Writing

Got Birds on the Feeder

My mom sitting on the ground in the sunshine with an Irish wolfhound puppy
Mom and Barney, late 1960s

I went to see my mom last weekend. She lives about six hours away in the town I grew up in, Decatur, Illinois. I drove in Friday afternoon and left on Sunday.

My mom has mild dementia. Her memory has been slippery for several years, but last summer it progressed. I have to admit that the news of the diagnosis had a bit of relief with it; it wasn’t that she wasn’t paying attention or that she didn’t care. She honestly couldn’t remember.

My mom as a child having a portrait taken
She’s never liked having her picture taken.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get to see her because of the pandemic. So we all, we all being me, my brother, and my mom’s husband, tried to handle this remotely, and none of us did a very good job. It could be said that we all did our best, and maybe that’s some comfort for all of the angst and anguish. But for the first half of this year, doing our best was causing me a lot of emotional damage, and was really weighing on my mind.

Things came to a head around Mother’s Day, and we all stopped talking to each other. Eventually a truce of sorts was declared, and I made plans to go visit my mother for the second time this year at her request.

My mom in High School, posing with her friend. My mom is kneeling on the floor while her friend puts her elbow on her head.
Mom and her best friend, Pat McQiddy

Traveling on the interstate in the Midwest is effective, but extremely boring. One long straight stretch gradually bends into another long straight stretch. I always chuckle when Siri directs me to continue “straight for 153 miles.” It gives you a lot of time to think, no matter how hard you try not to. The events of the past six months had come close to precipitating a burn out, and for the week before my visit, I felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails.

My mom, for the most part, is fine. Her short term memory is pretty shot, but once you get used to repeating yourself and have patience with the fact that she’s not really retaining anything, she’s still herself. Her long-term anxiety is gone, and instead she’s sort of bobbing through the mists of time with a peaceful serenity. She has a house on the lake, and spends almost all of her time sitting on a screened in porch looking out over the water.

Not that there’s much for her to do. Her husband has taken over the cooking and cleaning. She hasn’t driven in two years. She sits on her porch and reads and watches the lake and the birds at the feeder. And that’s what we did together all day Saturday. I tried to keep some sort of conversation going so that we weren’t sitting in silence, and found that asking her questions about her family and her childhood were good topics to go for once all my small talk had dried up. She remembered the name of her first boyfriend (Gary Bayer), reminisced about when she and my dad got married (they eloped), about her childhood (she regretted moving from Kirkwood to Frontenac), about the cities she’d lived in and which one was her favorite (Denver–I had always thought it was San Francisco).

A candid photo of my mom in High school, looking up as someone snaps a photo. A young man is the the background, taking to someone off camera
For the sake of accuracy, I need to state that the young man pictured here is not in fact Gary Bayer. At least, Mom says it isn’t.

All in all, it was a good visit, if a little dull. I got to spend time with my mom while she’s still with us, even if we didn’t do anything. She’s been going through old photo albums and sending me pictures from her family, and I’ve learned a lot about her childhood that I didn’t know before. The present may be a muddle, and maybe the last twenty years or so, but a lot of the past is pretty clear to her. I got see that she’s doing well, that she’s happy, which is really is all that’s important right now.

And now I’m back home, after a long drive back, and I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, like I’m waking up after a long and unexpected nap. I’ve got a lot more energy, and I’m comfortably getting a lot more done. Worry and Dread, who had started to feel like long-term boarders, seem to have packed up and moved on while I was away. I mean, things aren’t perfect, and they aren’t going to get better, but right now, things are ok.

And that feels pretty good.

My mom in college, standing in front of her bunk bed at the sorority house.
Mom in college, early 1960s

One thought on “Got Birds on the Feeder

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