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Dearest Mum

in memoriam


Dearest Mum,

To sow the seeds of charity, doubt and penitance, it's getting so all a charitable organization has to do nowadays is send some nice greeting cards or return-address labels. You read the thoughtfully-worded appeals, and you think, there must be just a little more that I can do. You know, the "gifts" are always ours to keep, and didn't you always hate to throw out something so "nice"?

When these folks called the Alzheimer's Association sent me some museum art greeting cards, what would you have done? I don't think either of us ever really admired Van Gogh -- deeply troubled disturbances boil out of most of his work. But what about the colorful Monet? You'd especially like the Charles Neal "June Morning" border composition. His floral blues, greens, aquas and reds fairly leap out of the printer's ink, a vivid and harmonious depth perception with all of the symmetry and proportion that you studied and loved so much.

Something that gives that much pleasure deserves recognition in return, doesn't it? Oh, no, I would never dare to just throw those out. You trained me well. Those joined the "keep" pile of other worthy solicitations: just $10, $25, $50 or $100 could help make someone very happy. Ever the skeptic, you would ask, but how do we know that?

We don't know them, but they could do good works.

You never had a "position" on charity. You never told us to take care of the less fortunate. But you had a soft spot. You were there for people in need of a caring human, as often as the full-time job of raising a family would permit. You never told us to take care of "you and yours" first, but you'll have to admit your sense of priorities was pretty strict, and always provident for the future.

So when these cards arrived, my first reaction was, "well, now, aren't these people just a little late?" You're gone now.

Has it really been a year and a half? My first selfish thought was, how much more might you have enjoyed these cards, than those florid, floral English window boxes I was able to find to send off to you?

What struck me mostly was all the memories that came, unsolicited, along with the cards.

Say, now, do you suppose they might have gotten my name from the convalescent center? Could they be exploiting the mixed memories and pain of all of the next of kin?

You would probably say that was a wretched thing for them to do. We would have examined the card artwork, and the fund appeal, and concluded that the card stock was really quite chintzy, so that you couldn't really send these things. And then we would have laughed at ourselves for being so awful about it.

But, you know, they're right, there are still a lot of other folks out there who need assurance they're not alone.

You'd be right, we don't know if that Association is really qualified to provide that help. We'll wait and see. Yeah, Mum, I am giving to other causes already. Let's not get into that right now.

You never remembered to say whether you liked the cards and notes and recollections and photos that I did send back to you. I don't mind, because I know your friends there always did read them to you. I would know you well enough to predict, you would have enjoyed mine even more than the Charles Neal, because somebody obviously put many of mine together by hand.

You always knew the names of your children up until the final week.

We never talked about your Alzheimer's, either. One of the symptoms is that you can't really converse about them. The "Someone to Stand For You" folks included a list of "10 Warning Signs" of Alzheimer's. I'm not going to go back over it here.

They aren't just warning signs. They're a clinical description of a daily ritual of life and decline. No one has ever come back from Alzheimer's (so far) to tell us whether there are better or worse ways to spend your last years.

But I didn't want to talk about that just now. We've been there, Dearie, we've been there.

Life isn't about trying to recapture what we once had and can never have again. It's about sharing and enjoying what we have now. Whether that be more, or less, we should try to do as best as we can with what we do have. In that sense, as frustrating as it can be for the one with Alzheimer's, Alzheimer's really is terrible on the rest of the family. They're the ones still having the biggest problem letting go of that which they can't control.

I don't want to talk about what's hardest to give up. I want to talk about what's worth holding on to.

If you don't mind, what I would want to say to others is that, inside of the "10 Warning Signs", if you become afflicted, you are still always you.

You might not remember the last time we sat together in the garden, but I do. The inner court lawn at the convalescent center had widely spaced benches, to give relatives and residents some sense of privacy. We had the whole vast expanse of lawn to ourselves.

Geraniums and azaleas lined the surrounding walkways. I always liked the azaleas, and their growth habit and intricate symmetrical structure always interested me. But azaleas are really brittle, fussy, fragile plants requiring exacting growing conditions to give forth bloom and pleasure.

You were always partial to the ever so commonplace geraniums. I think you took to them because you could put them anywhere and they'd always thrive, always offering anybody who took the trouble to see, a vivid bright spot of cheerful color.

You always responded positively to color. Maybe it was your art training, or maybe you loved art because it offered you so much symmetry and color. These Virginia geraniums were quite colorful, evocative of those we had in the back yard in Oakland of the '50's, and I noted you didn't react to them until I pointed them out.

But I was the one making the comparisons. The Virginia spring morning air was cool and invigorating. The lawn was picture-book green, still damp with beads of a morning dew. This was the kind of morning that reminds us all that the Earth really is a wonderful, invigorating place to live. We didn't say much for a while.

I had a lot on my mind just then. Overriding all of that, at just that moment, was this other thought: here we are now, sitting in a garden together after all these years. And we saw, I think, through all of those other things, those circumstances and situations, to something closer: ourselves. Not everything had changed, after all. And it was enough.

I hope it was enough for you, too. It was all we could have asked for. Far too few moments like this get shared in a lifetime. You said that it was nice here, and I could tell that "it's nice here" stood for a lot of things we didn't have to try to articulate, because I could tell that we had found peace here, in this garden.

