It is just after 10pm in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am lying in bed, listening to the sound of rain (a welcome sound in late July) outside the window of an AirBnB. There is a cool damp breeze coming in through the slats of the shutters on the window. It is rare to feel the air this moist in the high desert mountains of New Mexico. It feels good. I need to sleep cool, especially this evening. My insides are sorrowful and achy. I feel both love and sadness in my heart and various viscera right now, and in my hands, and on my lips. I am filled with the soft sensation of my mother's fine white hair in my fingertips. It was just a day ago that I stroked her hair and kissed her head. I did this again and again through our visit. It was hard not to keep touching her. That is all I wanted to do—touch her, over and over. I brushed off from her yellow blouse the crumbs of the croissant that my husband, Tom, brought her from his favorite bakery in Santa Fe. I loved doing this. We had driven to Albuquerque from Santa Fe earlier that day and he was so pleased to be bringing my mom that delicious pastry. "They are just like the ones we had in Paris!" he would say excitedly. "She will like this one—it has chocolate!"
She ate her chocolate croissant from the Old French Bakery in Santa Fe as she sipped her favorite iced cappuccino from the "cafe" of her retirement community (La Vida Llena) in Albuquerque.
I spotted my Mom that afternoon near the entrance of the dining hall which had been cleared to create a dance floor for a group birthday party. Most of these folks have walkers or are in wheel chairs, yet they still dance! At least some do. These parties, replete with a small live band, are held every few weeks for the residents in the skilled nursing wing where my Mom is living now.
That day she was wearing a bright yellow blouse over a white top (she gets cold easily) and when we walked in she looked surprised and gleeful to see us. With unabashed joy she said, "Carrie!" She has done this before—expressed genuine surprise and excitement in just seeing/ hearing me. My Mom is legally blind, yet she always seems to see who she needs to see.
I wonder why we don't express this type of glee every time we see someone we love?
I can still feel her silky soft hair, and the coolness of the skin on her forearms. Every time I see her I am afraid it will be the last time. There is always that risk, isn't there? Any time we see anyone, it could very well be the very last time. It is probably good to remember this, and act accordingly, though many of us rarely do. It is just as it is with the uncensored excitement we might feel inside when seeing them again after a respite. Delight in the simplicity of an encounter. With my Mom, now at 93, death feels like a not too distant presence drifting about, barely seen, but heard, and felt in the faces of some of the folks that currently inhabit the place where she lives.
This presence of imminent absence seems oddly benevolent, even soft, like her hair. And I am scared. I am scared of losing her; I am scared of being in her situation. She tells me she has lost so many friends in the past year. And that at times she is afraid she will go to sleep and not wake up.
I watch with fear in my eyes as she loses her cherished independence, and puts up with people coming in and out of her room at all hours, as she deals with the scheduled meal times, having to eat when she isn't hungry or doesn't like the food and the constant, constant supervision. I would hate that. I know she is not happy about any of his, but is accepting it. And she tries to stay positive and express as much gratitude as she can. I know she is grateful for the care, and for the love of her family and old friends from the town in the northern part of the state where she lived for so many years before moving to this residence in Albuquerque.
And I know she is grateful for my love too, imperfect as it may be (from my perspective). Yet this is not what she ever wanted for herself. Again—I do not want that for myself or for my husband. He says, “It is all relative. We might feel differently someday. Or we could store some meds..." My husband has a wicked sense of humor. And yet, for a moment, I think seriously about what he has just said.
My Mom said to me, some months ago, that we were at such opposite places in our lives. That I was at the prime of my life, doing what I love, having adventures, and for her, all of that has but passed. She used to long for that, to do the work that she loved and was called to do, she wanted to travel and feel her feet on the different soils of the world—yet that never really happened, at least not in that way.
We can feel our parents, and/or the people we love, in the skin of our hands and in the soles of our feet as we walk about in the world. We can carry them in our heart and let them see and sense the world though us. My Mom is blind and I often take in a vista, a cloud formation, grasses in the sand dunes, or some tiny piece of nature that I know she would have found beautiful and fascinating—as only she could, with her scientific yet poetic eyes of wonder. I find myself seeing for her, reading poetry for her, listening to classical music for her, enjoying the experience of my body moving for her. I find myself living life as fully as possible not only for me—but also for her.
My husband asked her, as she ate her croissant, what she would like to be doing if she were not at La Vida Llena. She said emphatically, "Skiing!" She said she dreams that she is skiing sometimes and that it feels snow seems so vivid and real.
She knows volumes of poetry by heart and can still recite Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and William Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and can still talk about micro-organisms, neuroanatomy or her favorite verses with ease because they seem to be written on her cells somewhere, or on her heart. She may not know what day it is, but she knows these things.
And here I am, with her love written in all my cells and all throughout my heart. I try and protect myself from the sharpness of these feelings. I try unsuccessfully to stop them, numb them, distract myself, deny their existence.
Yet right now, as I lie in my bed on this cool summer night in Santa Fe, surrounded by the smell of pinon pine and the call of the crow, here now in my beloved New Mexico, I feel my mother's soft fine hair in my hand, and my lips on her head and I cry. I can't stop this river. It follows me to New York City and around the planet, follows and flows through me just as she does. My hands and lips and heart remember what some part of my head doesn't want to. They speak to me of her hair so soft, of her voice sweet, thin and still funny, of her very presence now, and of bygone things.
I can't stop this river. What will it mean to step in? What will it mean to let go?
For now I will watch the bright and flickering light and listen to the flow and let my hand touch the cool clear water. I will do my best to stay present.
Personal photos from a trip to New Mexico: Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, & White Sands National Monument.