Musical Deconstruction of a Life's Worth of Memories
Music and memory are both powerful influences on life; it's not surprising, therefore, that we can often find music and memories mixed throughout human history. In Part I: Stir of Echoes, I reflected upon the passing of my mother-in-law in light of several strange happenings around our house that suggest to us her continued presence and apparent intention to watch over us. I ended by describing how I'd assembled a playlist of music that helped me keep my memories of Mumsie alive by evoking that special stir of echoes that manifest within my heart whenever I hear certain music and melodies. This piece delves into the elements of the playlist and the memories each one embodies. By sharing it, I hope to further share the unique experience of knowing Mumsie as I had come to know her during the twilight of her years.
Unwell by Matchbox Twenty
All day staring at the ceiling
Making friends with shadows on my wall
All night hearing voices telling me
That I should get some sleep
Because tomorrow might be good for something
Shortly after Wifey and I began dating, Mumsie left her job as a tax accountant and began spending inordinate amounts of time at home, puttering 'round. I would occasionally swing by and bring lunch, or take her out to a restaurant. She was tickled by the attention, and we often called Wifey at her work so that Mumsie could say "Oh, guess where I went to lunch...and with who." Just before I moved in, in preparation of getting married and becoming a permanent member of the family, Mumsie had begun to spending very large amounts of time watching old movies, over and over and over and over again; it was a habit that she continued during the first few months of marriage. It was a combination sign of the Alzheimer's Disease and the longstanding, long-suppressed depression she'd felt over the loss of her husband. It was definitely a warning sign, but it was also a source of comfort for her -- she could remember the movies. Perhaps in the same way that this music helps me recall events and scenes from life and from writing, the movies served to help preserve other precious areas of her mind. She was very determined and very stubborn that way.
Feeling like I'm headed for a breakdown
And I don't know why
She fought the onset of her illness, even though she suspected what it was and feared it -- she had seen it in her brother, and couldn't bring herself to go visit him at this time even though she desperately missed him; he was her last surviving sibling, and she'd cut off communication with him years before due a painful argument.
But I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
I know right now you can't tell
But stay awhile and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me
She stopped taking all of her medication. Her doctor had stopped paying attention to her and had given her medications that she questioned, but could no longer remember why. She reminisced about the doctor she used to see, and how great he was.
I'm not crazy, I'm just a little impaired
I know right now you don't care
But soon enough you're gonna think of me
And how I used to be...me
Wifey and I tracked down her old doctor. He was only a few years younger than Mumsie, but still practicing part-time out of a large hospital in the city. He remembered Mumsie. Mumsie was thrilled (perhaps a tad fearful) that we'd found him for her and set up an appointment; she went, however, and we were glad she did. A few days without her meds had cleared up her mind substantially, but much longer would likely result in catastrophe -- several were not supposed to be quite "cold turkey" and several were crucial for her blood pressure and cholesterol. Her "new" doc, the "old" doc, cleared nearly half the meds off the list. Several were never supposed to be taken together. We were ripshit at the regular doc; we couldn't keep the older doc as Mumsie's primary, but we did find a better doc locally. It was in the meeting with Mumsie's favorite older doc that we also received the dreaded suspected diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease, possibly accompanied by one or two other dementia-inducing conditions. The road toward a full diagnosis and treatment plan began, starting with Mumsie's newest doc a week or two later.
