A Life Well-Lived.

Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 97.

Over a period of many years, Alzheimer’s finally had its way with her.  And, even though, for several years, she had no idea who I was, when we went to visit…..she would always lean in, beckoning me to come closer and whisper, “I would love for you to meet my daughter, I think the two of you would really hit it off.”

Most days, she would be exactly right.

Whenever the book title, LEAN IN, gets mentioned or someone uses “lean in” as a new way to express getting involved or being engaged, I picture my mother…..leaning in, being conspiratorial, including me in her latest secret.  Another time, when my husband and I visited her in the nursing home, she revealed….“You know I don’t really live here…..I actually work here.”  We asked her to tell us more.  “They hired me to play the piano!” she said, wide-eyed and triumphant.  “They needed someone to play the piano for all these old people!”  

Yes, indeed.

The last day of her life, which was just before Christmas in 2009, that’s exactly what she did.  From memory, or whatever you call the repository that periodically burns through the haze Alzheimer’s creates, my mother played the piano.  Church hymns and Christmas Carols, for hours, without songbooks or sheet music. Then, she walked back to her room, on her own, and went to sleep. For good.

Don’t be sad.  She lived life to the fullest.  She loved a lot.  She always had a spark.  Her personality never really went away.  She just got sweeter. She lived the only way one can with Alzheimer’s, utterly in the present moment.  Ultimately, she worried about nothing.  She gravitated to the essence of people, no longer letting the resumes or accomplishment “notches” of others, cloud her thinking or impressions.  In many ways, she was completely free, finally.

Before Alzheimer’s, or BA, as I call it, she was a home-bound teacher.  That meant she went into the homes of children, too ill to go to school. She spent hours in her car, driving from house to house, lugging all the necessary books for each student. Often not knowing what kind of circumstances she would be walking into, she seemed to thrive on the kind of resilience it required.  She was the life line and the laugh line to many, many children and their families. These “kids” stayed in touch over decades  to share their lives, into high school, and college, and then marriages and children.  She was one of THOSE teachers.

She reveled in being a “church lady”.  Some of my best days in the kitchen were making cherry flip cake and coffee with her before the doorbell rang signaling the start of Bible study. We loved the clean up, carefully washing the “good china” and talking about who said what to whom. We were girlfriends.

She would sleep in my bed on nights I went out on dates.  It never occurred to me that she might be checking my breath or the clock when I got in.  I would race into my pj’s so I could slide under the covers and share all the details of my evening with her.

And, she would regale us with the same stories of being the recipient of the American Legion medal in Jr. High, then valedictorian in high school before going to Rice University. Her eyes lit up each time she told us of her academic achievements.  Sometimes that repetitive loop-de-loop synonymous with Alzheimer’s caused her to tell us 20 or 30 times, in row, about each thing, in minute detail, as if it were breaking news.

She and my father were married, for better or worse, with plenty of both…..for nearly 50 years.  Her life and their marriage was rich with everything, everything, everything.  My father, whose name was Fred, would morph into a three syllable word, when she became upset with him…..”FAH-RAY-YUD!”

I think of her often.  But, this week, after attending a memorial service where another life was celebrated, I thought of her more deeply.  I thought about how much the quality of a life, the essentials of loving, and caring, and true compassion, and of the courageous choice acts of kindness really are.  In the young man whose life was cut way too short and in my mother, whose life was very long…..those same qualities  made an everlasting and indelible impression on all the lives they touched.  No matter the length, and no matter the circumstances……..that’s undeniably, a life well-lived.

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