"I don't know where I belong," she said as we drove from the American Furniture Warehouse back to La Vida Llena, her new home. My mother has lived at la Vida Llena, a warm and inviting retirement community, since last February. The challenge of moving her began in the middle of last summer—after my brother and I decided that her living conditions in the tiny town of Raton, NM, where we had grown up and she had been living for the last 50 years, were no longer tenable.
My mom fell into a progressively bad depression for the three years that followed the death of my father in 2011. We thought she would pull out of it as time went on—and in some ways she did. But the isolation of living alone, legally blind and in deep grief, while in a very rural area lead to a depression that started to affect her cognitive capacities and overall health. She was drifting away, forgetful, living more in her memories than in the present. She was not eating, staying hydrated, or taking care of her basic hygiene. Her friends in town implored my brother and I to try and move her. The house was a scary scene. Blackened, frozen banana peels in the freezer (so the bears won't smell them), bags of trash in the house because taking them to the dumpster would attract bears. ("But won't the bears smell these in the house, Mom?") Empty cardboard boxes in front of the door to serve as an audible warning if someone, or some bear, was trying to get into the house. It was as if we had walked into someone's personal compound after some apocalyptic event. "Subtly survivalist" was the best way to describe it—except she was barely surviving; she was actually wasting away.
The painful process of getting her to agree to at least visit places in Albuquerque where my brother lives (4 hours south) and eventually move into one these was heartbreaking to say the least. The process deepened a rift between my mother and me that began even before my father had died. I was the annoying kid trying to get them to consider moving from their rural environs before things got too bad, and to no avail. Then the rift had quietly remained in a small way, even in the years following my father's death.
My mother and I had been very close for most of my life. But it started to feel as if we were seeing each other across the expanse of some southwestern gorge or canyon. There was a space, some seemingly dangerous geography, and an enormous emptiness between us. Our attempts at crossing this canyon were clumsy, half-hearted at times (as if to protect ourselves) and mostly ineffective. At least that is how I felt.
We succeeded in moving my mom in February. It was rough going at first. But about a month ago my brother and I observed a significant behavioral shift in my mom. She is coming back to life, and to us. She is adjusting well to her new home. And though it will never replace her old and true home, she is making jokes, and talking with ease and energy about a variety of topics that were largely absent from our conversations over the past few years.
When my husband and I arrived at the door of her new one bedroom apartment (she knew we would be arriving) we knocked on the door, and as she opened it she screamed with delight: "it's you!!!" She let out a spontaneous squeal of surprise and love with the kind of wide, open-mouthed grin that you instantly know as immense joy. It was a gleefully innocent expression of surprise. It was so honest and completely unfettered by the social norms of typical adult behavior. It struck my heart (and my husband's) in a way that made us cry out gleefully as well. We hugged and laughed. My husband was giggling, as my mom and I embraced. It was as if in that moment we had instantly leapt across that expansive emotional canyon. We met mid air, yet were totally grounded, safe in each other’s arms and hearts once again after what had felt like many miles, and even years, of separation.
As we walked around her new spacious and spare apartment I saw a picture that she had set out on a tabletop. It was one I had never seen before—an old picture of me and my mom from the early 1960s. I was just a baby, and she was a beaming and content looking young mom holding her pensive baby girl. There we were—she looking relaxed, tan and happy in her white cotton sleeveless blouse with the peter pan collar, and me a pale and round infant and wearing a slightly concerned and puzzled expression with a single curl on my forehead (arranged with some humor by my mom, no doubt). I said, "Mom...it's us!!!" and found myself choked up as we stood together, tenderly hugging as we looked at this image of our much younger selves in the picture.
The night before we left Albuquerque my husband and I sprawled on my mom's cushy new carpet after a comfortingly bland dinner in the community cafeteria. My mom rocked in the old rocking chair she brought down from Raton. She doesn't have much furniture in her new place and wants to keep it that way. But she brought her favorite rocking chair and a recliner and some antique bookshelves from her childhood home in Illinois. She also brought the floor cushions and brown faux leather bean bag chair that Tom and I used to like to plop ourselves on as we watched movies during our visits at the old house in Raton. We listened to her talk about missing Raton, and her house, and her friends there. We listened as she enthusiastically described her new friends, classes, and activities at la Vida Llena (including her 4 times per week yoga class!) We listened as she described her desire to win the lottery (knowing how unlikely that would be) so that she could "preserve" the house in Raton just as it was—so she would never have to sell it. She wanted to preserve it like some sort of memorial to my dad and the life that we lived there. She said these things with a wistful sense of humor, knowing how silly it might seem to be saying such things, but feeling at ease enough to say them it anyway, because it was an honest expression of what she felt in her heart. And we were happy to listen to anything and everything she had to say. The funny thing is—Raton was never experienced as much of a place in my recollection, but to her the town and the house with all their imperfections were perfect, nonetheless.
This year my husband and I will spend the Christmas holiday with my mom in her new home. We can't wait to see her again. Time and distance can contribute to feelings of disconnection. But somehow the refreshing breath of something called love flows in and floods the present with every moment we have ever experienced and more. And we find ourselves together and more deeply connected than ever. What is it about this love that connects us? It is more than biology. I think it is an unbreakable thread that holds all of the joy and pain that we have come to know in each other. It is the knowledge that we can, and will, always feel together—an inseparable part of one another. This thread of feeling never ceased connecting or flowing between my mom and me—though at times I certainly tried to ignore it or dam up the flow of feeling in some way. Or maybe it continued to flow anyway—but as anger, guilt, resentment, or frustration, a futile attempt at covering or obscuring the truer gulf of grief that the both of us were swimming in. I can't pretend to know the depth and breadth of my mother's pain after the loss of my dad, and her home. But I know that I most certainly will at some point in my life. If life graces me with such an opportunity.
I know that I have been given many gifts in my life. One of those that I will never forget is the look of unconditional love in my father's eyes as we looked at each other in the hours before he died. It felt like nothing less than grace itself. The other is the sound of my mom's spontaneous and innocent cry of joy along with the look on her face (one I will never forget) the day we knocked on her door at La Vida Llena. I think we can live for just these types of moments—not necessarily to create them (allowing ourselves to love deeply and fully takes care of that) but simply have them, to recognize them when they happen, and share them. And to know them for the true grace that they are.