If you’re old enough to have a parent who is a senior, you may remember the seminal book Tuesdays with Morrie. This memoir, recounting the wise and intimate conversations that the author Mitch Albom had with his former college professor Morrie Schwartz in the last months of his life tugged at the heartstrings of popular culture with surprising vigor. Oprah Winfrey even made a movie out of it. It is, to my mind, one of the few love letters to the wisdom of aging. For the record, it was published in 1997. Twenty-two years ago. Oh dear. How can 1997 be 22 years ago?
The charm of Tuesdays with Morrie, was Morrie’s clear ideas about the meaning of life. Devote yourself to loving others, the community around you, and create something that gives you purpose. People revered this old man and his profound insights from a life well lived.
Morrie did not have Alzheimer’s disease. Even being the positive megaphone for showing up and connecting with people in spite of their cognitive decline that I am, I admit it’s a little tougher to garner the wisdom of old age from a non-verbal person.
And yet, reporting from the frontlines, it’s not impossible to learn some kick-ass life lessons even without fancy words. Or any words.
That’s a blueberry scone in the picture. I get them at a bakery near my mother before I see her on Sunday mornings. She pushes food away a lot now, but not these blueberry scones. Last weekend she ate two. I bring them to make her happy, but also because when people stop talking, I have found it’s important to find ways to connect. Going old school, I make sure we break bread together. Sometimes I steal the blueberries out her pieces and make a funny face. She opens her eyes wide and smiles. Except when she pulls it away from me and doesn’t smile at all.
In my mind, there’s a very short three act play that happens before we get to the scones now.
Act I: I show up with my white bakery bag.
“Hello! Hi, Mom!” She sees me, searches my face, my hair, my eyes, for something she recognizes.
“It’s me Dani, your daughter.” This usually helps.
Act II: The moment of recognition, most of the time anyway. It’s a blood-of-my-blood kind of moment where she seems to understand that I am related to her. That’s when she usually reaches her hand out, pulls my hair, and/or maybe sings a note or two. I untangle her fingers from my hair and kiss her cheek.
Backstory: My mother always wanted to be a singer but is completely tone deaf, this meant she needed a few drinks to really let it rip. It was kind of entertaining, her belting out “Maybe This Time,” a little sauced and completely off-key. Although there was a lot of eye-rolling by me in my teens. Interestingly, now that she is free of rational thought and judgement, she sings all the time! And she doesn’t need the wine. Rarely lyrics, but long vowel sounds. “Ohhhhh……” and a melody she is hearing somewhere.
Act III: As I pull the scones out of the bag, her mood darkens. She narrows her hazel eyes and stares at me. All hints of a smile vanished. This is the moment when I’m always certain that she remembers I’m her daughter. The evil daughter who moved her to Los Angeles. Then it becomes a kind of staring contest until I do something silly, like sing “You and Me Against the World,” a disco version so I can dance in my chair.
End of play.
After this playlet, I often leave with the bad taste in my mouth of being the bad daughter. And also wishing I had sent my mother a comedian for Sunday brunch who always makes her laugh instead of what I do which is send in the clouds. Sondheim reference intended.
Last Sunday I called my one friend – we all need at least one – whose mother passed away from Alzheimer’s. She’s not an 80-somethng man on his deathbed, but she always has wisdom I don’t.
“You have no idea what your mother is thinking. We have no concept of what is going on in their minds. You are reading her look and interpreting it in some reflexive way that says you have fallen short. You are casting yourself as the not enough daughter. Stop it.”
For the rest of my Sundays with Muriel I won’t be getting life lessons doled out to me in the traditional way of say, telling me them. But I am certain that showing up for this experience, not running away, sitting through the myriad of feelings of loss and connection and more loss and maybe some shared laughter and the dark clouds that always seem to descend, will teach me lessons as valuable as those learned by Mr. Albom.
Maybe even more so because she’s not just a professor I loved, she’s my mother.