Just Breathe

When I was nearly 4, I found myself alone in the kitchen. So, I climbed up onto the counter and stood up, hoping I could reach the cookies on the upper shelf. I didn’t understand that by pulling on a cupboard door that opened outward, I would send myself flying backwards and crash land... into the arms of my mother, who had appeared out of nowhere.

She was magic, my mother. And she has saved me more than once.

My mother’s hands have always made me feel safe. They are graceful and smooth, with long, tapered fingers manicured in red when I was young, and softening to lighter shades of pink over time. But it is their strength and ability not their beauty that secured me, whether I felt them clasped around mine or just watched them work.

She could paint and draw, adding hearts and vines to a child’s bedroom wall or creating a picture suitable for framing. She could play the piano and the autoharp, arrange flowers or rearrange a room. She could entertain 2 or 200, could dress for the city or the sandbox. She could water ski and snow ski, play tennis or golf and then trade sneakers for strappy sandals to attend the opera, the symphony, or a charity ball.

She was Grace Kelly and Julie Andrews, Donna Reed and Catherine Deneuve. She still is.

In the ’50s, she sang on the radio. In the ’60s, she sang lullabies as those loving hands brushed the bangs from my forehead. In the ’70s, she came back from cancer to raise five children and a lot of money for the cure.

My mother taught me to stick up for my siblings and stand up for myself. She taught me to say less and feel more. She taught me to put problems in perspective by focusing on others, to reach out when I hurt the most, to heal by soothing others.

She taught me that school was important with a first-day-of-school dress, a last-day-of school party, a hug for good grades, and perfect attendance at performances and parent-teacher conferences. She taught me that I was important by brushing my hair, decorating my room, driving me to flute lessons, sending me to college, and calling "just to check in."

My mother phoned me a few months ago to recount the details of a recent trip. By the end of our conversation, she had told me the entire story twice. I thought little of it; I hail from a long line of storytellers so enamored of our own tales we have been known to reprise them. Until she called the next morning to tell the story again, as if it were news.

Days later, she called to tell me about her birthday party, which I had attended. She described the gift from a friend and revealed her surprise that the friend had remembered her birthday. The friend had also attended the party.

At first, such incidents were sporadic enough that we could get away with calling it forgetfulness. Yet the frequency has upgraded it to memory loss. More recently, my own catastrophic thinking has advanced it to Alzheimer’s disease. It may not be. It may never be. And yet these early indications that my mother is starting to slip away from me are fearsome. This is the first time I got that I could actually, will actually, lose my mother.

I know many people to whom this has happened. I understand that memory loss occurs among senior citizens every day, everywhere in the world. But bless all your hearts, you have to understand that my mother is different. She is mine.

And this can’t happen.

Not to my mother. Not to this gracious, eloquent, edgy, sophisticated critical thinker who can make everything special and right and beautiful and safe. This can’t happen to me.

Most of my friends never had a mother like mine. Most of my friends don’t have two parents celebrating 55 years of marriage, who as they approach 80 are still at the helm of the family. Most of my friends would not understand my fear, my grief, my loss.

Of course I realize I’m wrong about that. Intellectually.

I did find someone to talk with in my sister. I told her my fear of someday losing our mother. "The operative word is someday," she said. "And that day is not yet here. So if you can train yourself to live in the present, there is no reason for tears, no cause for sadness or grief, and certainly no time except to spend with our mom, loving her, appreciating her, enjoying her, learning from her.

"Besides, you might want to pay attention to those stories as she retells them, so you can learn to tell them to your children as well as she does."