I’ve been asked, many times, exactly what it is I do when I visit my mother each month. From my house in Colorado to her assisted living apartment in Kansas, it’s a round-trip drive of 1,300 miles. English poet George Herbert wrote, “Every mile is two in winter,” and between November and March, I brace myself for bad roads.
In Colorado I’m busy with friends and family, writing and editing, organizations and activities, and taking hikes with my husband and our dog, as well as being open to all kinds of plans and adventures. In Kansas, within limits, Mom and I might eat the foods I bring, take walks outside in nice weather (I walk and she rides in the wheelchair), watch television and “play beauty shop.” She will ask questions, sometimes the same ones again and again, including asking if I’m someone she knows, which is the nature of dementia. I also know that we’ll sit quietly together in the living room while she naps. In other words, I spend a lot of time waiting.
Before you nod off or retch in your shoes at this Dickens-type dreary scenario, let me say this: I’ve also found that while I wait, I learn. A lot. Seriously. And I always leave a little smarter than I arrived.
For instance, because I have time to read magazines and newspapers and flip through the channels on my mother’s television, I learn information I never would have had time for on a regular, busy day. Some of what I learn is a little strange. Like the article about the wife who donated one of her kidneys to save her husband’s life…and now she wants it back. It seems he was mighty grateful at first, but now he’s having an affair, and she’d like to give the kidney to someone who deserves it. Anyone want to debate that issue?
There are also happy lessons, reminders of “the kindness of strangers.” There is always some quiet, kind, unexpected gesture from one of the caregivers that reminds me that the little things make a big difference. And then there’s the man who visits the residents and brings his little dog Penny to waddle in for pats and smiles. Or the friends who’ve sent me amazing links that finally I have time to watch: this Tchaikovsky Flashwaltz at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem is the most stunning example of “the kindness of strangers” I’ve ever seen. Please, do yourself a favor and invest two minutes…you’ll be astounded: http://safeshare.tv/w/OXHZUxUXXN
I also glean all kinds of health information from the magazines stacked in the mail room. Seriously, I now know the most important times to drink water to be healthy: 2 glasses of water after waking up helps activate internal organs ~ 1 glass of water 30 minutes before a meal helps digestion ~ 1 glass of water before taking a bath/shower regulates blood pressure ~ 1 glass of water before going to bed helps you avoid a stroke or heart attack. Yea! for H2O!!!
Mostly, though, each month I’m reminded of basic truths: 1) Our mothers were right ~ a smile does make all the difference; 2) When we pause to visit with someone who is sitting alone or has nowhere to go, it’s a very good thing for both of us; 3) Slowing down, taking time to wait and think, to watch and listen and learn, is actually a gift.
February is the shortest month of the year. No matter where we live, no matter what our age or health or economic status, for all of us there are only twenty-eight days this month. If you have an opportunity to sit with an elderly relative or friend who knows who you are–or doesn’t even know who she is–who is healing from surgery or just hoping for a visitor, I encourage you to welcome the opportunity. You may have to sit quietly for a while and wait, but there’s a good chance you will learn something important.