I've been talking in my sleep
Pretty soon they'll come to get me
Yeah, they're taking me away
Mumsie, at this time, had several fights with us -- mostly me -- trying to claim that we were trying to tell her what to do in her own house. It didn't matter that we were trying to keep her from accidentally killing us all by combining cleaning solutions or pouring strange mixtures and other things down the sinks and toilets, or that we tried to keep her from driving because she forgot to stop at stop signs and couldn't remember how to get home. These were the starting indicators of what so many others have had to go through, and it raised the spectre for the first time that we might some day face having to put her into a nursing home; Wifey and I discussed it, and decided with my past experience working with hospitals, patients and dementia in general, combined with my more flexible consulting hours and work requirements, we were going to try to take care of Mumsie at home as long as possible. We didn't make it the whole journey with her, but we held out a lot longer than anyone (including ourselves) thought we would. Mother by Pink Floyd
Hush now baby, baby, don't you cry
Momma's gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Momma's gonna put all of her fears into you
Momma's gonna keep you right here under her wing
She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing
Momma's will keep Baby cozy and warm
Mumsie's husband died of cancer over thirty years ago. She and Wifey have stayed together, mother and daughter, through all that time and confusion and beyond. Wifey told it best in her piece Please Breathe, written when Mumsie was still alive and describing how a habit born in the adolescence of her life lingered on:
Sometimes, even now, I still check on her before logging off the computer for the night. Realistically, there's no reason for this –- compared to her contemporaries, she's a healthy senior citizen – but sometimes in those wee hours when everything's quiet and the moonlight and streetlights glow through the windows, I'm suddenly awash with fright and find myself at her bedside. I stay just long enough to hear her breathe or see her move. When that happens, I know it's time for me to turn in.
Mom, I'm an adult and I now know what's going on, but it doesn't mean that the little girl – your baby – deep inside me knows. She's the one who propels me here to watch you breathe, to make sure that you're suddenly not going to abandon me. She's the one who's kept me here with you all these years because she's afraid that if she goes away, you'll stop breathing, and when she returns, she'll be an orphan. She knows you're my oldest living relative, and she knows you've been carrying grief and anger all of your life, and that you always take it out on her because...well, because she's the only one around. But she also knows you love her fiercely, and would sacrifice your own life for her. Ironic that sacrifice works both ways.
Ironic, too, was that this interesting dynamic may have been so helpful in setting up a cyclic aspect to their lives that, prior to my arrival, helped Mumsie to stave off aspects of the disease and to hide it from everyone, including herself and her daughter.
Hush now baby, baby, don't you cry
Momma's gonna check out all your girlfriends for you
Momma won't let anyone dirty get through
Momma's gonna wait up until you get in
Momma will always find out where you've been
Momma's gonna keep Baby healthy and clean
Mumsie was fiercely protective of her daughter, and more than a little afraid that she would be left alone if ever Wifey became someone's wife. I was, therefore, an instant threat to her in that way. Wifey and I had been dating several months before she finally agreed to let me pick her up at her house and meet her mom face-to-face -- she apparently figured things couldn't keep on without the two of us eventually meeting, but she wasn't looking forward to it. She knew Mumsie well, and hoped I'd passed muster. Instead, I went on the attack, so to speak. When Mumsie first laid eyes on me, she didn't greet me or ask how I was. She fixed her eyes on mine and asked what time I was bringing her daughter home. Seriously. It was a Tuesday night, about 7:30 pm, and Wifey had been working a lot of early morning and overnight shifts. I looked right back into Mumsie's eyes with my best wry grin and said "Thursday." Wifey stood there stunned. Mumsie, however, had a different reaction -- her eyebrows flickered ever-so-slightly and a twinkle appeared in her eyes; her own lips twitched with the effort to keep from letting her own grin escape. "I don't think so, Buster. Try again." "Friday?" An eyebrow raised in faux impatience. "Try again." "Well, I suppose she could stay over until Saturday, but I really would have to have her back early Sunday -- I have to get some things done at home, and I'm sure you'd like to see her for a little while on the weekend." A semi-exasperated sigh escaped her lips. "Have her back early, she's tired." I grinned and said I knew that, and that we wouldn't be late. I'd won. Nobody Home by Pink Floyd
I've got a little black book with my poems in.
Got a bag with a toothbrush and a comb in.
When I'm a good dog, they sometimes throw me a bone in. I got elastic bands keepin my shoes on.
Got those swollen hand blues.
Got thirteen channels of shit on the T.V. to choose from.
