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To See The Sea Again, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:10am

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day here in the US. It’s also just about a year since we moved my mother to an assisted living facility. There she fell, broke her hip, had surgery, and moved to skilled nursing in the throes of post-operative delirium.

Tomorrow my three siblings and I are taking my mom to the ocean for a picnic. Of course, given Northern California’s marine fog, it might be too cold to do much more than get out of the car, feel the salt wind, squint at the sky, and get back in. That’s OK. We can eat lunch in one of the small coastal towns.

My mom has had a house by the sea almost all her life. She didn’t swim much by the time she moved to Santa Barbara, but she always walked on the beach, or came to watch her grandchildren cavort. I thought she’d like an outing with her children, although she doesn’t recognize us, and I thought some part of her might like to see the sea again.

But really, this is for me. I’d like to see the sea again too. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t have organized this if I didn’t think Mom would benefit. But it’s still for me and I don’t want to mislead you about whatever virtue I may or may not possess.

In retrospect, as I have said, I experienced the period between May and December of 2106 as trauma. Maybe I’m just a big baby, but the fight for Mom’s physical and financial health emptied me out. I have always relied on either physical strength or logical thinking to get me through emergencies. Neither those of those worked in this case. I needed either real domain knowledge, i.e., “Can someone who breaks their hip at 83 ever walk again, or no?” or great instincts. Not my forte, instincts.

They say traumatic stress comes from facing something that’s more than you can handle, and having to face it for a period of time that you can’t control. Again, what I went through was nothing compared to real traumatic events. But for a while I was unable to feel much joy. Prone to gratuitous fight or flight responses. Sometimes fight and flight both.

In further retrospect, I couldn’t bear the idea that I had failed Mom. That I’d made bad decisions and caused her hip break, that somehow I hadn’t come to her rescue. She is so vulnerable, I couldn’t bear to be the agent of her distress.

But now she is often happy. Everything may change in an instant, but this trip to the ocean is I suppose a ceremony of not having screwed up so badly as it seemed. And a celebration of my mother’s surprising strength and the persistence of Nancy.

She is known as the one with the beautiful hair. She is close to and affectionate with the staff, always talking, reading aloud, opining. Her sense of humor pops up all the time – she remarked the other day, “Oh that elevator smell!” as we went down to the garden.

Though she doesn’t know who I am, she knows she knows me. She knows she loves me, and she calls me “Darling” most days.

When you care for someone vulnerable, which for me means moving past logic to instinct, like in the first days with a newborn, on good days what you do for them you do for yourself. And the other way around.

The other day when I was leaving her I asked her if she was all right, and she said, “No, no, are YOU all right? Are they all right?” Although I didn’t know exactly who “they” were, I’m guessing she meant my siblings.

Happy Mother’s Day. It’s not happy for everyone, I know. So take care of yourself, and make sure someone else is doing the same.

48 Responses

  1. Your account of your recent interactions with your mother is touching. Having been there myself, I encourage you to continue your attitude of accepting ambiguity regarding what she “knows” and doesn’t know. Perhaps the most important thing I learned on my similar journey with my mother is that the words and their meanings may be coming and going for her, but the emotions (which you clearly are able to identify) are real and meaningful in their own ways. Love does, it seems, find a way.

    1. @marsha calhoun, This put it so well, “the words and their meanings may be coming and going for her, but the emotions (which you clearly are able to identify) are real and meaningful in their own ways. Love does, it seems, find a way.”

  2. I hope your visit to the sea is restorative for you and your mother. My mother is 93 and pretty much housebound. There is only so much we, the children, can do beyond keeping her safe and letting her know we care.

    1. @Jane, Yes, that’s what you need to do for her. This trip may be a total disaster, and might not even happen if it’s one of those days that Mom simply cannot be roused, but, if I can ask, please cross your fingers for us.

  3. Beautiful post, dear Lisa. I hope my children remember my love of the sea if (when?) I get to that point. Your mother sounds wonderful, and quite a bit like you.

  4. Hugs and crossed fingers. Have been thinking quite a bit lately about my mom, and Paul’s, and remembering the familiar territory you describe so well. So much harder to merely be in the moment than the gurus suggest, but if you can do it, the occasional astonishing satisfactions. . . . xoxoxo

  5. a lovely post, thank you. I live in Santa Barbara and walked the beach this morning. It was indeed chilly but it warmed up quickly with the glorious sunshine. How well do you know Santa Barbara? Hendry’s Beach has easy access though the parking lot fills quickly. Another option with easy access is Beachside Bar Cafe at Goleta Beach Park (one of Julia Child’s favorites). Enjoy your outing and God Bless your mom — indeed, all mothers.

