An August Goodbye

Late August Indian summer teased, the ocean was especially warm, crystal clear and the tide particularly low. I don’t think it was a moon tide, but the water was out far, exposing the flats of the sands rarely shown, the ripples and the ridges alive in the light like a creature. Life by the ocean is defined by moon and her tides. All things are interconnected living on the edge, and we accept that we too are a part of this ebb and flow, as humans have been since the beginning of time.

I was in Minot for a few final summer days before I headed to Africa for three weeks. August’s is so bittersweet, with its perfect golden light, the shadows long, they are like a sundial of time passing. We bask in the sweet air as it kisses sun warmed skin. But like all the best things in life, grasping at it can destroy it. All we can do is revel in the gift and hold onto the memory in gratitude when the season passes.

Standing at the sink in the sun washed kitchen, I offhandedly mentioned it was perfect swimming weather, having already gone. My mother swims “once in a blue moon” as she’d say, perhaps twice a decade, so it was just an observation. But I walked into the upstairs hall to find her riffling through her closet looking for her ruffled one piece navy swimsuit.

Wary of her taking off on me, I changed quickly and we walked together, hand in hand. She pointed out flowers and birds, the same as every walk, her favorite majestic beech tree, robins, flowering bushes. I gained my need and love of nature from my parents, but from my mother the curiosity for knowledge and names. We walked Grasshopper Lane, every crack and pothole familiar to us, I grew up here, and my mother grew up walking this road with her mother.

Mom always used to say we should “go check to see if the beach was still there,” although this is not an entirely an idle joke in the Northeast. Minot is the infamous landfall of many nor’easters, and our neighborhood beach is beloved by dramatic weatherman from all the national channels.

Minot has been true north to our family for generations. We ran free, herds of cousins riding bicycles to the ocean tennis and exhausted home in time to pass out windows open golden light and salty breezes flowing in. Minot was where my mother was happiest, surrounded by family, nature and memories. The lighthouse, Minot’s Light, is one of the most deadly on the eastern seaboard, but it flashes a cadence of 1-4-3. We say this signifies “I love you.” This contradiction is apt for New Englanders, and our family as well.

My mother was a woman of language, she knew proper English, written and spoken, better than anyone I’ve ever met, and was brutally demanding in her expectations. She loved literature, the origin of words, or turn of phrase. Every summer when all we wanted to do was run wild, she assigned us homework, Math, English, French, and dreaded Latin, but as an adult I recognized her many gifts. In a culture careless with words, I miss her knowledge and passion.

As Indian summer flickered, Mom and I walked down the steps worn flat by decades of winter storms. I held her hand and as we crossed the shallows, the golden light on our backs. And I think in that moment I realized that this was probably goodbye, our last summer together in our most sacred of places. I had prepared for our goodbye for four years, had gone through the motion so many times my heart had broken into pieces by the constant grieving, but somehow as we walked across the sand I knew in that twilight she would not be back.

I held her hand tighter, and took her arm with my other, for her sake or mine I’m not sure, and the bitter sweetness overwhelmed me, like the salty water around us. She nervously stepped deeper into the water and dipped to her waist, laughing at the warmth and the sparkles of light, the pure joy of it all. Life was so often there just beyond her fingertips, but her debilitating anxiety and depression held her back. She filled us up with so much of life, brutally insistent in the demands she made of us, for us, but I often wonder if she missed her own.

I didn’t let go of her hand as I dunked under the welcoming waves, the warm salt water washed over me. I knew this this would be my last swim of the summer too. We stood, the waves lapping around our thighs for a long time, awkwardly out of step on the ripples of the sandy bottom but sharing the magic and the loss. The sunset lost its luster as we finally turned towards the west and slowly walked back up the width of the beach. She was laughing, high on the adventure, thrilled with beauty of the place she love enveloping her.

I left for Malawi 4 days later and my parents moved back to Boston for the winter.

When I returned to the US, my mother’s Alzheimer’s had overtaken her almost completely, and in November we moved her to a memory care unit as we could no longer keep her safe. She cannot read and she has lost most of her words, the greatest love in her life. And although I say “I love you” as much as I can, she often seems confused about which child I am, or even who I am.

The seasons have changed, and as strange as it still feels, in the last few months as her memory has failed completely I have grieved her, and released her, and in doing so have found a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the years I spent with her before the illness as friends, the awful years witnessing the illness and her daily loss of self, and the occasional humor, supporting and loving her. Receiving what she was able to give. It was not easy and I cried most days, felt broken and alone, but I survived which often felt impossible.

I think of her more these days than I ever did when she was well, a confusing irony. And I will miss her every day of my life. I know I will grieve her yet again when her body leaves us, as then I will be truly finally unmothered. Alzheimer’s is a beast which carves a person right out of their body and their life, piece by piece as they stand before you helpless and mourning. But I showed up, and there was also love. Because life is in the ebb and the flow. We know we cannot change this, but we can choose to experience it as fully as possible; all the hurt, all the horror, the joy, all the beauty, the bittersweet and the love of this precious fragile thing. And for all of that I can be nothing but deeply grateful.