This essay won first place in the Love Letters: What Matters Most contest, hosted by Honoring Your Wishes, a division of Iowa City Hospice. The essay prompt asked writers to reflect on themes of love, forgiveness and gratitude. Read the second-place and third-place essays.
Family road trips were usually eventful for my family and me when I was younger. If Dad knew where he was going, fine. However, if it was somewhere we had never been before, he would hand the map to Mom and ask her to navigate. Mom would pore over the map, her finger traveling down the line, never as fast as Dad would like.
“Let me see.” Dad would grow impatient, then grab the map — “Give me the map, Rose” — and try to read and drive at the same time.
My sister and I would snicker, because we knew what would inevitably follow: Mom insisting that Dad needed to pull over. “Al, why don’t you ask someone at the next filling station.” Sometimes Dad would say, “I think I know where we need to go—” and take a wrong turn before finally listening to Mom.
But Alzheimer’s/dementia introduced my family to a new landscape we were forced to traverse. It was not part of the original plan. The plan was that my parents, who had worked hard all their lives, would enjoy their retirement. Mom’s heart attack in 1997 and subsequent seven-bypass surgery was a setback, which she overcame with her usual grace and gratitude. This was entirely different.
When Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my parents moved into a facility near me in October 2013. It was the first of many challenges my parents faced. Having to relinquish your home and most of your belongings is one thing. But how do you tell an 83-year-old man who has taken care of his wife for more than 60 years that he must stop — that someone must accompany him when he wants to spend any time with her?
Yet what began as inaccurate valuation of my mother’s condition (she was assessed as advanced-stage dementia when she was early-stage), coupled with culturally uninformed care snowballed into a perfect storm, culminating in dwindling finances, separate living arrangements, a sharp decline in Dad’s health and multiple moves from one facility to the next. Dad no longer trusted anyone in health care. I shared his misgivings.
Language became a minefield. You want to reminisce, but you must step lightly. “Remember” was a word we hesitated to say. The word was once like the warm watermelon we rolled on our tongues to savor its sticky sweetness, a word batted back and forth breezily. When Alzheimer’s loomed, “remember” had to be rationed according to Dad’s mood.
But Mom, in her wisdom, still held the map. A “daddy’s girl,” Mom clung to old stories, especially those about her father. One story that endured involved an accident. Mom’s father worked on the Santa Fe railroad, one of the few jobs available to black men in Fort Madison during the Depression. A train ran over Grandpa, and, according to Mom, the doctors wanted to give up on him because he had lost so much blood. “‘You might as well knock him in the head,’” Mom recalled people saying. One doctor disagreed. “‘I’ll take the case.’” Mom said that the doctor amputated Grandpa’s leg, but saved his life.
Mom told us the story more frequently as time passed. For her, it represented the importance of steadfastness. And I wonder if, subconsciously, she recalled that story during the more difficult moments with Dad as his Alzheimer’s progressed. She, more than anyone, would stand by her husband, no matter what.
“Hold onto God’s unchanging Hand,” she advised my sister and me time and again. That advice carried us, as Dad became someone we hardly knew anymore.
It carried us again in our grief, when Dad died in July 2016.
It also carried us as we watched Mom slowly shrink away. Dementia taught me to shift my gaze, to look sideways at the people I love, because I didn’t want to see them as they had become. Mom’s skin was thin folds that I was reticent to touch for fear of tearing it. Daddy’s Rosie was dying.
So rather than cling to her hands, I clung to her words. During the final stages of Dad’s disease, my parents had moved to Michigan to be near my sister. Mom remained there after Dad died. I phoned Mom frequently and visited as often as possible. We talked about everything, especially the past. I marveled that with all that she lost, she held no resentment. She had let everything go and encouraged me to do likewise. This was a woman who endured — loving unreservedly, grateful for her family, friends and little things that came her way.
I felt that if she would not be angry, then I could be angry for her. After all, this was a woman who loved me, who advocated for me when I was bullied at school. She was the one who listened to my meanderings on the piano, encouraged my dreams and admonished me when I needed that, too.
This was a woman who prayed every night for her children — who prayed her wayward daughter into the Church, and who, I believe, still prays for me now.
I think clarity came for me after exploring old photos sometime after Mom died in April 2018. When choosing a picture for the funeral program, my sister found one of Mom as a young woman. My mother is sitting on the front stoop before the house my parents shared in the early days of their 63-year marriage. She is clasping her hands around her knees, her toes wriggling in anticipation through her sandals. Her expression informs me, “I am ready for all that life has to hold for me,” as joy and hope chase each other across my mother’s face.
When I look closer, I detect, at last, a secret so profound, moving me to tears. The joy in her face reflects one holding on to God’s Hand, with no intention of ever letting go.
Sharyl Cartmill, MA, LMSW, received her graduate degrees in English and social work at the University of Iowa and lives in Des Moines. In her professional career, Sharyl has worked and volunteered in a variety of fields, including testing and social work. In addition to pursuing entrance into the Secular Franciscan Order, Sharyl enjoys reading and writing. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 272.