The day finally came where we were faced with the decision we had hoped to never make: the decision to place Mumsie into a nursing home was upon us. We were fortunate that we located a highly rated one in the immediate vicinity, and were able to effect the transition smoothly. It was very strange, at first, not having Mumsie here with us at the house. Not having her here to look in on, or to help as she'd wobble to and fro, or to engage in the occasional banter or snippets of song.
I've got electric light.
And I've got second sight.
And amazing powers of observation.
And that is how I know
When I try to get through
On the telephone to you
There'll be nobody home.
The first day after her first evening there, I came in early to visit her. As I came off the elevator, I heard her voice clearly telling the staff to call her son-in-law and he'd explain everything. I felt immediately as though I'd betrayed her trust -- my heart fell. I walked right up, and she recognized me immediately. I explained to her that she lived here now; it wasn't easy, but she accepted that she wobbled too dangerously for us to be able to keep her safe at home. I should say she outwardly accepted it; she saw no use to arguing, and swallowed a little bit of her pride. I was certain that I could see it in her eyes. She was stoic about it, however, and we had a good visit. I came back a few hours later with Wifey, and repeated the procedure. There were some things that irked me about her new home. The nurses kept trying to put her into adult diapers -- but she wasn't incontinent. They weren't prepared for that, and never did get over it. They had to assist her in pottying for safety concerns, and sometimes they had trouble communicating with her: several of the nurse aids had very thick accents. It was a little difficult to understand them, and they sometimes had difficulty understanding us. I could imagine the level of additional complication involved in dealing with and understanding a dementia patient. I felt a little more helpless and little more as though I'd let both Mumsie and Wifey down by not finding a way for us to keep Mumsie at home. There was an issue with Mumsie's dentures, too. Caring for the dentures was a simple procedure. Simply get the denture container and put water in it along with a denture tablet. Mumsie would rinse her dentures and then put them in -- ta da! Mumsie would then rinse her mouth with mouthwash and be ready to wash her face for bed. In the morning, the reverse: rinse the mouth, rinse the dentures, pop 'em into the mouth. The nurse aids repeatedly didn't do that. They cut Mumsie out of the "ready for bed" routine and treated her like their other residents; they'd take her dentures and take a toothbrush to them under the water, then drop 'em -- dry -- into the container. The dentures very quickly developed a plaque-like buildup on the inside gumline, becoming very uncomfortable for Mumsie. I raised hell repeatedly. They occasionally got it right, vis-a-vis the denture tablet, but never brought Mumsie back into her routine -- the routine that she and I had successfully developed and used for years, which was automatic and fun for her. Toward the end, in the last couple of months, Mumsie stopped wearing her dentures altogether and refused to put them back in. The nurse aids also taught Mumsie a new trick: "wait" until they were ready to potty her. They insisted when questioned by me that I simply didn't understand that there was a learned behavior that occurs with dementia patients, and that it was quite likely a false urge. They kept forgetting that I'd cared for Mumsie for four and half years...or perhaps they hoped that I'd forget. In one particular showdown, I told them to get someone to help her at that moment, that she really had to go and that I knew all about the false positives -- the repetition and the learned behaviors. I gave them a simple test that worked for Mumsie 90% of the time, and that explained that another 5-7% of the time Mumsie would simply want to go to the restroom to pass gas in private -- that didn't count, in their books, as "pottying" but for Mumsie, who couldn't always tell if it was only going to be gas, it was very important. The nurse on duty, exasperated with my insistence and intending to prove me wrong, had her aids take Mumsie into the toilet. Massive amount of toileting ensued. The nurse angrily avoided me for a week or two after that, disappearing whenever I showed up.1 The aids and the other patients, on the other hand, all appeared drawn to me; Mumsie loved to show off her son in law almost as much as spend time with her daughter, Wifey, when Wifey's work hours permitted her to come. Eventually, however, as Mumsie deteriorated, the constant changing of nurse aids resulted in their successfully deeming her "incontinent" and the adult diaper became permanent, much to Mumsie's chagrin. She still tried, occasionally, to get Wifey and I to take her to the bathroom, but the insurance rules and regs -- particularly since we weren't licensed caretakers -- prevented that. Mumsie's wobbling had also deteriorated to the point where she needed a wheelchair most of the time...it wasn't long before she had to switch to a geri-chair, to help mitigate the discomfort of the wheelchair on her spinal stenosis. Once she was in the geri-chair, "toileting" became a thing of the past. That was difficult for all of us, but we made due.
