A slightly different "Sketch People" post. Remembering my mother, Shirley Banks (3/25/1927 - 3/29/2008).
The cold early-spring light swept through Mom’s convalescent-home room, chasing away its dinginess and making it almost pretty. It brought to life the watercolor hummingbird hovering over the eternally blue morning-glory…touched the crewel embroidery and stained-glass bluebird hanging in the window…and finally settled on the rag doll and the white toy Angora cat that an old family friend and I had picked out for her. Mom had always loved dolls (she’d only had two growing up, and she wasn’t allowed to play much with the nice wax one) and fluffy white cats.
And Mom herself was having a good morning. She sat up in her chair, talking or, at least, trying to. In addition to her dementia, there were problems with her throat. Because of its narrowness, she had always choked easily: a lot of scar tissue had built up over the years, and a recent stroke had made it impossible for her to swallow on her own – ergo, a feeding tube. It also meant that her voice had a gurgly under-water quality that made it difficult to understand what she was saying.
But she was smiling, and her dark-brown eyes were shining. Her prettiness had come back to her, and her words – or what passed for words – tumbled eagerly out of her mouth.
So I listened and tried to keep some sort of conversation going. We had always had a rocky relationship, all highs and lows, no middle ground. We had argued our heads off, said hateful things, and made each other miserable. She had guilt-tripped me, and I had shut her out of my life so often and so loudly, the slamming of that particular door still echoed in my head, haunting me as we neared the end.
The light in the room was spilling onto Mom’s face. Or was it the other way around? I saw again the woman I had loved in between the fights. The one who’d gone antiquing with me, passing along her love of old and pretty things to me. Who’d rejoiced with me over the publication of my first novel and who’d listened and handed out what comfort she could after a bad break-up. Who had, despite the dementia creeping up on her, managed to slowly make her way through one of my stories and say simply, “It’s beautiful….”
“I’m proud of you,” Mom said now. Suddenly. Clearly.
And then, just as suddenly, the clarity was gone, and she could only make those strange gurgly sounds again. I stayed a bit longer, then rose to go.
“I’ll be back Tuesday for your birthday,” I told her. “Would you like me to bring you a violet?” Dad had bought her violets, knowing how much she loved flowers; and after his death, she’d taken to collecting china with violets on it because of the association.
When I came back with the violet a few days later, the picture had altered horribly, and there was no light anywhere. Mom was breathing shallowly, and her feet had turned blue – all signs that she was sinking fast, the nurse told us. My brothers and I sat there for several hours, talking quietly. Mostly to each other but once in awhile to Mom, just to let her know we were there. That it was OK for her to go.
Two days later, she took us at our word, slipping away while it was still dark. My sister-in-law and I came by later to clear out her side of the room. We left behind the clothing, the afghans, the doll, and the toy cat. We packed up Mom’s few remaining treasures and got ourselves out of the ugly, empty place as quickly as possible.
In Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing,” the couple that has just lost their son find unexpected comfort from the man they thought was harassing them. The walls break down between them as they sit there, talking with him in his bakery, and for a little while, their pain abates. The story reminds us that no matter how great the grief, there is always a gift, even if we don’t recognize it right away…something that gently, kindly nudges us from one moment to the next.
The hummingbird painting went home to my uncle, who had painted it for my mother, his oldest sister, many years before during one of her greatest griefs. The stained-glass bluebird went to a great good friend. My sister-in-law kept the embroidery piece, and I kept my mother’s words, the not-so-small good thing she gave me during that last conversation, before the light went out.