Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Daughter and Rock Walls

On August 17th, my daughter Rachel took a fall and hit her head on a rock. There was more to it than that actually. She was rock climbing near Fort Collins, Colorado with some rock-climbing buddies, apparently leading the route up the rock, when her attempt to place a piece in the rock failed, and she fell the six feet she had reached to and the additional six feet below her last placement. Her head struck the rock wall at the end of the fall, but she did not suffer amnesia, and finished the route despite a raging headache. She was not wearing a helmet. The week before she had taken a twenty foot fall, banging her back against the rock wall as swung back and forth. She was wearing a helmet that time.

The voice message on my cell phone said, “Mom, I don’t want to scare you but….”
Her voice was thick and low and pain- filled. My stomach tightens and I am filled with fear of what the next sentence will bring. My mind races and I realize that she is well enough to call, and I listen poised and tense, yet already knowing that she will be alright. Someday, I half expect, I will be caring for her, or grieving for her. Someday, she will fall over the edge that she lives on and there may not be a thin rope to catch her.

I really do love the concept of climbing up rock walls. Like a little child putting his hands all over his father’s face – fingers exploring his mouth, searching the crevices of his ears and the holes in his nose, feeling the contours of his face in a joyful intimacy – is a person on a rock face. So small compared with the looming height; so fragile compared to the solid mass.

Having a relationship with the natural world means experiencing its’ beauty, strength and grandeur; being out there and in it, like swimming in the rain. One becomes part of the water around them and one with the water that falls from the sky. Typically humans retreat to warm dry places when it rains, but there is a joyous connection that happens when we join nature on nature’s terms and sacrifice our comforts. Many people sweat and endure sore muscles to climb a mountain peak, not only for the view from the top, but for the challenge and experience of joining the mountain in its’ day, seeing it’s hidden parts, walking on its’ shoulders. Rock climbers take the challenge and thrill one step further to places that seem forbidden places, the same loves driving them perhaps.

“David and I are responsible, “ I think to myself with a rye smile. We set this kid on this path, and just never dreamed that she would run so far and fast on it. We started her hiking and backpacking and wilderness camping at a young age; we planted in her that wild love of natural things, that natural love of wild things. I would not change all that. We watched her fly from rope swings into lake water or river water with great glee when she was still young. However this element of danger is increasingly present and I wonder about what drives it and how it will end. I really don’t know.

In my most instructive book, God likens Himself to a rock, I suppose because rocks are solid and immoveable, and yet I find several places where God is moved by humans. I read, “Fall upon the rock and be broken,” and I hear Jesus’ words as an invitation to let our hard hearts to broken apart on His chest. He is safe to bleed on; He can bear it all because He is strong and solid as well as compassionate. This picture that I have of my daughter dangling on the end of a rope, smashing herself against a Colorado rock, I have to combine with my picture of Jesus being the Rock there in Colorado that she is smashing herself against. I have to picture Him holding her, broken and hurting. It is not only my imagination, it is my prayer. It’s the only way I can get through these fears that she will destroy herself.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Finding Mom

Finding Mom

It’s been a month since Mom came to live with us here on Crow Hill. It’s been a good month, and I have no regrets. We have been companions, doing household chores and garden work together. She makes sure that my kitchen is cleaned up after every meal. We’ve enjoyed early summer strawberry picking, high summer time at the lake, late summer raspberrying. She’s shopped with me, and enjoyed rides through the town she was born in, she’s pointed out her high school and other important landmarks. We’ve visited the cemetery where her husband, brother, and parents are buried, and the Pumpkin Hill school house where she attended elementary school. She is willing, and cheerful and helpful. But her memory - or lack thereof - is the reason why she is here, and an obstacle that keeps getting in the way, getting in the way of finding my Mom.


