Laughter at the Zoo

For one day she was there.  Present.   Connected.  Alive with joy.  For one magical day I had my mom.  Her smile.  Her joy on that day was a rare gift I never expected.

Years before my childhood days with mom were filled with her sporadic anger that erupted from no where.  In a moment she could flare and send a backhand flying across the table and me across the floor.  Her childhood of abuse led to an inability for her to love or be loved.  Anger was what she knew and fell back to too easily.  My young adult life brought more conflicts and pleas for her to get help.  Finally an explosion one Thanksgiving day led to a decision to distance myself for a bit. That bit turned from months to years.  Years.  I never could have imagined. Several attempts to reconnect resulted in verbal lashings and phone calls that ended abruptly.

Then two years ago my stepfather passed away and a request came that mom wanted me at the funeral.  Many phone calls, prayers and tears later, I found myself by her side at his funeral.  A daughter wanting to comfort her mother.  A daughter wanting to be comforted by her mother.  A tiny glowing ember of a relationship renewal.  I invited her to come visit me.  She said yes.  Gulp.

She arrived at my home with suitcase in hand.   She was clearly much older now with signs of dementia and paranoia wrapped around her like shawls.  She jabbed and poked with her words making snide remarks about one thing or another.  She bragged about how she had beat the crap out of me for coming home late one night and how I never did that again.  Woven between those moments were glimpses of tenderness and regret.  My heart felt so sad to see the woman she had become and the loss of so much from the choices she made and makes.

The magical one day was during that visit.  I took her to the zoo.  A real zoo with animals she had only ever seen on TV or in books.  Being born and raised in northern MI, the zoo was not part of the culture there.  I never went to the zoo as a child.  No one did.  It was something people who lived in cities did.  Not country folk like us.  So I took my mom to the zoo.  Her face, the whole day, was lit up in wonder.  We slowly ambled from section to section and I watched her while she watched the animals.  Monkeys, zebras, elephants, orangutans, giraffes…  Her eyes sparkled and she laughed.  My mother laughed.  She laughed.  True laughter.  I can’t remember ever hearing her laugh with abandon before.  We went to the dolphin show.  Complete amazement washed over her as she saw them leap and splash and perform just for her.  Before her was something she could never have imagined was possible.    Oh how I loved watching her.  Not one angry word come from her that whole trip to the zoo.  The trip to the zoo was a gift for mom but it ended up being a gift for me even more.  For that one day, I had my mom fully present. Fully connected.  Happy.

Her joy that day is something I hold on to as I continue to work to have a relationship with her today.  She has returned home and to her hateful ways.   The dementia and paranoia increasing rapidly.  Alzheimer’s beginning it’s journey in her mind.  Sometimes I call and she yells at me and hangs up.  Sometimes I call and she wants to chat.   Most calls are like the one from this week where the tools of distraction that work so well with toddlers and dogs work well with mom.   She’ll remember mid conversation that she is mad and begin to spout away.

“So are you planting any flowers this year, Mom?”

“Oh, yes, yellow ones.  I got some really pretty ones hanging from the garage.  I got artificial ones this year so I won’t have to worry about watering them.”  And off she goes telling me about the flowers.  Then she remembers she’s mad and again the hateful words spew forth.

“What’s new at church, Mom?   Have you been to any concerts?”

“Oh yes, I love my church.  We went to a great concert at the high school last week. ”  Bounce.  There goes the ball to chase again.  She tells me all about the concert and who she saw there and what songs they played and then she remembers she’s angry.

This is life with my mom now.  It’s hard to love someone so prickly.  The memory of her joy filled face at the zoo for just that one anger free day I realize was a gift.  A wonderful gift!  I grab it and hold it as I feel her slipping mentally away more and more leaving feeling more and more helpless.   Such are the blessings in life that are often wrapped in the most unexpected packaging.

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