I pause before I make the call. I’m determined to give her all my attention. The last time I called I tried to make dinner while we talked—the dinner was a flop and I could tell that mom felt neglected.
“Hi mom.” My voice hits notes that are meant to be bright and breezy.
“Oh hi, David.” Mom tries to match my lightness but underneath is something heavy.
I take a deep breath. “What did you do today?”
“Just a minute, let me find the calendar.” The nursing home calendar helps her know what day it is but also reminds her what she did.
“Today’s Friday isn’t it? I guess we had happy hour today.”
Every Friday the nursing home has a happy hour for the residents and their families that includes live music, snacks, and Dixie cups of beer, wine or soda.
“How was it?”
“I guess it was OK.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s been such a long day.”
It’s her way of saying she’s lonely and sad. She doesn’t name dad’s death but it's the ground she stands on. I’m grateful she tells it like she feels it. That hasn’t always been the case—preacher’s wives are expected to be sunny even when they’re not. Yet, her assessment of the day makes my heart sink. Mom has many reasons to feel depressed but her form of dementia—short-term memory loss, exacerbates her pain. She doesn’t have access to recent positive memories that might mitigate her distress. She is unable to create a timeline that is balanced with the good and the not so good.
“The walls are closing in on me. I feel like I can hardly breathe.” She is the moment and in this moment her aloneness feels absolutely devastating.
“I’m so sorry mom. You not only lost your husband but you lost your best friend.”
“How long has he been gone?” Mom asks like she’s asking for the first time.
“Almost two years.”
“Really, it seems like a lifetime ago.”
“I know. And you have a lifetime, sixty-six years, of memories. Remember how dad used to like watching people at happy hour?”
She chuckles, “He‘d never been to a happy hour in his life before moving in here.” I can feel her smile over the phone. “I think he found it entertaining.”
I was raised in a teetotaling home. Dad preached abstinence to his church and his family so it was amazing that happy hour became a fascination.
“Remember when he took a sip of wine by mistake and spat it out?” I ask.
She laughs again. “That reminds me of the Tic Tac story. Dad used to fall asleep during prayer meeting so I'd give him Tic Tacs to keep him awake. You know it wasn't good if the preacher fell asleep. Well, it was summer and a lady bug landed on my lap and I wanted dad to get rid of it so I put it in his hand. His eyes were closed and he thought it was a Tic Tac. He didn't spit it out. I laughed so hard that the pew shook.”
We both laugh. The Tic Tac story is part of our family lore that gets remembered and repeated almost every time we are together.
“I bet dad would have had fun at your squirt gun fight yesterday.”
“Did we have a squirt gun fight?”
“Yes, I saw it on the nursing home’s Facebook page. You looked like you were having fun.”
“Oh that’s right.” She chuckles again.
It’s a fine balance between honoring the pain she is in and helping her build a scaffold of memories that remind her that pain doesn’t define her. She is remarkably willing to go where I lead as long as I am in it with her and leading with my heart.
* * * * *
“Welcome everyone. I’d like to introduce David Fredrickson. He’s going to be talking to us about mindful self-compassion.”
The director of Memory Care Life smiles sweetly at me. It’s a support group for people with dementia and their caregivers. I cross my legs and smile but inside my stomach tightens. The people sitting in the circle are in varying stages of dementia and their caregivers appear good hearted but in varying stages of angst and worry. How can I possibly say anything that will be meaningful or helpful to everyone in the room?
My internalized teenage boy with his imposter complex clicks his tongue and shakes his head. Who do you think you are? You can’t do this. But by some grace, I interrupt the gangly pimply critic with a pause and I remember my intention, May I rest in love.
I look around the room at each face. “Thank you for inviting me. I’m so honored. Let's begin by introducing ourselves. Could you share your name and then share where or from whom you learned love?”
It wasn’t the icebreaker I had planned. I was guided by something bigger than my plans. I thought people would answer with a couple sentences and we’d finish in a few minutes. But what followed was intimate testimonials and novellas filled with humor and tenderness. At times there were few words or even silence as language got stuck in inaccessible parts of the brain or places in the heart where words were too clumsy. But as we bore witness, love was palpable and visible in the wellspring of tears. I was amazed they were so ready to open up their hearts—the same hearts that also carried the weight and pain of this disease.
Thirty minutes later we finish our introductions. I take a deep inhale. “Thank you. Let’s just sit for a moment in silence and savor this incredible visitation. This is what love feels like.”
A few moments later I suggest, “Now I’d like you to imagine what it might feel like if you could turn all this love and kindness towards yourself.”
I can almost smell the incredulity.
Me? Really? No.
Yet even the possibility of some self-kindness cause some to exhale and others to lean back in their chairs.
I feel myself sink deeper in the recliner of love, “Welcome to mindful self-compassion—the practice of bringing a loving connected presence to our experience and ourselves, especially during moments of difficulty or pain.”
* * * * *
As it turns out, whether with mom or a group of people who are struggling, I don’t have to know what to say. My job is to open my heart, which opens a door. The rest is not up to me. The door is a portal and often, courageous souls walk through.
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.