    1. @Linda, Mom’s house is above Hendry’s Beach, in what they call “Hope Ranch Annex.” We spent many a day walking there, and had lunch at the restaurant more than once. It is so much warmer there than up here in Northern California where Mom lives now!

  6. Pleased to read this post from by the sea in the South of England in our holiday house.

    I’m thankful you have siblings to help you in this journey with your mother. Is your stepdad still on the scene?

    Can you let us know where you post on political matters? I’d like to read there too.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you.

  7. Hello Lisa, With a lot of such patients, what they can express and what they know deep inside are two entirely different things. Also, as you have noticed, that patients can respond to love and attention, even if not always in the right words. Memories exist in many areas and paths in the brain, and I’m sure that your project will trigger some of them.

    Have a great outing, and Happy Mothers’ Day to both of you.

    1. @Parnassus, That is so true. Mom doesn’t know my name at all. Often she doesn’t remember that she has children. But she almost always knows that she knows me and loves me. The emotional and physical knowledge persists in a way that the verbal does not. Thank you.

  8. A few weeks ago when I went to see my mother, she never opened her eyes or acknowledged my presence. I think she knew it was me but I am not sure. I played Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin music for an hour before I slipped out. I could tell she was listening.

  9. I hope tomorrow’s trip to the beach is highly successful.

    I was struck by these words in your post: They say traumatic stress comes from facing something that’s more than you can handle, and having to face it for a period of time that you can’t control.” I’ve been through this several times (unfortunately) and know exactly what you are talking about. I’m just glad that time was passed for you and things are looking better.

    1. @Susan D., I’m so sorry you have been through this too. I hope yours has also passed.

      The beach trip was successful but in none of the ways I’d hoped for:).

  10. Dear Lisa,
    Having been through a very similar situation I am comforted by your words. Not all of us have the gift of written expression and so I am grateful that you do. My mother passed away in October so this will be my first Mother’s Day without her. Navigating this particular loss is sometimes a confusing emotional journey.
    I so relate to your trauma. My energy, will, and heart were hijacked by Mom’s health situation. I am recovering but I would give anything to have her back. Soak up the love that will be with you all on Sunday.

    1. @Lee Ann, I am very glad you are recovering, and I hope the loss finds its right place in your heart over time. It is confusing, and unpredictable, and erratic. Thank you in turn for replying here, it comforts me.

  11. What a beautiful post. Just want to say that traumatic stress is as you define it – and your situation sounds totally traumatizing to me, not that my perspective matters. Thank you for sharing this because it demystifies (slightly) a very scary potential life-passage. I’m so glad to hear that your mother is happy. I wish you a sunny day on the beach.

    1. @K-Line, Your perspective does matter. It comforts me. And the day was sunny but so windy we couldn’t stay for more than five minutes. Luckily, had a Plan B!

  12. Lived my entire life in a landlocked state in the middle of the country. Literally the middle…as far from any coastline as possible. My maternal grandmother was the first to take me to the ocean—when I was 10. She loved walking the beach while I swam during the day and in the evening after dinner. She believed the ocean air was medicinal and her walks in the sand therapeutic. I tend to agree and wish only that I could have had more opportunities to be oceanside than I have managed to have. Happy Mother’s Day to you and your mother!

    1. @Mary, I can only imagine what it must be like to live in the absolute middle. I’m glad you’ve seen the sea, and yet I imagine also that some space, some phenomenon in the middle must have its own role in our health.

  13. The sea is so healing and the place that relaxes me the most. I’m so happy that you’re all doing this, and I do believe that your mom will have a sense of where she is. Fingers crossed here that it happens, for both of you. xo

  14. Oh, Lisa, what a lovely post! You are taking such wonderful care of your mother, especially in recognizing “the persistence of Nancy,” and responding to her so heartfully.

    Please give my love to her, and to your dear siblings – and enjoy your day by the sea, with all its memories …

    I have them too, and I will be thinking of all of you. Especially of Nancy.

  15. “When you care for someone vulnerable, which for me means moving past logic to instinct, like in the first days with a newborn, on good days what you do for them you do for yourself. And the other way around.”

    Yes, exactly. xo

    1. @Drew, I was particularly taken by that passage as well, looping as it does gen to gen to gen. Lisa can we coax you back toward the memoir you’ve mentioned/abandoned? You are so suited to this kind of circular-memory narrative. With great appreciation…xo

  16. The sea is where I go to relax. I hope the weather is warm and mild for your picnic and that you and your Mother enjoy the outing.
    Your gentle writing reminds me how important it is to make the most of the time that we have to spend with those we love and cherish.
    Happy Mothers Day to you Lisa.

