexual parts I am interacting with – not physically with Dad (so far) but certainly conversationally. Those hidden, forbidden topics. I pray they lead us into other doorways. Other healings. It makes me want to be here with them more or for longer stints. Both worlds call – this one here and the one I was called to in Oregon in order to grow on my own away from them. What gifts we can give each other in these last times together! I know that if I can ease their passing, I will ease my own when that time inevitably comes. So – onward into this day with its surprises of feelings that sneak up in every drawer and interaction.

I am happy. Both with this precious couple of hours of writing and with the prospects of the connections in this visit.