I've got wild staring eyes.
And I've got a strong urge to fly.
But I got nowhere to fly to.
Ooooh, Babe when I pick up the phone "Surprise, surprise, surprise..." (from Gomer Pyle show) There's still nobody home.
Toward the end, Mumsie had not only lost most of her ability to communicate, she was also becoming less and less responsive to outside stimuli. She would talk to herself, and sometimes recognize and talk to me, telling me how her mother or our dog Missy -- both dead -- were visiting her; sometimes, she talked of how her husband was standing by her bedside. More often than not now, however, there's nobody home.
I've got a pair of Gohills boots and I got fading roots.
Wifey burst into tears more than once. "I'm the last one," she'd cry. How do you console someone at such times? I did what I could. Ice Cream by Sarah McLachlan
is better than ice cream.
Better than anything else that I've tried
is better than ice cream
Mumsie loved candy and ice cream; she was well known for her confectionary affection her entire life. While she was still mobile in her wheelchair, we'd take her out to a homemade ice cream shop at a local dairy near the nursing home -- she loved those road trips. Other times, when the whether wasn't permitting, we'd try to bring in a special ice cream; other times, we'd try out several of the small ice cream cups that the nursing home had for residents. The consistency and variety left a lot to be desired, but we were able to punctuate several visits with ice cream cups from whatever the source, and Mumsie appreciated that. The nursing staff did, too -- particularly when Mumsie went on her "not eating this food" binges. Mumsie had, in past times, often told me that she'd always been a finicky eater. "My parents owned a restaurant, and I ate whatever I wanted," she'd say, but invariably describe how very little that was -- a corner of toast dipped into the yolk of a runny egg, as she remembered it. And she was fiercely proud of that fact.
everyone here knows how to fight
Mumsie's family was Greek -- traditional in some ways, and very competitive. Wifey recalls watching them playing cards together, "fighting" in her words, but not in theirs:
They'd be sitting around the kitchen table, the condiments and napkins up on the counter behind Rigas's chair because, of course, you had to have space for the dummy. Mama would sit across from Rigas. Stevie would sit in my seat, back to the fridge. Johnny would be in his seat against the wall. I never really understood bridge, even though I'd watch them numerous times. You had to have a partner, and usually Mom would get either Stevie or Rigas. She couldn't stand having Johnny the life master as a partner because his quiet scrutiny of the board would drive her nuts -- "JUST PLAY THE DAMN CARD!" she'd holler at him as he silently plotted his next move. The hollering. It's not yelling or shouting. IT'S TALKING IN A LOUD VOICE THAT SOUNDS LIKE YELLING. Most Mediterranean-based families have a version of it; whether it's the legendary "hot blooded-ness" of the Italian/Greek/Near East peoples or something just simply genetic, I have no idea. It was also th3e cards, too. I remember Mama telling me that Greeks take card-playing and gambling very seriously; therefore, the air of Damocles with the sword dangling over his head hung over every bridge game. And woe was the sibling who bid wrong or played a lousy card.
Somewhere deep in their souls, I believe that the ice cream sessions we had with Mumsie helped to call up and surround them with these memories, allowing both Wifey and her mother to reexperience the shared memories of their lives and add an unseen depth to the quality of the visits we had together.
is better than chocolate
better than anything else that I've tried
oh love is better than chocolate.