We had a smoke ("how delightfully naughty!") before you caught a chill, and then we decided we ought to go in together.

If you don't mind, there is something else I wanted to say to others who might be going through this together now. Of all of the possible things I could have in mind, I wanted to bring you back to Yosemite in, oh, the Fall season of '73 or '74.

We had driven up to Yosemite from Oakland, on a whim, in my spiffy new little four seater. You had packed our picnic lunch. It wasn't until I set the parking brake in Tuolumne Meadows that I finally admitted I'd been so quiet because I was sporting a simply dreadful hangover. You always hated mountain driving, so I was made exalted in becoming the double hero, the skillful mountain driver in dire pain. And we laughed at my foolishness, and you thought me so courageous, even though I told you I love the mountain curves.

We pulled over in a shaded spot at the edge of a clearing, and the picnic lunch made up for everything.

You came up with a wicker picnic basket from someplace. I never did figure out how you always managed finishing touches like that. You packed along your wonderful complement of Camemberts and Bries and Goudas and crackers of every conceivable kind. A moderate amount of grey reisling went along perfectly with such luxuries. Even the hangover went away.

The world was really a wonderful place to live in those days, too. We looked at some pea-shaped boulders, the size of my small car, resting on an acre-sized inclined plane, a single glaciated slab of exfoliated granite. I would always marvel at how they came to repose on such a sheer face. You would always seek out the tiniest plants eking out a survival in the cracks and corners of a much bigger and harder world. You had a soft spot for them, you know.

On the drive back down highway 120, you startled me badly by shrieking, "Stop! Stop! Stop! Look! Look! Look!"

I pulled off onto the gravel shoulder as quickly as I could, unsure whether I would need some kind of weapon, or a camera. You were beside yourself and could not quite say what had possessed you. But you kept pointing and screeching with joy, dragging me by the hand like your child of so many years ago.

And then I saw it too.

The sun was low in a clear western sky. It was fall, so the aspens were beginning to turn. Within a canopy underside of taller and shaded green, thousands of uniformly golden aspen leaves danced in unison, with the breeze, illuminated as if from within by a bath of intense sunshine. A fluttering cloud of brightly fluorescing golden-orange waved solemnly at us, cloaked in a waving cathedral arch of dark greens and reds.

It was an intense experience. You grabbed my hand. We witnessed it together. I got some photos, before the sun ebbed on and the spectacle faded back into the subdued forestation of the Yosemite low country. Whatever we had seen, others, not knowing quite what to see, might only have seen just trees. I never saw anything quite like that before or again. It was truly a sight made just for that moment, just for that day.

The photos were good. Some day I will unlock them from the color slides so they can be shared, but the real event is locked up in the memories of what we saw, experienced and shared together for those fleeting hours, on that day, in Yosemite.

You always saw the color, the detail, the richness of texture nobody else was interested in noticing. You were that way about life in general, not just the color spots which nature plants for the benefit of those who know how to look.

To me, that day symbolized a discovery process we had built and shared together. There were many other days like that too, in which we shared the discovery of new things, great and small, that we had not seen or understood before. And I want thank you in particular for those, too.

If a lot of other things had changed by Friday, April 21, 1995, by that day we sat together in the garden at the convalescent center in Virginia, the quintessential "you" was not one of those things that had changed.

What I wanted to share, with others, is that it keeps coming back to this: you were still you. I wanted you to know I always understood that. Of course I still miss you more than I can ever say, but, to the others, I wanted to say, in sickness or in health, those moments that we mentioned are the moments we really live for.

In Memoriam
Faith Forbes
November 1913 - April 1997

© Alex Forbes, August 15, 1998

The Trudeau strip above wraps up a wonderful story about another grand lady with Alzheimer's. It is reprinted without permission, but is available for viewing through the Doonesbury page. I feel indebted to Garry Trudeau for creating this tender series on a very serious subject.

My own article "Dearest Mum" points out in its own way that it isn't prudent to give to charitable organizations you know little or nothing about. Nothing in my article is meant to be construed as endorsement or criticism of the Alzheimer's Association; we know nothing about them or what they actually do.

I discovered a wealth of resources on the world wide web. At the Alta Vista search engine I got over 37,000 hits on the keyword "Alzheimers". I checked Yahoo and got a more modest 200, on the first search.

I did spend some time on one website, below. Because of my own limited knowledge, I can't endorse any of the sites. From personal experience and the time spent on their site, I can say that (link found broken July 2001) is very worthwhile reading, for anyone struggling to come to grips with the reality of Alzheimer's.

If you're one of those people, or have struggled with any kind of deep personal loss, it was you for whom "Dearest Mum" was really written. Yes, we really did call her "Mum", and, you know, I think she really would have approved of this article.

But she would have found some fault with it, or improvement needed, just like Trudeau's Lacey. That's why they were such grand ladies.

Please see our Pans & Portraits page in PHOTO Notes to view a screen-size picture of what Mum and I saw in Yosemite that day. It doesn't do justice to the memory, for the memory is always much more than of sunlit aspens
, but it is a memorable photograph nonetheless.



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