When you cannot remember what happened in your past, it is an awkward time when old friends, come for a visit and want to play ‘remember when.’ What is one to do? What is one to say? “Really?” or how about, “”I didn’t know that, “ or “I don’t remember.” Mostly one learns to listen patiently. Even relatives might run out of things to say if the past is what forms the structure of the relationship and everybody wants you to remember who they are and be able to say their names but names don’t always make themselves accessible, unless they are used every day. When your mind has to work hard to try to understand and follow what is happening, conversations are a lot of work. Words fly by too fast, and you can’t keep up. It doesn’t take people long to figure out that you have no idea what they are talking about, give up, and wander away. You are not clever, nor interesting and have little to offer a conversation. You are just there and often you are alone with yourself.

When you cannot remember, time is misty. You don’t know where it goes, and it all begins to run together. Every day is just a new day to be lived just as it is. Of course you just took a shower and put on fresh clothes, even though it was three days ago. You cannot remember that it rained this morning. That was a long time ago now, or the weather didn’t reach your conscience mind. And yet, you have your watch, and you know when it is time for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. It is a relief to be able to read your watch and know what time of day it is.

When you cannot remember, how to get to places becomes a big problem. And figuring out how far away places are from each other is impossible. You have to trust someone to take you out. You hope you can trust them. And how to get back home….and where is home? No place is home but home, and you know you are not living in your home. Everyone tries to tell you that this is home, but it is not. “When will you every get back home?” you wonder. They tell you that you cannot go back home again. You want to got back home very much. It is familiar and your things are there.

Why does it always feel like you are forgetting something or missing something? What is it that is lost? Should you take your pocket book with you? Why is it not here? Have you left it somewhere? Isn’t there something you should take upstairs? Is everything in order before you go to bed? Or is there something you forgot to do. You’ll brush your teeth again, just in case that was what you forgot. You’ll take this magazine up to bed with you, maybe that’s what you wanted to remember. You’re sure you had more socks in you drawer. Why does she have to take them away every night? Is she bringing them back?


I am trying to understand what it is like for my Mom on the inside. One night we sat on her bed for a few minutes before turning in. I was quiet and unhurried. “I’ve been thinking about Albert,” she said, “Where is he?” “ I put my hand on her leg and looked into her eyes. “Albert died seven years ago in September,” I said softly and then paused. “Do you want to see the program from the memorial service? “ I went to my file and brought out the folder. She poured over the program for a long time while I read to myself the words my brother had spoken about my father. Finally she asked, “ Do you have an extra one of these? Can I have this one?” I nodded and watched her think where to put something so important. She could not think where, and I pulled the drawer of her nightstand out as a suggestion. She found a pack of pictures and slid the program in with them.

The next day was Sabbath and we were together, just us, so I decided to take her to the cemetery where my father’s ashes were and show her the stone. It was there with her sister’s next to it, and her parents’ next in line. She walked around each stone looking at both front and back, reading aloud each of her children’s names on the back of her stone, reading her parents’ names on their stone and commenting that she didn’t know her sister had her stone already. She did it again, making the same comments as she had before. Five times she walked around the three stones in a line, each time seeing them for the first time. Eventually she was ready to leave. We walked up the hill to her brother Leon’s stone and I showed her the dates on the stone, pointing out that he had died in November. It was all news to her. This is not like my mother, for whom the Danville cemetery and the family markers set there, were “touch stones” for her life, a place from which she would “rise to meet the Lord in the air,“ a place to go to remember family. Now she can not remember at all.

Another Sabbath after church and dinner, we picked up Mom’s sister Alice, and traveled three quarters of an hour to her nephew Dennis’ camp on Lake Eligo. We sat on the porch swing and talked and watched the lake, then looked at pictures of the family reunion on David’s computer. It was an afternoon where she missed her usual nap, and as we were sharing a light supper together, she asked where the boys were. “You know, our relatives.” There was silence. No boys had been there. I imagined that she was thinking of people in the reunion pictures, and tried to explain it to her. She remained unconvinced I could tell, and I realized too late that the day had been too much for her and people and places and time were all cooking in a big stew in her mind. It was past time to go home and get some rest.