  17. I read this as we were getting ready to go to coast, thinking it might be less windy than tomorrow. (Well, HMB was almost unbearable; San Gregorio was fine.) I hope my children will remember to take me to the sea if I cannot take myself. But what you wrote was beautiful not just because I myself have to get to the sea at times, but because of how you describe your mother and how you relate to her these days. I am so glad you are in a moment of peace about it.

  18. Reading this late. My head is wonky so I can’t express what I wish to express. I understand what you have experienced, and think this trip is a wonderful idea. I also think it is a success by its existence and its intentions. Thinking of you. Sending love and support.

  19. Lisa, for 12 years I cared for my mother with Alzheimer’s. It’s impossible for anyone who has never done something like that to grok the depths and costs of emotions and exhaustion that come with that kind of commitment. Yes, I found ways to “cope” and relax and be in the moment and all those things we are told we must do, and they did help. But there were dark times, too, which I don’t need to describe for you.

    She died a year and a half ago, and I miss her every day. Yet, her death made the rest of my life — a life that’s so much easier and happier now — possible. That’s a truth that is hard to say. It’s also true that no one would be happier about my new-found freedoms than my beloved mother.

  20. You’ve described my emotions,guilts,hope,helpnessless,the feelings I didn’t know I’m feeling indeed. But,I am
    You did all the best for your mother-including today’s picnic
    The sea heals-body and soul
    Have a wonderful Mother’s Day

  21. Dear Lisa,
    Thank you for sharing this. As the primary care giver to my soon to be 85 year old mother with mild dementia, I have felt all the emotions mentioned by you and in the comments. We struggle to do the best we can because there is no comprehensive manual for this situation. We want to do the right thing out of love, responsibility and duty. At this time, my mother understands and appreciates what has been done for her. She enjoys life and is physically sound. But the time will come when that will no longer be the case and I worry about that future.
    KL Gaylin

  22. My mother suffered from dementia/alzheimer’s for over 20years. She was well cared for but it is hard to watch somebody who was such fun and so vivacious deteriorate over the years. Wishing you all the best.

  23. I got to the last paragraph of this dry eyed, but not to the end. I have been avoiding Mother’s Day posts but I wanted to know how you’re doing. This is all so hard. We do the best we can, and when we can’t be our best selves we have to trust that others can. It’s the emotional version of the division of labor. Take care,

    1. @Rebecca, I am so glad you made this comment. It’s crazy that all these years later, I’m consumed with remorse and regret that I could not be my “best self” in the run up to my Mom’s death, mired in the unfolding of divorce trauma as I was. My brothers were constants, but I do believe Mom was “calling” for me in her own way. My struggle is to compose a new narrative where I’m not the evil child. So thank you for a good start on reframing that narrative.

  24. Oh Lisa, what a beautiful post, I am moved to tears. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and yes, instincts. I just turned 50 and whilst my mother is a healthy 70 year old, I know she has (and me too!) slowed down noticeably each year and one day my brothers and I will have to intervene and decide how best to care for her.
    You’re doing the best you possibly can and I wish your mother and your family and you all the very best. I hope you managed to have a good day out.

  25. Very clear. And even if the trip was for you, that doesn’t matter. Going to the beach is a good thing to do. But you nailed it: the stress comes from prolonged, uncontrolled exposure to a situation that you cannot control. And it is nightmarish. Because you know exactly what it takes to end it and that isn’t a walk in the park either. What you do, you do with love. And that always manages to find a way through. Forza!

  26. In a place you never thought you’d be, experiencing things you could never have predicted, life has changed in such a way that seem surreal. The reality of it can be very traumatic, and just as you are doing, you must put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. I wish you peace. xo

  27. I want to say something about trauma, because I think it’s important, and I hope it is not out of line. Please delete this comment if it’s inappropriate for this post.

    Trauma happens to everyone, eventually. When the world shifts beyond our understanding, we experience trauma. In most cases, people deal with that trauma over time, able to get a grasp on their functioning and move through it. Their lives may be changed, but they will find stability again.

    That trauma is just as real and legitimate as the trauma that doesn’t move and process and results in long term issues, such as PTSD. We don’t know exactly why some people exposed to trauma develop PTSD and some don’t, though risk factors have been identified.

    I have PTSD. My husband has PTSD. My best friend and his best friend have PTSD, all from different sources and types of trauma. And I am telling you what they would tell you as well – the trauma of what you dealt with last year is real. You were able to process it and move through it in a healthy way, and that’s a wonderful thing. Please don’t dismiss your trauma because it wasn’t something that you were able to process or because the source of it doesn’t feel as severe as others. The better we as society become at accepting the realities of trauma, including that “normal” events can still be traumatic and that not all trauma has to lead to PTSD to be legitimate, the better all of us will be.

    I hope you had a lovely Mother’s Day, both as a mother and as a daughter.

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