When I crawl into bed and snuggle into her soft side, my mom smells of lavender. Each night either my sister or I spray a mist on her hands and face before we put her to bed, a ritual we have kept up since she was diagnosed with brain cancer early last year. Lying beside her is my favorite part of our nightly routine. When I walk into her room after a long day I am tired, too, but as I wheel her to the bathroom I launch into stories about my day, or the funny things my young children have done. When there is extra time I often give her a hand or foot massage, though when I ask her whether she’d prefer me to rub her hands or cuddle in bed, she always chooses the latter, like I do.
I often think of the day, several weeks before she was sent by ambulance to the hospital, when I took her calloused feet in my lap and gave her a foot massage. “Why don’t I do this every time we hang out?” I wondered aloud, and Mom just laughed. I knew why, though. My mom wasn’t fond of being touched. I rarely got a hug when she left my house after our weekly lunches. When I said, “I love you Mom,” her most common response was “Mmmhmmm” as she walked away.
She doesn’t say much these days, as the tumor has taken up space where her language is formed, but there was a time – not so long ago – when I couldn’t get her to stop talking. Everything got her riled up or excited to solve the puzzle of the complicated symbols and messages that swirled around her. After she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was sixteen, her behavior made sense but her diagnosis helped little else. She became homeless after she threatened her mother with a knife, and remained that way until eighteen years later, when a fellow resident at a woman’s shelter found her lying on the floor unable to move her right side.
Rushing to the hospital this time, as a mother myself and as the daughter who had moved to Seattle to help Mom get medication and housing, I found myself at the last stop on a decades-long quest for peace and security: a hospital bed, a diagnosis that afforded little time, and somehow, a place to call her own, not in the way I had imagined, but at a non-profit Lutheran nursing facility that gave her a home when no one else would. When I spend time with her now I walk or drive the half-mile to her home and I know just where to find her, in room 158-W, with a view of the courtyard. She’s on a small dose of an anti-psychotic since her hospital stay, which tames the worst of her delusions. When we walk around the block, or read together, or sit and watch the kids run circles around us, it’s a much less complicated interaction. The paranoia that used to consume her and rule our conversations is at bay, and there is room for the real Judy to emerge. I see who she must have been as a teenager and a young woman: she is sweet, and funny, and she loves to laugh at herself. Her concern that we are safe is no longer all-consuming, and she has room to accept hugs and fist bumps from the young kids to whom she told outlandish stories once upon a time. The other day, when a troubling thought was racing around in her head, when she spoke of “Schwarzenneger’s race cars” and “LA police,” I helped her try to get hold of her struggling mind. “Mom, you can just say, ‘I love my children,’ over and over again if you want to stop thinking about that.” She stopped muttering and looked at me with surprise. After I leaned in to give her a goodbye hug, she motioned with her hand for me to lean in again. In a clear, strong voice – so unlike the tinny one she had used as she tried to expel her dark thoughts – she spoke words from the core of who she is. “You have blessed me with so many blessings.” She squeezed me tight and I teared up as her words filled again the empty space left when her illness took her away from us. I am awed by this woman with a will of steel who endured things that would have crushed me. And I’m so grateful that at the end of her life, she can put aside the fight to survive, and share that part of herself that eluded us all for so long.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom. I’m so glad you are mine.