When I stand in front of the classroom, I always tell my new crop of students two things: I talk way too fast—and I know it—and I get the hiccups often. The same would probably apply here if I were to read this aloud, and today, I give you one more warning—I might not make it through this.
Funny thing is, mom got the hiccups too, so I guess I got them from her. I also got my love of reading and writing from Mom. She was a writer, whether or not she ever published anything. When my sisters and I were discussing what to do about saying words and all of that, I thought—I don’t want to do it. I can’t do it. And then, a week ago, in the wee hours of the morning during my usual writing time, a thought popped into my mind. Like always, a compulsion overtook me. I HAD to write. So I did. As I said before, I’m not sure I’d get through this if I had to say it aloud, but Mom would have loved to see me tackle my fear head-on.
Almost three years ago, our parents moved to The Carlyle House in Kettering. They were coming from Farmington, Michigan, and on that particular day, it would just be the three of us: Dad, Mom, and me. I packed sandwiches, drinks, napkins, and wipes, hoped the cold rain wouldn’t derail our journey, and prayed that no one had to use the restroom. Much to my relief, we made the trip in just over three hours with no stops, and as I approached The Carlyle House, I called Paula, the marketing manager.
“We’re almost there,” I said.
“I’ll be waiting for you in the lobby,” she replied.
Under a steel gray sky—classic Ohio weather—I pulled up to the door and told my parents to stay put. Dad understood better than Mom, and I got out of the car, rounded the van, and opened their respective doors. I helped Dad out and then shifted to get Mom, who gazed at me with wide eyes. No fear. No reservation. Only trust in those beautiful brown eyes. That moment on the sidewalk seemed to slow to a crawl as I glanced at Dad, then Mom, then at Paula and the concierge, both of whom stood inside the lobby.
Let me say this: so many things could have happened that afternoon. People warn you not to move dementia patients to new surroundings. They might get agitated or scared or angry. A move could hasten a decline. A patient’s ability to adjust to a new environment can take a long time or cause undue stress and anxiety. But we needed to move Mom for her physical health, so there we were on the cusp of a new journey.
That day—that memory of the first moment inside the lobby—still echoes in my mind, and I think it always will. As we approached the desk, Paula stepped forward with an enormous smile on her face. She reached for Mom’s hands and said in her friendly, booming voice, “Hi, Mary. It’s so good to meet you.”
And Mom? She didn’t cringe. She didn’t shrink. She didn’t reach back for me or Dad or turn away. It was almost as if a heavy weight had been lifted, and she smiled back. Not a timid upturning of the lips but a 1000-watt grin that stretched from ear to ear, the likes of which we hadn’t seen for years, if ever.
I cried that day, and I cry every time I relive that memory because I knew then that Mom would be okay. In fact, she’d be better than okay. We’d found the care—the love—she deserved. And she received that every single day during her almost three years here in Kettering. From every staff member. From her husband who crossed the atrium to visit her on most days. From the family members of other residents who said hello and how are you. From her daughters who visited when able, which, for me, was easy to do.
When we moved Mom, my sisters and I understood what having dementia meant, at least in academic and scientific terms. We knew what to look for and what behaviors we might encounter. We knew about the textbook progression of the disease and that Mom would eventually lose language, mobility, and other functions. We knew we’d need to give time and attention to her in ways that might challenge us mentally and physically. We felt a little like the tide was turning, us taking on the role of parent to our parent.
What I think none of us truly understood is how much we still had to learn. Not from the disease, but from Mom. Even without speaking, she taught us so much. About beauty in the quiet moment. About the power of a long pause in conversation. About listening. About speaking without words, the importance of sincere touch, and the ability to gain what you might need when you allow yourself to be vulnerable. About accepting the person in front of you as they are. About reveling in the moment and letting laughter guide you. About placing trust on those you don’t know. About putting the past behind you, forgiving someone, and moving forward together.
We don’t require anything large or grandiose or expensive to find peace and quiet and comfort and joy in our lives. We just require love. And how lucky are all of we to have been loved by and given the privilege to love such a wonderful woman?
My most fervent hope is that Mom understood how much love surrounded her, especially in her last days. She deserved that and so much more, and now, may she rest in peace.
I miss you, Mom, and I always will.
Mary Ann Serafini Consolino
February 8, 1945 to October 18, 2022