Everyone here knows how to cry
The ice cream sessions occasionally brought up references to Mumsie's husband, who had sometimes told her "If only you'd look at me with the same look in your eyes that you get when you're eating chocolate." Those conversations invariably led to memories of how Mumsie's husband got along with her mother -- a very good relationship, full of mutual love and respect, almost like he had become a surrogate son. I like to think that my relationship with Mumsie achieved that. She often went out of her way, both when she lived with us at home and after she'd been moved into the nursing home, to look me right in the eyes and thank me for everything I'd done for her. She didn't want to forget to do that, so she took care to ensure that she thanked me often. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
Wifey and Mumsie had essentially lived their entire lives together. Once Wifey's father passed, they adopted an almost regular existence punctuated by the odd wild hair to travel or change it up a little. Overall, however, they had a solid routine that they rarely deviated much from. That familiarity added quite a bit of resonance to the feeling of absence that assailed Wifey after Mumsie passed away; just the move to the nursing home hadn't been enough of a change to rock the boat, as it was nearby and we could visit any time. To an extent, Mumsie too had a slightly changed but ultimately similar routine; over the previous few years, she'd gotten used to seeing me and depending upon me, so although my daily visits to the nursing home -- sometimes twice a day -- weren't ~quite~ the same, they matched closely enough to her memory of my helping her get up in the morning and picking her up from her day care that she remembered me as "more recent" than Wifey, more often than not. Wifey's job kept her busy during the hours that Mumsie was the most alert; her visits didn't always remain with Mumsie, who was tired by the time Wifey was able to get there. That hurt Wifey; sometimes, when we'd visit together, Mumsie would ask me how Wifey was. When I'd point Wifey out to her, she'd happily exclaim "Oh, Hi!!!!!"...and then turn back to me and try to finish asking me how her daughter was. Wifey took that particular event in stride, however. It was evident that Mumsie had recognized her, and that the determination to get back to the question she was asking me was simply evident of the disconnect between Mumsie's recognition and delight at seeing her daughter to her question to me about how her daughter was doing. Dementia does strange things, and getting to know the dementia patient as well as the various characteristics of the disconnects it brings with it are important to keeping one's sanity intact. Hold On by Sarah McLachlan
Hold on to yourself
for this is gonna hurt like hell.
When we got the call from the nursing home that Mumsie was actively dying and that they didn't expect her to last a week, Wifey looked scared. She didn't want to lose her mother, but didn't want her mother to suffer. In spite of the conflict, she found herself wanting to let her mother know that it was ok to go while simultaneously willing her to hold on.
you know that you're my best friend.
You know that I'd do anything for you
and my love
let nothing come between us
my love for you is strong and true.
Both mother and daughter were each other's best friend and confidant for so many years. They didn't share all of their hopes and fears, issues and insecurities -- they had roles to maintain, both as adults and in the traditional family sense -- but they definitely held each other close and grew closer due to their long time together.
Am I in heaven here or
At the crossroads I am standing. So now you're sleeping peaceful
I lie awake and pray
that you'll be strong tomorrow
and will see another day
and we will praise it
and love the light that brings a smile
across your face. Oh god
if you're out there won't you hear me.
I know we're never talked before
The last week that we visited, the unseen fear and unspoken words of their insecurities regarding the coming loss were almost tangible. When Mumsie was first settling into the nursing home, I'd picked a couple of dust-ups with Wifey -- I'd essentially pushed her to go visit Mumsie sometimes without me, so that they would have a few opportunities for mother-daughter moments where things left unsaid and unspoken could be brought up without me being a distraction. It was, I think, perhaps one of the most important things I'd ever done for either one of them, and I'd done it for myself as well -- I know what it's like to live with regret, and to see someone consumed by it. I didn't want to watch that happen with Wifey. I knew Mumsie wouldn't want it, either, and something about what she'd been saying recently and how she'd been acting led me to believe that she was holding on as hard as she could to give Wifey this chance, but that she wasn't sure she'd be able to hold on much longer. I pushed, Wifey went, they talked, and the air cleared. I don't know if I could have found the strength that Mumsie had to hold on against the disease as long as she did, or the strength that Wifey found to face the issues that needed to be aired between her and her mom. Perhaps it's something that can happen with anyone, and it just needs to be motivated by the love of a parent and a child for one another -- that's one of the most powerful ties that anyone can ever form. On the flip side of that, however, is the selfish observation that once they had held that conversation, Mumsie didn't have to cling as tightly to her tenuous-at-best purchase on her remaining sanity. Speak To Me / Breathe by Pink Floyd
Breathe, breathe in the air.
