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  • Writer's pictureSusan Edsall


Gist of It All

My mom had dementia, and Dad committed their life savings to around-the-clock care so she could die where she lived. The trouble was, she wasn't dying. A few years previous, during what we were all certain was her last Christmas, my sister assured her that if she was ready to go, she should go, that we would manage. But my mother wasn't ready.

On one of my visits, Mom lay on the couch in the living room. It was hot and smelled like lotion and the sweat of sleep. She said she wanted to go home. Which would have been fine except she was home. This was where she has spent virtually every afternoon of her life devouring romance novels—Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, Sidney Sheldon—wrapped up in a world of action and desire and women who, somehow, prevailed.

I sat close to her, noticing her serviceable, rubber-soled shoes. Mom had traded in so much to grow so old. She used to own dozens of what she called “shack-up shoes”--heels in patent leather, brocade, two-toned suede, jewel-embossed canvas. Always heels. She used to wear tailored pants with an invisible zipper up the side. She used to drive.

I took her hand. Arthritis angled the tips of her fingers sideways, leaving only her thumb and index finger, which she used like a claw. The caregivers had fitted a small cushion of fleece into her palm so her nails wouldn't puncture her skin. Her skin was velvet, milky white, had the feel and smell of powder.

“Three weeks ago I had twin boys.” She held my gaze with her watery blue eyes. “They died.”

Dad had sternly instructed me not to talk to Mom about babies because she got obsessed with them, unable to sleep.

“Are you sure, Mom?”

“Certainly I'm sure.” She brought a shaky finger to her eye. “It was heartbreaking.”

I glanced up. Dad had settled himself in front of the news while Seyem, tonight's caregiver, had started dinner.

“Tell me about the babies, Mom.”

She picked at the edge of the crocheted afghan. “I wanted those children.” She closed her eyes and shook her head.

“I'm sorry, Mom.”

“Me, too.” She opened her eyes and seemed satisfied to move to another subject. “You know, I think I'm at the end of this part of my journey. Now I'm gathering things up and getting organized.”

I laugh. My mother was always organized, forever cleaning closets, weeding out her recipe box, taking clothes to Goodwill.

She clasped her hands together on her lap, every fragile bone and knotted joint pressing against her skin. “Mostly I'm trying to figure out what the gist of it all was.”

“The gist?”

When she stretched her legs, her striped socks poked out the bottom of the afghan. “You were always so good at understanding the meaning of things.” Something caught her eye and she pointed at the rod holding the nubby drapes hanging from brass rings in our living room. “Look! There they are. The next chapter is all new people. I don't know their names yet.”

I looked at the curtain rod. “Why don't you ask them?”

“Oh, I think I'll wait. They'll tell me when they're ready.”

Mom was shy. It was hard for her to make new friends. Fifteen years ago, Anita, a woman in her church, befriended Mom, picking her up to go out for lunch. Mom loved those afternoons. They hadn't been friends for more than six weeks before Anita got diagnosed with cancer and was dead within a month. Mom never made another new friend. She called once asking if I would make sure Pat Newby, the soloist at her church, sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” at her funeral.

I scooped butter mints out of the bowl on the tray and handed one to Mom.

She reached for it, the diamond my father gave her for their 25th anniversary sagging on her small finger. “Do you feel better about yourself?” she asked.

My heart banged into my throat. We had never talked about anyone feeling better about themselves. We talked about how to get wine stains out of cotton shirts, how early you can plant flowers without risking frost. “Yes, Mom. I do. I've been working hard on that.”

She sucked on the mint and smiled. “Mmm. Good.”

Reaching across, I straightened a straggly hair on her forehead, trying to make it curl. She always cared about her hair, fussing with a hand mirror to see the back of her head, where she tried to fix what she called “the holes in her head,” hair that curled in opposite directions, leaving a flat spot. She slept nearly twenty hours a day now, turning her curls to fuzz. “Do you feel better about yourself, Mom?”

“Well, I sure hope so. It's hard, though, isn't it? I got down and I couldn't get back up.”

The smell of fried onions signaled dinner. Soon Seyem would hustle her up to the table where she’d feed Mom with a child's spoon. Mom wouldn't want to eat, but Dad would insist. When the aches in her body drove her to say, “oh, oh,” Seyem would joke about a family named the Ohs who had arrived after being out for the day. I would have to leave the room so I didn't scream She just wants to go to bed. Can't she now, finally, have what she wants? Dad would want her to stay awake at least until eight. The next morning, the caregivers would know that Dad liked her up and dressed for breakfast. “What do you mean, Mom, that it's hard?”

She tried to find the words. “Well, I just got down, you know how it is, and I didn't have the power to get up.” I wanted to run my thumbs along the three crooked seams that cut across her forehead, frown marks that wouldn't polish away. “I read an article about it, it’s true for lots of women. They get down and they just can't get back up.” She settled her hands on her chest. “I'm in good company, I guess.” The resignation in her voice made it sound like small consolation.

“I wonder if they really can get up, Mom, but they just think they can't.”

Mom looked me in the eye. “I disagree with you.”

I leaned in. I loved her clear, unapologetic dissent. Mom rarely dared to disagree—the cost was too high. She bucked Dad once and voted for Bill Clinton. The economy got stronger, international relations improved. Mom took on a small smug expression during the evening news. Then came the Starr report, the cigar, Dad's I-told-you-so. “What do you disagree with?”

“Well, I couldn't lift myself up. It takes so much strength.” She smoothed the afghan. “And it was frightening.”

I wanted to listen to her talk all night. I wanted every single feeling she had ever swallowed whole, every thought she had ever silenced to cannon ball out of her, destroying my illusions about her grace and her satisfaction and her equanimity. I wanted her to scream bloody murder.

Seyem called in. “Okay Marcia! Time for dinner!”

Mom rolled her eyes. “I guess I have to be the hostess now.” She peered at me. “I don't want to go because I'm afraid you won't be here when I get back.”

“I'll be here, Mom. I think I'll join you for dinner.”

“That would be great.” She patted my knee. “My darling daughter.”

“My lovely mother.”

“Aren't we lucky?”

As I watched Seyem bundle her into her wheelchair, I wondered if, as difficult as Mom's life seemed to be right then, I had underestimated its difficulty all along. Maybe what was disturbing to us wasn't Mom's dementia, but that she was finally speaking her mind. Perhaps dementia hadn't made her life worse, but, in a way important to her, had made it better, loosening the censor that kept her silent all those years. Maybe Mom hung on because she felt liberated, and that felt good.

Maybe that was the gist of it all.


About Susan Edsall

Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >




“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”

E.M. Forster

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