Saying goodbye

A boyfriend once told me of a t-shirt he’d seen imprinted with a cartoon. In the cartoon (by Jennifer Berman), a banner saying ‘Adult Children of Normal Parents Annual Convention’ is displayed over an auditorium empty except for two people. I said ‘that’s me’ and he replied, ‘yes, it is.’ My parents weren’t perfect, but they were good parents and I knew that even when I was young.

This comes to mind because I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with my two sisters, closing out my Mom’s storage spaces. It has been a sad process in many ways. For one, by closing the spaces, we acknowledge that our mother will not live independently again.

When she moved from her apartment into respite care three months ago, we hoped that she would eventually be able to move to an assisted living facility, so we stored the contents of her apartment. In the month my mother was in respite care, it became clear that she was not a candidate for assisted living and would need fewer of her possessions going forward. As much as we would have liked to postpone the process of disposing of her belongings, we had the choice, as my brother says, of using the money we were paying for the storage spaces for her to have a good life or for her possessions to have a good life.

The process was also sad because it reminded us of a time when my mother was a different person. It is not just the dementia that has made her different than the mother we knew as children, but something else—mental illness, soul sickness, whatever one calls it—and it has been present for many years. Now her mind and body have failed her and to some extent, taken away her ability to come to terms with whatever it is that ate into her soul.

In May, as we began the process of sorting through what was already in storage and going through her apartment to weed out what could be discarded instead of stored, I came up with the idea of taking photos of some of the possessions that held memories for my siblings and me. The original photo I envisioned was the four of us with my parents’ bedroom suite, but my brother was not able to join us this past couple of weeks. However, the idea had by this time evolved into a series of photos that would capture in some way the mother we knew as children.

In coming up with the props for the photos, I remembered my mom as the woman in a pink formal dress with long gloves, on her way to a dinner with my dad. I was impressed all over again with her decades-long commitment to Girl Scouting—she was a troop leader, a trainer, a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts. I was in awe of the woman who spent her 50th birthday in New Zealand, having applied for and been granted a scholarship by Rotary International to study overseas for a year. I paid tribute to the woman who, at the age of 69, trained for and completed the Danskin Sprint Triathlon.

In different ways and on different paths, all of us have had to come to terms with saying goodbye to that woman but I want to remember her, even as I deal with the reality of who my mother is now.

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