My brothers and I felt loved and safe; we just didn’t actually hear the word “love” very often. It all seemed to make sense that my father wasn’t warm and gushy. After all, he was forced to do battle in a world that was tough and complicated. But Moms are supposed to be warm, caring and loving. I think my mother had all of those qualities; she just wasn’t use to actually saying the word “love” out loud.
In recent years, after my father died and my Mom moved up here to the Land of Cotton, “love” started creeping into her vocabulary. I think Mom’s grandchildren helped her understand that it was okay to share her feelings. It was a little awkward initially, but eventually “I love you” became the accepted phrase for saying goodbye.
About two years ago, my mother’s battle with dementia had reached a point where we could no longer play like she was simply having a little problem with her memory. She would often get lost when driving to meet a friend – yes, she was still tooling around in her Crown Victoria; forget appointments, birthdays and anniversaries. She also talked about having vivid dreams, which turned out to be hallucinations.
Then early one morning, my brother Gary received a call from the police that Mom had contacted them because she couldn’t find one of her babies. Even odder was that she was certain the baby was inside one of the lamps beside her bed.
As her world grew ever darker, my mother seemed to grab hold of three words that provided her comfort – I love you! At the end of phone calls or after short visits, she would offer a quiet goodbye, then add those words of endearment; all somewhat strange for a woman who had spent years tapping down her emotions.
There was an urgency and quiet plea surrounding this new word play, a need she now had to know that she wasn’t alone and that in loving, she was loved.
I mention all this because of a little episode that happened earlier this week. As I’ve detailed here before, my mother is lost in her own mind, struggling to handle the most basic sorts of things that define each of us as human.
Fortunately, she’s now a resident at the William Breman Jewish Home, a nursing facility that offers top-notch care. During a visit earlier this week, I arrived just in time to help her with lunch. It’s a melancholy ordeal – the child now the parent, the parent the child. Meals for my mother are no longer about tasty treats and quiet dinner conversation. They've become a mushy blend of mixed colors and success is all about the intake of nutrients.
On this day it was a struggle to get her to take a few bites of the greenish stuff – a puree of broccoli and spinach – or even a spoonful of chocolate pudding. After 15 minutes of frustration I was ready to wave the white flag and turn the work back over to the nursing home aides.
I bent down to whisper my goodbye and tell Mom that I would see her later. Without hesitation, she looked up with a momentary gaze of recognition, then said in a breaking, painful voice, “I love you”!
I like to think that for an instant the fog had lifted and that warm memories of me, my brothers and father became part of her life once again. In that moment, hopefully, was the quiet love that has always swirled around our family and once again my mother knew – as we all need to know – that she wasn’t alone.
SPECIAL SIGN: Even when you don't hear the words (photo above), the symbol for "I Love You" brings comfort.