In honor of my late mother Marilyn Greenspan
by Bonnie Wurst
On Valentine’s Day February 14th 2006, I held my mother’s hand as she took her very last breath in this world. My sister and other family members stood around her bed and were witness to the passing of her soul.
I cannot speak for them, as each person in that room experienced something very personal and on many different levels – but for myself, to say it was profound or an honor, heart wrenching or even an awakening, will never fully convey the essence of the experience which transpired in that very moment.
My mother, born Marilyn Greenspan on July 17th 1940, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1996 when she was only 56 years old. She was 65 years old when she died from complications of the disease.
‘Too young’ were the words often repeated by those expressing their condolences, but they rang true. It’s always ‘too young’ for a disease that rots your brain, your memories – and your human pride. Yet within the grey clouds there came an awakening.
Going through a box of old pictures I came across some Valentine’s Day cards from my parents, always signed by my mother. They were dated from my very first year up until I was 10 years old. I received one every year thereafter, but did not hold on to them except for a few I found from around the time she was diagnosed.
What struck me was her handwriting. The earlier cards, all colorful with sparkles, hearts and cupids were signed in a neat and rounded script, with X’s and O’s always at the bottom. But the latter clearly showed signs of her cognitive decline. Her handwriting became scribbly, there were spelling mistakes and on the last one I received she misspelled my name. But the X’s and O’s were there.
At that moment I felt Cupid’s Arrow pierce my heart.
I had a turbulent relationship with my mother, she had ghosts in her closet and they were banging at the door. As her condition declined, I could only speculate about her childhood experiences when in semi-lucid moments she repeatedly spoke about abuse she received from her grandmother. I was able to confirm some of what she spoke of, but most of the secrets went to the grave with her. Back then nobody was encouraged to speak out about abuse, it didn’t have a name, nobody talked about it and nobody asked questions.
Her childhood secrets were a catalyst to the many emotional challenges she would face as an adult. They subsequently led to some painful dysfunction and seemingly spiteful actions – and yet she loved us, to death.
I didn’t ‘like’ my mother for many years, especially as a teenager. I rebelled in often dangerous ways, it was how I survived. But I came to realize I never stopped loving her, bitter-sweet as it was. It was her battle with Alzheimer’s that brought about my awakening and ability to understand and forgive.
My mother’s early onset of the disease also came with a rapid decline. Just a few years after being diagnosed she couldn’t be cared for anymore at home and had to be placed in long term care. Within one year she forgot my name and within just a couple of years, she was not even capable of acknowledging my presence and stared blankly into space. But to this day I am not convinced she ever forgot who I was.
As my mother slowly slipped away into her own world, stripped of any personality, I began to see the essence of the woman and the mother. My guard came down. The woman in me was recognizing the woman in her. The child in Marilyn was silenced and I began to feel love for a woman and a mother who I had not been able to hug without feeling anger and aversion for many, many years. She did what she could with the tools she had. Her actions in this lifetime were often misguided and hurtful to herself and her family, but it was never her heart’s intent.
The defining moment for me was when I visited her just about a year before she died. She was in her wheelchair, in her own world and I found myself compelled to lean over and hug her. I was able to hold her and feel love for the woman who carried me into this world. It swept over me like a tidal wave – and I cried deeply. When I looked up, she had tears in her eyes.
As her breathing slowed down to a whisper, I asked her caregiver to please remove the oxygen mask she had on. With my sister beside me, I felt my mother’s hand in mine finally let go after years of being frozen in a tight grip. With the silencing of the machine she left this realm in peace. And I began my own healing journey.
Although the Valentine’s Day cards stopped coming a long time ago, thank you Mom for doing the best that you could. Now with your own wings and cache of arrows and as bitter-sweet as it may be, I can let you pierce my heart with love each and every Valentine’s Day.
Bonnie Wurst is a freelance journalist, a weekly columnist for the Montreal Times, a novelist, ghost writer (not the scary kind) and humorist. Her book “Damaged Goods Re-Stitched” can be found on Amazon.com. Bonnie is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org