I immediately began exploring possibilities, and although most of them seemed daunting, I set out on the journey anyway. My first step was to spend seven weeks with Mom during the summer while contemplating the logistics and consequences of making a cross county move to a hometown I had left 32 years earlier – vowing never to return. Well-meaning friends and colleagues challenged the very basis of my mission. They expressed disbelief and concern that I would even consider leaving my established life in Boston to care for someone who was abusive to me for most of my life, now barely spoke, and most of the time, didn’t even know who I was. My response to this argument was, “Well I still know who she is. And who she is needs me now more than ever before.” My intention was unwavering.
As I was wondering where I would stay for the summer in Dubuque, good fortune brought me to the Shalom Spirituality Center, where I rented a small apartment located across the street from Mom’s nursing home on serene prairie acreage. On the short walk to visit Mom I encountered and was delighted by local wildlife – blue birds, deer, raccoons, turkeys and pheasants, and a charming family of skunks – and mesmerized by the majesty of buildings and trees that were hundreds of years old. The stars in the night sky glittered and the moon lit my way on the walk at night. There was something magical about the setting, and the magic seemingly accompanied me into the nursing home.
Before this, I had been terrified of nursing homes, fleeing in terror once in my twenties when Mom took me to visit her sister, Milly, who also had Alzheimer’s. Until Mom’s diagnosis – thirty years after my flight from Milly’s bedside – I had completely avoided nursing homes. As with all things we’re afraid of, the closer we go and the longer we stay, the more at home we become in a land that once was terrifying. This happened for me in the nursing home – which was now Mom’s home.
There were two experiences with Mom that summer that remain indelible in my heart. One afternoon, she was absorbed in looking at and touching the new clothes I bought for her and had laid out on her bed earlier in the day. When I walked into her room, she looked up from the clothes. Quickly, it seemed, she recognized me. I surmised this from the wide, joy-filled smile that spread across her face. As she clutched her new flowered blouse to her heart, Mom’s shining blue eyes looked at me – really looked at me. Then she said, slowly but distinctly, “You. You. It’s You!” Her face and eyes expressed awe. Hearing this, seeing this, I felt as if I was, at that moment, a visiting deity – or at least the most important person in my mother’s world. It was a moment of pure recognition and belonging, even if she wasn’t exactly clear about the relationship between us.
Later in the summer, on my birthday in August, my mother spoke the last word I ever heard her say. For Mother’s Day that year, I had sent her a framed picture of us taken in our front yard when I was two months old. She was tenderly holding me. On my birthday, I took this photo down from the wall in her room and showed it to her. Mom immediately took the photo from me and held it tightly with both hands. She looked at me, then at the baby in the picture. She kept shifting her long, intentional gaze from me to the baby in the picture. Then our matching blue eyes met, and she clearly said my name: “Jade.” It brought me peace to think that she knew her daughter was with her. Of, course, I didn’t know at the time, this would be her last word; but what a cherished memory it became.
After those seven weeks in Iowa with Mom, I returned to Boston in turmoil. My life in Boston was fulfilling and happy and I couldn’t imagine myself thriving in a small town in Iowa. I sought counsel and was mostly discouraged from making this move. Only my spiritual director recognized the longing of my soul to be with Mom, and she encouraged me to follow this call. But my turmoil intensified.
One hot September afternoon on a sunny beach north of Boston where I was living, I crouched at the shoreline and watched tiny sand crabs skittering in and out of the water. As my mind focused on the crabs, a calmness came over me bringing with it complete clarity. Without doubt or delay, I began making arrangements to move to Dubuque.
When friends and colleagues asked me why I was doing this, I explained that when I arrived in Iowa in July, my mother couldn’t get up from a chair without assistance. She couldn’t walk, feed herself, or catch a ball. When I left in September, she could do all of those things and more. I knew that my presence in her life had made a difference in important and meaningful ways.
But it was also those memories of being recognized that drew me to Mom’s side. We had been estranged for many years, and now, it seemed we had come to realize how important we were to each other. I believe that I was making sacrifices to move to be with her, and I did so freely and joyfully. The unconditional love I experienced flowing between us, for the first time in my life, was a completely unexpected surprise.