By BILL CLARKE | Published February 23, 2021
To love a person is to learn the song in their heart, and sing it to them when they have forgotten.” Arne Garborg, author
I wasn’t expecting a package from my sisters in Ohio. When I opened it, I was truly surprised at what I found. Wrapped in red ribbons were hundreds of letters I had written to our mother from the time we relocated to Atlanta in 1979 until she died from the effects of dementia some 11 years later.
Let me take you back to 1979. I was offered a fantastic job opportunity in Atlanta. I normally would have jumped at the offer but I was facing a dilemma. A year earlier, my mother had suffered a stroke that took away a great deal of her brain function and triggered a slow descent into dementia. She would be completely present at times and on other occasions, she would experience memory lapses, little ones initially and larger ones as the disease progressed.
I was her legal guardian and she relied on me to handle her affairs. The job offer created a personal quandary…should I stay in Ohio and continue to help my sisters care for our mother or should I accept the job offer and relocate to Atlanta?
I talked it over with my sisters and they assured me that they could care for mother and encouraged me to pursue the opportunity. I prayed and God led me into a decision to accept the job. However, I decided to delay telling mother since we did not know how much she really understood or what impact it might have on her condition. Sometimes she would have a blank stare that made it difficult to know if she understood what we were saying.
A week before we were to depart on our new adventure, we took our five children; ages 9 to 19 to visit her and tell her the news. I held her hand and told her about the job offer and the decision to relocate to Atlanta. Then she reached up and put her arms around my neck and began to cry. We then knew that she understood more than we had imagined. We all started crying.
I searched for something to say…something that would relieve the tension. Then it struck me…I took both her hands, looked into her eyes and promised that I would write a letter to her every week if she would try hard to accept the decision to relocate my family. She wiped her tears and nodded her consent.
We did relocate and I fulfilled my promise to write to her every week.
My mother’s dementia continued to decline and she passed away peacefully in January 1990. When my sisters went through her personal belongings, they found a shoebox full of my letters in her “hope chest” where she saved special possessions. The fact that she kept the letters in her hope chest told me how important they were.
My sisters told me that she would wait patiently by the front door for the mail to arrive. When the weekly letter arrived, she would read it, put it on her lap and read it repeatedly until she received the following week’s letter.
I loved my mother and I know she loved me. I tried very hard to let her know how important she was to our family. Although I was not there physically to help care for her, I let my letters speak for the love we had for her.
I started to read some of the letters and they brought back a flood of memories. I’m sure all of us have a deep and abiding love for our mothers. I now feel confident that my letters meant a great deal to her.
In a future issue of Senior Side we will explore dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in more detail. The rapid increase in dementia-related diseases suggests that all seniors should have a better understanding about the causes and preventative measures we can take to avoid or lessen the impact.
In the meantime, if you or a loved one in your family is experiencing signs of dementia, I offer this prayer from 1 Corinthians to lift your spirits and give you strength and perseverance to face the challenge, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
The Senior Side column is written by William L. Clarke, former business executive, adjunct professor and senior adult. He serves as the Associate Director, Professional Development for the Office of Formation and Discipleship. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.