I hope she now rests in peace because the last years of her life were a long goodbye, most of which she never seemed to comprehend. My mother, Margaret Lyon Morgan, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s being the first sign something was wrong. She tried to control what was happening. I witnessed her having the same meals every day, rechecking things to make sure they were still there, then slowly receding into the long dark night that ended in her death, which also took its toll on my sister, herself a nurse, and my father, a minister. I came to really appreciate their steadfastness. I once was angry at my father for neglecting her, but in the last years of her life he became a real caregiver. Love has many forms; he showed me the most important.
I was the last of five children, the one unexpected (it makes life much easier knowing you were never meant to be because anything you do is a plus), and therefore the one closest to my mother. I can say I never heard her say an unkind word to me or anyone else. I know there were times I deserved harsh words, but I think knowing she might be disappointed in me served better than a spanking. One is best shaped by kindness, not punishment.
We would travel by train together many summers between our Philadelphia home and Denver, Colorado where my grandparents lived. My mother, who always wanted to be an actress but got married and raised children instead, used that time to give what she called “dramatic readings,” which really were long stories she told with great flair. She had a fantastic memory in those days. I can almost hear her now telling the story of the bald headed man and the fly or the other wise man. She would tell the same stories before many groups, mostly in the churches served by my father.
As I have thought back to those years, I have realized how much I owe her. Thanks to her, I love to tell and write stories. I realize now the reason I love an audience, whether in writing books or giving talks, is her legacy. Seeds planted early in the life of a child bear fruit later. Thanks to her, there is a gentle side to my personality.
It’s strange how we are led to believe the influences fathers have upon sons, but my life story is about the influence of my mother upon me. While she was alive, I never told her this, but this week while driving to a class, I remembered and thanked her. Did she hear? I don’t know, but I hope so. She deserved to know my gratitude for giving me words and stories and kindness.
When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and her mind began to cloud over, I took my daughter, Lynne, to visit her. She had given Lynne her middle name, Marie. I have a picture of Lynne on her lap. My mother is smiling, but I can see in her eyes a look of bewilderment, wondering who this was but knowing at some level this was her granddaughter. For the few years living nearby, I could see the gradual but steady decline.
And then she started the long descent into the night. I went off to do graduate work in Ohio. My sister and father took care of her and gave steadily somber reports, until a phone call came one night telling me she had died. I felt a strange mixture of sadness that she was gone and relief her suffering was over. I wrote a poem to her, some of the words were:
Mother, if I had known how you wept, I would have come,
but you died hardly remembering your name.
We die the death we deserve, some say;
but you never deserved this.
Mother, I try to remember for you hoping
you may finally rest.
Women: listen to this one man-child:
Do not forget your names….
Strange, I think of her now more than ever. I have flashbacks of her giving a dramatic reading before a woman’s group or on the train to Denver. I see her pulling a grocery cart to the nearest market because she never learned how to drive. I go with her every week as she takes a small portion of the money my father gave her for groceries to put in a savings account. I watch her making dinner, cleaning the house, like a mother hen watching over everyone else.
I said to one of my brothers this week that if there’s a life beyond this one, I’d like to see our mother again. I have some questions for her, as every child has questions for every parent they really don’t know, but mostly I would like to thank her for the gifts she has given me–life being the chief one, but also of good memories listening to stories while travelling the long journey to Denver.
I have a little book of daily readings I start each day with. The one today was: “You cannot ask the darkness to leave, you must turn on the light” (Sogyal Rinpoche). The darkness into which my mother descended was real, but I choose now to turn on the light and remember her before the descent into a place she didn’t choose and we had to witness. May you truly rest in peace. Maybe one day we can stop or treat this terrible disease for so many others who are or will suffer.
(For more information, I would suggest you visit the website or Facebook page of USAgainstAlzheimer’s)