Don't be afraid to care.
Leave but don't leave me.
Look around and choose your own ground.
This song echoes a piece that Wifey wrote before we were married entitled Please Breathe. I thought of it while we sat vigil with Mumsie as she lay dying on that final, fateful day. I so very much wanted Mumsie to waken from her near-comatose state and acknowledge our presence, even if just to whisper goodbye to Wifey once more. It wasn't happening. Wifey stroked her mom's hair after tending to her nails and soothing lotion on Mumsie's feet and hands. We'd begun to run out of things to say to keep our presence from stagnating; the warmth of the room was putting us to sleep.
I asked Wifey if she wanted to stay longer, or take a break and return later. She opted for the break -- Mumsie appeared to be stable. I drew in close to Mumsie's face, trying to focus on her good eye, and told her we were going to head out for a little bit, and maybe get some shut-eye at home. I told her we'd be back early in the morning. I told her not to go anywhere until we got back, but silently amended it to mean "unless you need to and can't stay." We left.
I didn't tell Wifey what I thought I saw when I looked into Mumsie's one good eye. I wasn't certain if it was just my own mind, my own heart, playing tricks on me. At the moment I hovered at the point where her eye was focused, when I told her we were going to leave for a little while and return in a few hours, I thought I saw a brief glimmer of mixed emotion and thoughts skitter across the surface -- recognition, both of me and of "being seen" by me; fear, at the thought of being left alone; acceptance, at the realization that we'd be back; doubt, at the thought that she'd be able to hold on long enough for us to return; understanding, knowing that her daughter may not be able to take being here "in the moment" of her passing. I felt terrible, and hoped that I was wrong, or that at least Mumsie would understand that I was doing this for Wifey...even so, I couldn't help thinking that it was a horrible thing to do if there was even the slightest chance that Mumsie was there, and could understand us and see through her one good eye -- the window to her soul. A few scant hours later, Mumsie passed away and we were on our way back to the nursing home to say goodbye and to arrange for the local funeral home to come pick up her body. Angel by Sarah McLachlan
Spend all your time waiting
for that second chance
for a break that would make it okay
there's always one reason
to feel not good enough
and it's hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction
oh beautiful release
memory seeps from my veins
let me be empty
and weightless and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight
When I awoke the next morning, I'd been dreaming to the sound of this song. In the dream, I saw Mumsie just as I'd seen her in the hospital bed the evening before -- "memory seeps from my veins / let me be empty / and weightless and maybe / I'll find some peace tonight" -- and then an image of Mumsie whole once again, rising up out of the spent mortal coil that had contained her in life...
in the arms of an angel
fly away from here
from this dark cold hotel room
and the endlessness that you fear
you are pulled from the wreckage
of your silent reverie
you're in the arms of the angel
may you find some comfort there
I couldn't help thinking that this was Mumsie's message to me, that she was "pulled from the wreckage" of her "silent reverie" and was now finding some well-earned and much needed comfort.
I didn't tell Wifey about it -- not initially, at least. I couldn't, because for me it served to let me know that Mumsie understood why I didn't try to stay there for her with Wifey while she passed; I didn't want to have to explain what I wasn't sure I'd seen in Mumsie's eye as we'd left. I believe that Mumsie understood, approving and accepting our departure as the right thing to do, and that this was her way of letting me know she was ok. It helped me to be strong for Wifey over the next few days. Here With Me by Dido
I didn't hear you leave
I wonder how am I still here
And I don't wanna move a thing
It might change my memory
Oh I am what I am, I'll do what I want, but
I can't hide
The words of this song reminded me of the way Wifey went through the motions, not quite allowing herself grief and not quite accepting of the loss of her mother over the next few days as we finalized the wake and prepared for the funeral.
