Gratitude: How a devastating loss made sense of everything
I dreaded the day that my mother wouldn't know me. I had accepted that she had Alzheimer's disease and it was inevitable. It wasn't that bad when it came. Later, I even got used to introducing my wife and myself to her each visit to Winterhaven Assisted Living. When she died in May, most of my mourning was done. I realized my loss every time I had visited her.
You may think that Thanksgiving is a strange time to reflect on such a loss, but I beg to differ. Thanksgiving began with gratitude, despite having come to center around Pilgrims, football, parades, and gathering around food. Slowly watching my mother disappear taught me a bit about gratitude— especially about what we take for granted.
In "Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell pines: "you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone." I think I knew my mother fairly well. Her humor, her interest in others and what was going on with their lives, and enjoying life were hallmarks of her character— and to some extent— would stay with her to the end.
It was the second layer of who she was that would go first: her talents of cooking, accepting, listening, and in-depth conversation. Not to mention her appetite for Life.
She was a great resource for cooking and would get calls whenever I was in a quandary about a technique or how to recreate a favorite childhood dish. She was good at accepting people, and that quality made her a safe and trusted confidant— which all led to good conversation. She was always interested in what was going on around her.
If you've never experienced someone with Alzheimer's, let me make it simple for you: their personality disintegrates. Who they are/were slowly disappears, and you're left with a helpless child. Mom got where she couldn't remember her past or what she ate ten minutes ago (or if she had eaten.)
Visits got difficult because there was nothing to talk about. Life outside the room she was in had no meaning. What I loved about her— the interactions, discussions, catching up with each other— were gone for the most part. I would join her at meal time because that became the only time she was remotely present.
Fortunately, her humor, interest in immediate surroundings, and her appetite (for food, at least) kept her from the deep depression many Alzheimer's patients have. They know something is wrong or missing, just not what. They can even get violent over this condition; she didn't.
Have I bummed you out yet? Are you sorry for me? Don't be. I am grateful— very grateful. I had my mom in my life. Sure, I lost her— but I had her to lose. In Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis character bemoans the impending loss of his wife to cancer. Joy Gresham replies, "We can't have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That's the deal."
In this time of economic insecurity, war, a failing ecology, and whatever other negative conditions mankind is suffering, we can be blinded to the every day love of people around us. We take for granted the blessings that inundated us, such as employment, food, health, electricity, etc. We forget that gratitude is an action that we should practice over and over throughout our lives— or we may miss the best parts.
So, when you enjoy the meal, the parades, the football, etc. on Thanksgiving Day, make sure you enjoy the people in your life as well, living or not. And let those who you can know you are grateful for them.
I miss you, Mom— but I'm glad you were a part of my life.
Mary C. Trainum
Author Carroll Trainum is grateful to be a Charlottesville native, a husband, an employee of BreadWorks, and a contributor to the Hook.