It was Easter this past Sunday. This particular Sunday I had a planned visit to my parents and didn’t want to go empty handed. Five years ago, I would have brought Peeps and chocolate and maybe even some kind of teacake, and we would have had a lovely tea. But lately, even apart from general health concerns, sweets and particularly chocolate upset their increasingly delicate digestive systems. I went off to my local Farmer’s Market to do my own produce shopping, and momentarily forgot about seeing them later.
I have a lovely garden at my home and it is very close to blooming, and a part of me hates spending money on flowers for this reason. But I couldn’t help but be pulled in by the most beautiful English cream, just-the-barest suggestion-of pink roses that were somehow fresh but had a vintage-y, almost wilted look, and I fell deeply in love. Knowing my days of receiving Easter gifts were gone, I treated myself (and my husband) to a gorgeous big bunch. Overladen with heavy vegetables and fruit, I managed the quarter mile walk back to my car. As I carefully laid down my beautiful flowers in the passenger seat, it hit me—-this is what I needed to bring to my parents, particularly my mother. It was, after all, my mother from whom I first learned to love flowers, particularly roses. So, with a sense of a child making themselves do something they really don’t feel like doing, I walked back to the flower stand, bought an almost identical very large bunch and returned to the car.
A couple of hours later I arrived at their condo. They were both in the living room, my dad in his recliner, my mom on the couch, wearing the large headphones they wear to watch TV. The screen showed some old Hollywood movie with an actress with Technicolor blue eyes. Maybe Jean Simmons? I flashed on her coming to our Boxing Day party decades ago, on the arm of a single friend of my Dad’s, and, not knowing who she was but being completely entranced by her beauty and just a general, indefineable moviestar-ness that no longer exists. In any case, I watched ten seconds of the movie, maybe Ben Hur? Knowing they couldn’t hear me, I then walked into their line of vision and, for the very first time, ever, they looked truly confused by my appearance, an unknown character walking onstage, or, at the very least, someone they just couldn’t place. The caregivers assured me that they had been told I would be stopping by. My mother and father stared blankly at me, neither of them making any movement to remove their headphones, so I motioned to my mom to do so but this seemed to also confuse her. My dad watched this exchange with the same passive, disengaged expression he had been wearing while watching the movie. I finally walked over and sat next to my mother on the couch and gently removed her headphones, which, once off and resting on the coffee table, somehow eerily continued to blast the sound of the TV. She looked in my eyes and said,
“Mom, it’s me, Laurie.”
A relieved and happy smile spread across her face.
“Oh, I’m so glad it’s you.”
I made a joke, something along the lines of, well otherwise you have a stranger who looks like me with a key to your house. She smiled, probably politely. At this point one of the caregivers, Cathy, had taken off my dad’s headphones and turned off the TV. He looked around at the room.
“Is this the place where we were robbed?”
This alarmed my mom.
“What? We were robbed?”
I assured both of them that they had never been robbed here, but they have been robbed twice in the past and they were probably getting confused. I told them the circumstances of these two robberies, how with one it had been me who had walked into their house alone, taken a shower, made myself a snack, and only when I went to put on the television did I notice it had been ripped out its cabinet, as had the stereo. My dad, as best he could, straightened up, very concerned.
“But is that all they took? Just the stereo and the TV?”
“I think so dad, but, you know, this was in 1981.”
“So….a very long time ago.”
Still getting over the sad surprise of not being immediately recognized for the first time, I somewhat desperately revealed the large bouquet of roses. My mother’s face lit up, a little girl on Christmas morning.
“Oh my, are those for me?”
“Yea, mom, they are. And for Dad too.”
“Look at these Bern, aren’t they beautiful?”
To my slight surprise, he seemed to genuinely agree and enjoy the flowers almost as much as she did. I took them into the kitchen and Cathy assured me she would find a vase and bring them out, so I went back into the living room, desperate to find a conversational topic. I mentioned my brother and my sister in law’s recent visit last week, they had seen them several days in a row and the last day I had come by, too. My mom remembered, my dad wasn’t sure, so I produced a picture of all of us on my oversized phone. (Oversized for specifically this kind of occasion, pictures can spark things and I need to have them handy). My mom stared at it for a long time, and then she did the strangest thing. She pointed at herself first and said,
“She looks normal.”
She then went ahead and pointed to each of us separately, me, my sister in law, my brother Chris, using “he” and “she,” pronouncing each of us as looking “normal.” She then came to my Dad, who, apart from the fact that he is now quite heavy, loomed, well, kind of extra large in the picture becuase of the angle and an unfortunate choice of a bright yellow shirt. Her finger hovered over his image.
“He looks very overweight.”
My Dad hadn’t heard. But, man, it was all just too much. My mom referring to herself as “she” and none of the rest of us by name, or me by “you.” (Also very odd for her to say something hurtful, these days she usually goes on about how “wonderful” and “young” my father looks. It was like she didn’t know who the man in the picture was.) It’s more than word retrieval now, it’s a loss not only of language, but, I can’t help wondering, of meaning? Of understanding who she is, who I am?
I had to work particularly hard during this visit, just to keep the ball rolling, so I went back to the flowers which were now sitting in water on the nearby coffee table in a vase. I told them a very sweet and related story:
When I was ten we got a golden retriever puppy. We already had a middle aged dog, Simon, but this one was for “me,” and taking into account his color, I named him, with great originality, Sandy. Of course all the work of Sandy was left to my mom as Chris and I were in school and my Dad was working. In those days you paper trained puppies, so basically my mom spent a couple of weeks constantly cleaning up after this puppy and no matter how much Lysol she used when you walked into the house you couldn’t help but notice a lingering, underlying smell of dog poop. About a week into this, a huge bouquet of red roses was delivered to the house, I remember it so clearly. I was actually helping my mom lay down newspaper in the kitchen after school and the doorbell rang. She was so excited when she brought the flowers in, the biggest bouquet I had ever seen, all in a lovely vase, and put them in the center of the dining room table. With girlish excitement she opened the notecard and, after reading it herself, read it aloud to me.
“Thought you might appreciate something sweet smelling this week. All my love, Bern.”
She leaned in and took in the fragrance (in those days all roses smelled amazing) and said something like, “well that was very nice of him.” But honestly, on her face you could see she was thrilled, my dad wasn’t one for a lot of romantic gestures, which made it all the more special.
Normally this kind of tale elicits great pleasure, even if they don’t recall, they are delighted to hear old family stories. But although they listened the whole way through, once I was done they both looked a bit blank. After a moment, my Dad spoke first.
“Can I get a coffee now?”
My mom looked at me kindly, wanting to say something but unable. She gestured to the roses.
“Mom, you want the roses closer?”
She nodded. She reached out to touch them, it was too much for her to sit up to smell them and, truth be told, they had no smell as most of the hybrids don’t today, but she also can’t really smell very well anymore anyway. But she did just look at them with contentment. I sat next to her and touched one, too.
“Mom, I am so glad you like these. I remember how much you have always loved roses.”
“Me too. Thank you so much for bringing them.” And, then, a moment later, “It makes me so happy.”
I spent the rest of the visit just sitting on the sofa with her, my dad asleep on the recliner, gazing at the flowers, almost no words between us, but still a connection. And, without the stress of having to form thoughts or speak, she was relaxed and as happy as she had just said.
I know this was a bad day, and there will be others, for a while at least, when my parents are more able to talk and relate, even if they have almost no memory. And there will still be times when they will know me instantly.
But, it’s…coming. Soon.