I don't wanna call my friends
They might wake me from this dream
And I can't leave this bed
Risk forgetting all that's been
Oh I am what I am, I'll do what I want, but
I can't hide
I made the initial calls to family and friends; I knew it would be difficult for Wifey, and I needed to give her some space while getting things going. She had already had to handle the arrangements with the funeral parlor and the nursing home; she now had to go pick out the clothes for Mumsie to wear. We both followed through with the necessities in a wooden, somewhat sullen daze. Silent Lucidity by Queensryche
Hush now, don't you cry
Wipe away the teardrop from your eye
You're lying safe in bed
It was all a bad dream
Spinning in your head
Your mind tricked you to feel the pain
Of someone close to you leaving the game of life
So here it is, another chance
Wide awake you face the day
Your dream is over... or has it just begun?
Mumsie had confided in me, more than once, that she was afraid that she had kept Wifey from living her own life; that was one of the major ironic conflicts within her. She didn't want to be alone, but didn't want her daughter to lose out on living a full and complete life. She couldn't understand why Wifey hadn't married before now and why she wasn't going to have any children -- Mumsie wanted Wifey to have someone to watch over her when she got old, particularly because women live longer than men. (She didn't mean to dismiss me so easily, but she was being practical.) Wifey screamed the moment the phone ring at the house when the nursing home called to tell us Mumsie had passed, even before I'd answered it.
There's a place I like to hide
A doorway that I run through in the night
Relax child, you were there
But only didn't realize it and you were scared
The strange echoes that reverberate through the house and within our minds reflect the sense that those who have departed the physical form of life may yet linger among us, keeping an eye on us from their special otherworldly location. Wifey had experienced something like this before, although she now speaks of it as if it was probably just the overactive imagination of a child:
When my uncle -- Mom's oldest brother who lived with us -- died, I moved into his tiny bedroom off the upstairs bathroom. I don't know why I did. My bedroom was twice as large and perfectly fine. Maybe I was afraid he'd be forgotten, and the only way I could honor him was to sleep in his room. A couple of months later, as I fell asleep, I suddenly bolted with the feeling that something was watching me. The curtains next to the bed made shimmering shadows from the streetlight. Toward the door, for a split second, stood a shadow in my uncle's shape. I jerked. The shadow disappeared. I never fell asleep that night.
We also had several strange happenings occur shortly after our oldest dog, Missy the Malamute, passed away -- now nearly two years ago.2
Commanding in another world
Suddenly you hear and see
This magic new dimension I- will be watching over you
I- am gonna help you see it through
I- will protect you in the night
I- am smiling next to you, in Silent Lucidity
Now, as we find ourselves -- and the dogs -- reacting to Mumsie-like sounds and bumps in the night, we are comforted more than spooked by the thought that our home may yet offer comfort to the spirit of those who have gone before, and give them an opportunity to keep an eye on us from their special vantage point. Someone to Watch Over Me (written by Gershwin, performed by Sinatra)
Tell me where's the shepherd for this lost lamb
There's a somebody I'm longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone who'll watch over me
We found special significance to this song after Missy had passed away; now, with the thought that Missy had been watching over both us and Mumsie, and now had Mumsie safely with her, the song provides me with a sense of quiet security that both Missy and Mumsie may yet be keeping an eye on us all. I Will Remember You by Sarah McLachlan
I will remember you
Will you remember me?
Don't let your life pass you by
Weep not for the memories
Wifey wondered aloud once if, since she was having difficulty calling her father's face to mind, he would still remember her when she dies. Sometimes, the thought of being forgotten can hurt us even more deeply than the thought of death.
