Most days I call my mother at her assisted living (virtually every day now), and we chat. Some days just for ten or fifteen minutes; other days for more than an hour.
Some days she’s still relatively present, able to carry on a full, logical conversation with little repetition and ‘error’, others she just kind of ‘rambles’ without inserting an actual subject into what she’s speaking of and without being able to recall names, places, words, etc.
Some days we joke and laugh, talking about her arthritic fingers that droop and how she at least still has the middle one working so she can still tell people to piss off. Other days she talks about how much she’s ‘lost’, her house, her car, etc., and I do what I can to turn it around to a positive.
Most days I have a pretty capable suit of armor that I wear for these conversations. I slip it on before I dial the phone or when I see her name pop up on the caller i.d. when she calls me before I pick up to call her. I never know what kind of mood she’ll be in, how present she will be, how often she’ll repeat herself or what the conversation will be about, good or bad. I prepare myself for ‘whatever’ the conversation holds or how it goes.
Most days I do battle with her dementia and fare relatively well in this respect.
Today, although I didn’t tell her and she didn’t hear it in my voice, nor could she see it through the phone, she broke my heart a little.
I mentioned to her that last night I went out to a karaoke show and got up and sang. This is something I do almost every week, at least once, because I love to sing. I’ve told her most weeks that I’ve been out singing. I mention it to her casually, conversationally, just like saying “I breathed air” today. It’s normal – habitual – commonplace for me to go out and sing somewhere.
Her response to it today, though, was brand new.
“I didn’t know you like to sing….”
So many people talk about their life flashing before their eyes. Immediately after Mom said this to me this morning, thirty-five years of my life flashed before mine. I’ve been singing in choruses and musical theater and karaoke shows for that long. Mom has been there, front and center, for so much of it, smiling and beaming up at me, her eyes screaming out ‘That’s my son!’ with unmeasured and boundless pride. There are so many things Mom had ‘suggestions’ of how she might do something ‘differently’ (her way) in my life, but my singing has been one thing she’s never touched. She might not always have liked my song selection, but she never once had a criticism for how to do it ‘better’.
Even when I knew it sucked and wasn’t something I should have sung in the first place (and there have been a few) – even if I occasionally forgot a lyric or my tempo was a bit off – there has never been a time when Mom had anything but praise for my singing.
When I began doing musical theater as an adult, after a lengthy break from the stage in my early 20’s, Mom enlisted family, friends, co-workers, and anyone who would agree to come to my shows. She bought blocks of tickets to each performance, always positioning herself to the greatest advantage, visually, based upon where I was on the stage during any show I did. I’d look down, ever so briefly, from the stage during a ballad, and see her sitting there, eyes closed, a smile spread across her lips, knowing she was enjoying it. Knowing that if nothing else, I was making her proud of me at that moment in time. Not that there haven’t been other moments, but those moments – those were priceless….golden….and I thought nothing would ever tarnish that gold.
I still have the memories – even if she doesn’t. But that’s little consolation. Sure, the accolades and praise and acknowledgement have been wonderful over the years. After a childhood spent hearing how something might be done ‘better’, of never feeling like I measured up in any way, having that one thing that there was never a suggested improvement for – was like a personal victory for me.
It’s not about that, though, as nice as that was. That’s not what’s heartbreaking about this for me.
It’s knowing how much she enjoyed hearing me sing, how she’d move Heaven and Earth to get there to hear it – how she would (a non-drinker) sit for hours in a bar just to wait for me to get my turn in a karaoke rotation – for three and one-half minutes of fame – knowing that this has faded from her memory – and might be gone forever.
This one has hit me – right in the heart.