Her eyes were blue and green and gray. The color changed based on the weather or her mood, or when she wore her favorite sweater. She was hopelessly nearsighted at a time when contacts and LASIK surgery didn’t exist, and would joke that her dating years were a blur since she would whip off her glasses whenever a cute young man entered a room. As she raised her children, she learned to keep her face neutral when confronted with a child who was having a meltdown or needed to be rushed to the emergency room. But the eyes always gave her away.
I was the youngest of her six children, a “happy surprise” in her mid-forties. She loved being a mom and would encourage us to have fun, emptying the linen closet for a rainy day blanket fort or giving up her good dishes when the sandbox pails were missing. I remember coming home from school one day to find her roller-skating around the dining room table, just to see if she still “had it”. But as I got older it was obvious that the thrill of parenting yet another teenager was long gone. She had less patience when my friends came to visit or when I needed a ride, and our clashes became more frequent.
Now that I’ve raised two teenagers of my own, I look back on those years and see my mother in a new light. She was in her early sixties when I was a teen, and had chronic neck and back pain. My father was retired but she was still a full time mom. So maybe her patience had run thin. It’s a miracle it hadn’t run out.
The mom I remember left us a long time ago, stolen away by dementia and old age. At 97, her physical self remains: immobile, incontinent, and plagued by the effects of years spent worshipping the sun. I visit her at her care facility, a well-worn place filled with people waiting for time to pass. She rests in her hospital bed or her wheelchair, usually lost in a fog. She sometimes seem to know who I am, but typically her gaze trails away blankly when I try to engage her in a tête-à-tête.
I sat with her the other day, like so many days before, and held her hand while she dozed on and off. At one point l bent down and looked into those blue eyes, now red-rimmed and watery. “Are you in there?” I asked softly, expecting the usual empty stare. But this time she looked directly into my eyes, and then slowly nodded her head yes. Yes, she is still there. I squeezed her hand and whispered, “I love you”. She squeezed my hand back and whispered, “I love you, too.” And then she slipped away again.