In The Listening

“You sound down.”

My mother. I’m calling her.

You sound down.

She has always been able to hear when there is sadness in my voice.

“What is it, Sandy?”

And then I start to cry. I cry on the phone to my mom who is suddenly fully my mom; she is oriented. She knows where she is. She knows she’s in her bedroom of the house she’s lived in for 30 years. She recognizes the desk opposite her bed. Maybe even the painting above her bureau. Her own painting. An abstract, of the ocean. One that resonates. Of her. Of my mom:


The day before when I had visited, she had been sitting up in her bed. Now a hospital one.  Staring blankly.

She had turned to look at me. To stare. Unblinking.

“It’s me, Mom.” I laughed taking off my glasses. New ones. “See? It’s me.”

Her stare, unwavering. Steady. “I know it’s you,” she said, though I wondered about the “me.”

“It’s Sandy.”

Her aide had raised the head of her hospital bed because she must remain sitting upright after meals due to swallowing issues.

After 20 minutes, she was tired, and her aide lowered back down the bed. Donning vinyl gloves, we changed her bandages on tailbone bed sores, and on her left hip where artificial replacement is beginning to protrude. Rolling her to one side so that she clung to the bed rail. Afraid of falling.

We settled her. A pillow between her legs to support her bandaged left leg – the one slowly dying of gangrene.

But that railing. She wouldn’t,  couldn’t let go.

“It’s ok, Mom,” I soothed. “You’re not going to fall.”

“Let her be,” her aide whispered. “It makes her feel safer.”

My mother clung. Shaky hands, a tangle of tiny veins, pale shell nails.

Then I put on a CD. Opera. Pavarotti. She always has loved opera. She would blast it in her studio while painting. On large canvasses she stretched herself. Expansive brush strokes.

“Louder. Turn it up,” she said.

I like to believe the volume cleared her room of all mental confusion. Of her torment in the relentless attempt to piece together thoughts increasingly too jagged to assemble into the…logical. Into the well-reasoned.

And that her room was cleared of the unsafe – the chronic panic of trying to get back home because you no longer recognize the familiar. That truly perilous insecurity so acutely ingrained in the gritty of dementia.

And so her room was aired out, allowing only for the listening. And perhaps the sensory; she loosened the grip on the railing. To delicately run her frail fingers back and forth along the cold metal.

She reached a hand out toward me.

I reached to her. “Oh, she said, not having realized I was there. “I thought you were the cat.”

And so this next night, on this phone call I cry and cry to her. Because in her own reorientation, I lose my own.

And because, unlike in the past, I cannot tell her what is wrong. What has been going on all around her in her house of 30 years. Beginning with a leaking expansion tank whose steam mushroomed mold through, not only her basement, but upper levels; the environmentalist found very high mold counts even in attic. I could not tell her about the men in white hazmat suits trekking through her house. Clearing out all closets to find more mold. Tearing down walls. Emptying out her own closet which she would not remember, but at the time oddly she didn’t seem to think odd. And now I can’t cry to her about my battles as her POA with her insurance company.

And I can’t tell her the reason I finally can’t stop crying. Because having, if only for a moment, her back, so fully as my mom, is utterly wrenching. Truly devastating.

As if we were still what we’d always been.

Which we are not.

I cry and cry.

“Oh Honey, please don’t,” as only a mother can plead, when her own child is hurting and she doesn’t know how to help. “ This too will pass,” she says. “There’s the good then the bad, then the good…”

I’m staring at the wall. “I’m okay.”

And then she is expressing some discomfort and I know she needs rotating. “I’m going to have to go,” she says, and I hear her aide coming in to rearrange her as she is too weak to rearrange herself.

“I love you so, so, so much.”  Oriented or not, we chant this phrase to each other now regularly, like a prayer.

We hang up.

And I take a long bath. I submerge my head enough so that I can hear the water. The way I imagine dolphins can hear; intelligent creatures, but perhaps better than us in communicating through the sensory. And I listen.