Where is my mother? I am trying to find her. Where is the woman who would search the trees in the yard for the bird that was singing that song, and go find the vernal flowers away down on the island through patches of poison ivy, and sew my 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade dresses for me even at the expense of her own sleep? Where is the woman who would play her accordion and sing with conviction, and make temperance talks up front in church, and berry for hours on end, and hold babies with such complete satisfaction? Where is the woman who bustled around doing laundry and peeling potatoes or making rolls, pies or cookies for a big meal? And where is the woman who swam in the Cold River enjoying the chilly water?

I watch her carefully and I try to keep her safe and loved all the time, hoping to see glimpses of the mother I knew. I am learning patience.

Mom no longer enjoys cold water, or being wet. Being warm and dry is a high priority. So we steam up the bathroom before Mom has her shower. We wash as quickly as possible and use a blow dryer to hasten the drying and quicken the warmth. A bathrobe is always necessary, and then we go to the couch and sing together. She picks the songs, and it is always the old ones I remember from my childhood. Singing helps her forget that her hair is still damp and brings her back to me. Swimming is out of the question though.

We walk together every day the same piece of flat gravel road that passes through a working farm. There are dogs and goats and sheep and chickens and cows, and she usually counts how many of each she can see. She does not recognize the new equipment used for haying, but she loves to see when hay is down and comments every day on the beauty of the fields are that have been cut and are greening again. The roadside flowers get her attention and she comments on the colors, some days remembering the names, some days not. I smile. She is still here. Many days she says she feels lame, and occasionally I have to run for the car and pick her up - she just cannot go on.

On days when I pick peas or beans from the garden, there is work to do, podding or ending, and Mom will do it all. Slowly and methodically she sees to each one, and she does not quit until it is done. It is the same with cutting mounds of strawberries up. She works slowly and thoroughly and finishes the job. On days when I pick potato bugs off the ten rows of potatoes we share with our neighbor, she will help, crying out in disgust, “Look at these,” until her back drives her to her chair which we have carried up and put in the shade. She does not like to be driven to her chair by her weak body, and always asks me, “Are you sure?” when I say she should sit down now, but once sitting she contents herself with patting the dogs or watching the cows until I am finished. She never complains.

Against my better judgment, I took Mom to pick raspberries with me up in the unmown field on a side hill. David had found a hornet’s nest underground and marked it, so I guided Mom to the lower section of berries, far away from the hornet nest. I went to the top of the patch to work toward her. After a bit, I looked up and she was closing in on the region of danger. I cautioned her to move away and kept on picking. I looked up again, and she was in the danger zone. I went to her and took her arm urgently, explaining again about the possibility of getting stung. “Don’t pull me,” she said, “There are still good berries in there.” When it was time to go, she lamented that she had not been able to fill her bucket, but she did not get stung and made it to the car without spilling her berries which she made sure to point out to me. I mentally noted that I can find Mom when we go berrying, focused and persistent.

I can find her too when we go to a concert on the court green - she moves her hands softly in time with the music and I know she is pleased. She loves to be told that this quilt was the quilt that she helped me sew when I was twelve and that all those fabric pieces are from scraps of dresses she sewed for me when I was a little girl.

Yesterday was a banner day. On our walk she came out with a phrase that I had not heard her use in years. “Heavenly days!” she exclaimed. I smiled. Later I saw her looking at the old secretary in the entry way. “This is old,” she said, “I remember it from my childhood.” She was right. It is the only piece I have of sentimental value, and she recognized it. Today however, she can’t remember whose home this is she is living in, is tired all the time, and finding the simple task of cutting up peppers too much to figure out. I take her shoes off and help her to rest on the couch while I write. I am never upset with her; how hard it must be for her and yet there is no anger, there is not grief on her part, only a tranquil acceptance of her lot. She smiles when I tell her I love her, she hugs me and tells me thank you for all I do for her. I tell her thank you for all her help. “What help?” she says incredulously “I didn’t do anything today.” Then I get to tell her that she helped me end the beans and pod the peas and set the table and wiped the dishes three times; that she restocked my flour bins and measured ingredients for granola. She always looks surprised and pleased. That is my mother and I love her. I find her every night when I tuck her in bed. Every day there is some glimpse of the mother I knew, though it is dim and distant, and can see her and hear her if I pay attention.