She Walks in Beauty

“To love someone
means to see them as God intended.”

Fydor Dostoyevsky

My mama about age 11

Ten years ago, I sat by my mother’s bedside as she was
recovering from surgery. I don’t remember the exact context of our conversation
but I was prompted to ask, “Mama, what is your greatest fear?”

Her reply startled me, “Losing my mind.”

“Seriously?” I inquired, hoping she was joking.

“Seriously.” she said. “I can feel things slipping away and
it scares me.”

A few months after that conversation, my mother and I would embark
on separate journeys. At first glance, these journeys seemed worlds apart. I
would set out on the first of many trips to lands unknown–places like Sudan,
Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Madagascar and India. Each trip was another step
along the way of stripping me of my defenses and my way of looking at the
world. No matter how much I had prepared, or done things “right”, no matter how
many times I had checked my list, I entered into landscapes so foreign to me
that I simply lost my bearings. This stripping down left me feeling vulnerable,
helpless and melancholy, and at the same time a deep peace and unexplainable
joy settled in.

My mother was also venturing out to new and unchartered
territory. But instead of traveling thousands of miles to foreign countries,
she crossed the distant borders of neurofibrillary tangles. She was pulled into
a landscape both barren and convoluted. She began the slow, insidious slide
into the life-sucking disease of dementia. No matter how much she had prepared
herself  (exercise, eating right, keeping
her mind and body active) she was rendered helpless by the hungry fingers of
dementia which reached out to claw and poke holes in her brain.

At first, it was innocuous: she couldn’t recall a person’s
name or a word here and there. She would misplace things. Then she lost the
ability to name a common flower like a rose or daffodil. Then it was a loss of
place. And then her place in the world. Somewhere in that space and time, she
could not recall my name, although she seemed to know my voice and face. She
traveled back in time, down the alleyways of memory where I was sometimes
allowed to be the passenger. She would dole out bits and pieces of information
and an occasional story. Eventually all that was left were a few repetitive
phrases. A few questions offered every minute or so of a conversation, with her
favorite being, “So what have you been up to lately?”.

We are not so unalike, my mother and I. We have the same
laugh, the same smile. People say we look alike (which is about the highest
compliment in my book). Like my mother, I find myself at a loss for words. I
wander the pages of my notebooks, jot down descriptions, memories and
anecdotes, but my words seem barren, wooden, tangled. Words I want to string
together seem to slide into the abyss like the tedious chipping away of my
mother’s cognitive function and dignity. My phrases seem repetitive and devoid
of meaning, not unlike her familiar phrases stuck in a groove in her brain.

So, the question remains, “How do I convey the beauty, grace
and joy of this woman who is changing before my very eyes? How do I capture her
essence in words?”.  There is a poem by
Lord Byron, whose first lines lend me a hand.

She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty,
like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of
dark and bright

 Meet in her aspect and her eyes…

My mama, her sisters and her mama 

And so I look closely at my mother, and I see her as God

She walks in beauty, delighting in simple things. She is
prone to flash her brilliant smile, laugh out loud and encircle me with her
strong arms. She travels to new worlds which now include dancing, singing,
wearing crazy mismatched clothes (because she likes the colors), including a
pink knit cap that adorns her head each day. She eats with abandon, whatever
she wants. She loves ice cream and eats it with the delight of a child. She
likes to look at birds, dogs, flowers and clouds. She likes bright colorful
things (things she might have once considered “tacky” or gaudy). She bow her
head in prayer. She loves deeply. 

And even more essential, she is loved by the One who created
her. The One who knew her before the foundations of the earth were laid. He
calls her by name. He delights in her. He sees her as He intended.

Mama and me 2009

via Always Mercy

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