November 30, 2021

Embracing the Moments

Guest Opinion
By Kevin Breen | Nov. 6, 2021

Mother. Few single words in the English language pack a more potent punch. For most of my 61 years, the word mother for me has been a relatively simple one of love and acceptance, with a few interesting quirks thrown in here and there. In the past few years, though, my relationship to my now 90-year-old mother has taken on a new level of complexity.

Here is what this diminutive woman of just over 100 pounds has had to face since late summer of 2019: Her husband of 68 years passed away in front of her eyes under the care of hospice in their assisted living facility in Grand Rapids. My mother relied on her husband for many things. While the loss of a spouse is a common enough event in the lives of many older women, it’s still difficult. A few months later, her eldest daughter passed away from Pict’s disease, an early onset form of frontal-lobe dementia at the age of 67.

Then the pandemic hit. As my mother was showing signs of dementia herself, this entire episode, including the lack of social interaction, confused her. We communicated by phone and occasional visits, either speaking through a window or outside, sitting 6 feet apart, wearing masks — even in the winter months, while she was wrapped in a blanket to keep warm.

During this time, she seemed to experience a deterioration of her mental faculties in ways I am not qualified to describe. Eventually, we moved her up to French Manor, an assisted living facility in Traverse City. Our first visit to see her there was one for the record books. She cried for a full hour, demanding to know why her family had abandoned her. Fortunately, this anguish soon passed, and both she and the world outside showed signs of improvement.

I will try and give you a sense of this woman. My mother didn’t work outside the home, and she did not drive until well into her 40s. She never felt comfortable behind the wheel, but once she got her driver’s license, she managed to get to a few friends’ homes and the grocery store by driving on residential streets and cutting through parking lots.

One day she came home in the back of a police car. When she entered the house crying, I asked, “Accident?” She nodded. Someone in the parking lot of the North Kent Mall had hit her hard enough to total her car.

My mother loved Bruce Springsteen and the Detroit Pistons. She once went to the Grand Canyon for vacation, peered into that colorful abyss, and announced that she wasn’t all that impressed.

There were times in the past two years when I thought I might never have a good conversation with her again. But there have been times we sat together in her room and managed it. She still stuns me now and again with her articulate use of language. Once, while looking over the stuffed animals she had won in Bingo games, she said, “I like this one because he has a sardonic expression.” I looked at the stuffed animal, looked up the word sardonic on my phone, and sure enough, that furry face did wear a somewhat smug, sarcastic expression.

Recently, she told me she wanted to visit the main branch of the Traverse City Library; she had heard it was nice. She always loved libraries and books and often fell in love with the works of certain writers. (Besides getting her driver’s license in her 40s, she also attended college to study literature and earned her associate degree from Grand Rapids Junior College, as it was called at the time. I believe it was one of her proudest moments.)

So I folded up her walker, placed it in the back of my car, and we headed over to the library. When she entered, she was in awe: two massive sun-lit floors, stacked with thousands of books. She struck up a conversation with another patron and remarked, “I’m from out of town, and this is my first time here. It is amazing.”

To my mother, the Grand Canyon was not nearly as impressive as the Traverse City Library.

We wandered around, spoke with the librarians, and looked for books. She was interested in reading Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” again, but when we found the book, we discovered it weighed nearly 10 pounds. It was the same with another old favorite, “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy.

So instead, we took the elevator up and down, gazed out the windows over Boardman Lake, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We eventually found and checked out a mystery book — large print but not unwieldy — for her. I knew she was unlikely to finish it. Mostly, she simply seems to like the feeling of having a book in her hands again.

As we get older, we often return, again and again, to the things we have most loved in the world. For my mother, it is reading and literature. And music. Maybe I’ll step into her room one day to find her head bobbing to Bruce Springsteen.

For now, it’s nice to have my mother back, even if the moments are fleeting. I know there will be tough times again, but for now, I’m grateful for the moments worth celebrating.

That evening, as she was sitting in her room having her nighttime glass of chardonnay, she called me on the phone and thanked me for the outing. She said, “ If you ever want to go again, I would be happy to do so.”

Me too, Mom. Me too.

Kevin Breen is a Traverse City-based writer and avid birder living in Traverse City. 

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