About Sandra

Author;editor of The Woven Tale Press at; mother; weaver
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16 Responses to In The Listening

  1. Amy Morgan says:

    I had a moment or two of this type of clarity with my mom after her brain injury and yes, it is devastating at the time. Since she has passed, those moments have been something I’ve gained much strength from. Hopefully this will be the road for you as well in time. Such a loving piece.

  2. When you take care of an elderly parent, life takes a surreal tone. Those moments of clarity can be a shock to your psyche. For someone who thinks it is culmination and beginning of so many things.
    I take care of my mother but fortunately she has not suffered from dementia. My hat is off to all those who have to walk that walk. Take care.

    • Sandra says:

      thank you Anna. Dementia is a cruel disease not nearly so much to those who witness it as I am, but those who are suffering it — who are never home. Ever again.

  3. Shirley Cartwright McKenzie says:

    I am gasping. This is almost exactly my story, except I could never have told it with such beauty. Same frailness, pillows beneath her knees, her strong hands now so thin. Hers were the first to hold me and mine were the last to hold hers. We held each others. I lifted her up like the little baby she had become and gave her baby kisses; ‘you’re my baby’ I cooed just as I know she did me so long ago. Eyes closed, little response for she was doing the business of leaving me. She never left me all those years, but now it was her time to go and I to stay. I think I saw a tiny upturn of her mouth. She shivered although it was July outside. I wrapped her up and went to do the mundane business of dinner. She simply departed.

    • Sandra says:

      wrenching. And yes so familiar Shirley. And yes, the cold part. She’s always cold no matter how many blankets and how high the heat because she literally has no fat left on her bones for warmth. And I do pray for my mother that is will be as simple as that ;; the simply departed.

  4. Oh that IS wrenching. It’s a gift, but an agonizing one. Keep playing her the music. It DOES orient. We used it to help my daughter overcome sensory issues (along with a host of other OT tactics) when she was very young, and she STILL identifies with the world through song. Music … I think it’s primal. The philosophers can argue all they like, I think humans do retain some base instincts, and the ability to discern notes from mere sounds, song from simple words, has got to be one of those things. It settles us, centers us, brings us around. Hang in there.

  5. Kate says:

    I checked facebook to ask you how your mom was doing. It sounds like she still has moments of clarity, although I am sure they are infrequent now. I love you both, and feel for you Sandy. Surreal what you have had to go through, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. A remarkable woman in so many respects, I have told her so in as many ways as I could think of. I find it amazing that she has retained a sense of humour and sensitivity through it all. I admire her so much, and hope that in her place I would manage to be as sociable as she was when I saw her. I am so sorry the whole experience has been such torture for you. Love to you all, Kate

  6. Oh, Sandy ~ so poignant, so from-the-heart….I don’t know what to say – except to continue writing through the tears and fears, through the dark times and those lucid moments. Blessings to you and hubby and your boys.

  7. So much movingly, and eloquently, captured here — from the sense of a mother being ‘fully mom’ if only for an instant, to the fully grown daughter calling on all her resources to ease her mother’s suffering. I need little convincing re: the power of music. And listening.

    • Sandra says:

      It was a special if wrenching moment Deborah; sigh. yesterday she was stuck in a “hotel” she didn’t like and just wanted to go “home” and I tried to reassure she would be home soon. But in her panic, in her lack of recognition of her world, she is transient and rarely settled. I can’t imagine how that feels. Dementia is the cruelest disease. Cruel.

  8. Susan Kane says:

    When you can pull all your writing together into a book about this time, you will see such a journey and the love you have poured into your mother. God bless you.
    Your images are so strong, and your voice echoes with them.

    • Sandra says:

      God bless you Susan. Yes, there is a book. That is clear to me. But what isn’t clear is when I will ever have the distance to write it.

  9. I lost my mother to cancer when I was 23. It was devastating, but at least it was over. What you’re going through must be like a thousand tiny paper cuts to the heart. This is a beautifully and powerfully written piece. My heart breaks for you.

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