I'm so tired but I can't sleep
Standin' on the edge of something much too deep
It's funny how we feel so much but we cannot say a word
We are screaming inside, but we can't be heard
Wifey lost her mom twice -- first to the wasting of Alzheimer's Disease, and then to the physical passing from this realm. Since the funeral, however, she's found something interesting and -- at times -- a little unsettling: she hears her mother's voice in her head as she goes through her day.
I catch myself doing something the exact way she did it. I cut sausages into disks and sauté them for spaghetti sauce. I pile the dirty dishes on the counter and wash them in order. I'll suddenly get a burst of energy and do x number of chores at once, not stopping until I silently hear her voice: What the heck are you doing? Will you PLEASE RELAX AND STOP WORRYING? You're NOT me! That's MY job!
[...snip...] Her voice follows me from walking the dogs to work to talking with people and back. The funny thing is that now I can confide in her, something I was never able to do while she was bodily here. Until the Alzheimer's softened her spirit, she was an indomitable force you never, ever questioned. I spent most of my childhood cowering before her. Mama, what should I do? I don't know what to do. You know what to do. No I don't! Why aren't you here? I am here. Why didn't you ask me when you were younger? Because I was afraid of you. I'm sorry, baby. I never realized that until after you were an adult. I love you. I kept forgetting you were just a kid.
Wifey found it odd, at first, but now finds the voice of her mother within her to be a comfort. She's not sure if it's simply her own mind providing the comfort, but in the long run -- does that matter?
You're never going to forget me. I'm going to be here until the day you join me. Yes, Mama, I know. [You may think that] My job may be done where you are, but it's not. I know. If it bothers you, I can go away. I can play bridge with your uncles or spend time with Daddy or chat with my girlfriends. I've already lost you twice, Mama. I don't want to lose you again.
Elsewhere by Sarah McLachlan
this is heaven
to no one else but me
and I'll defend it as long as
I can be
left here to linger
understand. Oh the quiet child
awaits the day
when she can break free
the mold that clings like desperation. Mother
can't you see I've got to
live my life the way I feel is
right for me
might not be right for you but it's
right for me.. I believe...
With Mumsie tucked up inside her heart, her soul and mind, Wifey can now move onward, growing and changing and becoming without fear of leaving her mother behind or forgotten. The next three songs, taken collectively instead of individually, pertain to Mumsie's new existence in my mind. Tentatively at first, she casts about to become familiar with her new surroundings... Is There Anybody Out There? by Pink Floyd As she's getting her bearings, she comes home here to check in on us, grounding herself in a sense before spreading her wings... Learning to Fly by Pink Floyd ...and learning to fly. Fly Me To The Moon by Bobby Darin (and sometimes the Frank Sinatra version) Once she's got a feel for it, she's off -- the song "Fly Me To The Moon" was a favorite of her husband's and reminiscent of the songs and music that Mumsie enjoyed all her life; I like to think that whenever she's not popping back here for a visit that she's off visiting her husband, her parents, her friends and -- of course -- playing bridge with her brothers, who have been long saving a place for her at their table. In the meantime, Wifey and I listen to the songs and music that lead to the stir of echoes within the walls of this house and the hallowed, haunting chambers of imagery within our minds.
And no-one sings me lullabies And no-one makes me close my eyes And so I throw the windows wide And call to you across the sky...3
- Note: although I make her out to be less than nice, she was definitely competent and caring. We didn't see eye to eye on some things, and she didn't have the staff -- and had some insane restrictions from the insurance companies and state laws -- that prevented them from being able to provide some aspects of caretaking that could have dramatically improved some aspects of Mumsie's life and may have been beneficial to other patients as well; unfortunately, to do those steps effectively, the nursing home would require more staffing -- something that very few homes have.
It always came down to the costs of care, whether before Mumsie went into the nursing home or after. Healthcare and nursing costs can be extremely prohibitive -- to the point of being unhealthy, or even deadly.
It's a major issue that needs to be addressed in this nation.
- The Haunting of Woo House, 6 June 2006.
- Excerpt from Echoes by Pink Floyd.