On a day with the sky blue and high and the smell of hyacinths in the air, everything began to crumble. I picked up the phone to hear the crushing news. My Mom, Pat Baker, was experiencing her first signs of memory loss.
The family remained cautiously optimistic, refusing to jump to any conclusions. Fearing a possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis, we refrained from mentioning the “A” word altogether. Many patients lose so much function from the outset that they never reach the stage of conscious acceptance. Mom, as it happened, had complete awareness of every facility as it diminished.
I watched her cross the pulverizing line between hope and abject despair. Knowing that her mind would eventually fade, she saw no point in trying to retrieve words or shady remembrances. As her communication ground to a halt, she withdrew into a secluded shell, taking with her all reassurance and hope. At this point, her doctor treated her for depression.
Mom’s condition effectively paralyzed me. Having few words of consolation, I could only hope that my presence would provide a measure of comfort. I couldn’t fathom a spiritual purpose behind a disease that annihilated the very fabric of brain used to connect with God in prayer.
My spiritual questioning took on a life of its own, making the circumstance, itself, far more difficult to bear. I craved certainty that God controlled every crippling, gray web choking her brain. The fear of His absence, like a holy terror, became the substance of my dark night.
In long, impassioned prayers, I placed her next to Jesus where her unadorned presence before Him overcame every cherished ability cultivated over a lifetime. I pictured bountiful, extravagant tears cascading over her hands, erasing every sign of age. The image of her transformed hands became fixed in my mind’s eye and embedded in my dreams.
As it happened, Mom, as the wounded healer, became the sole person who healed my spiritual insufficiency.
A month later, I drove up the driveway to find Mom sitting on a wrought-iron settee next to her hummingbird garden. She wore a pale blue, shirt-waist dress with a wide-brimmed straw hat. Wispy curls next to her ears framed a perfect, heart-shaped face. With delicate features set on a flawless, dewy complexion, she still had the kind of beauty that required little deliberate attention.
Mesmerized by the scene in front of her, she hardly noticed as I sat beside her. Together, we watched an iridescent, ruby-throated hummingbird sip nectar from a row of midnight-blue salvias. Only a quarter-inch long, its pointed bill moved backward from flower to flower. In the sun, beaded wings glistened like sapphires.
Watching the bird hover as in a time warp, I reminded her that hummingbirds, with their wingspan in the shape of an infinity symbol, represent eternity in Jewish mystical thought. For years, Mom had focused on the marvel and wonder of birds—sharing her enthusiasm with anyone who would listen. Suddenly, with tears streaming down her face, she cried out, “Oh, Gail, I can’t even remember its name. I am trying to … tell me, please.”
I said, “It’s a hummingbird, my precious.” The back of my neck tightened as her pain penetrated me, “Mom, you need to listen carefully to what I’m about to say.” Her inquisitive eyes, deep pools of crystalline love, stared into mine. Words I had never formulated or conceived of began flowing from my lips. I said, “Mom, whatever you lose in memory or confusion, God will replace with spirit.”
Realizing what I had so glibly expressed, I repeated the words, so as not to forget them. Having little awareness that they contained truth, over the next year, we recanted them as a prayerful refrain until they became self-fulfilling. I cannot fathom the parameters of her appalling struggle with God or the mysterious alchemy by which He fashioned meaning out of her affliction. I do know that as she beat down the corridors of Heaven, she carried me along, a willing participant.
As Mom became comfortable with God’s presence in her life, she warmed to prayer as a way of working through her anxiety. We enjoyed relaxed, brutally honest conversations in which we never mentioned Jesus.
The idea of God’s providence assured her that He oversaw every demolished cell in her brain. When she forgot something, she said, “Well, God must not want me to remember.” I heard her greet people with, “You know I have Alzheimer’s, but I still have my spirit and I still have my soul.” Many turned away with a tear, prompting me to say, “Mom, you’re God’s gift to Alzheimer’s disease.” She had always rhapsodized about the artistry and elegance of nature, exhibiting a mystic sense of surprise at every flower, cloud, or sunset. Only now, she believed, for a fact, that the sun rose and set for her alone. Even in her diminished capacity, she expressed gratitude for every good thing in God’s creation. In noting her insatiable capacity for wonder, I determined to appreciate every familiar blessing as if for the very first time.
Her short-term memory loss had some humorous benefits. She often called to leave short, loving messages on our recorder. Forgetting that she had done so, she recorded a second, third, and fourth message—all within two-minute intervals. I allotted considerable time when recounting happy news in the family. As if in a surreal game, time and again, I recapped it for the express purpose of hearing her excited response.
Seldom do I witness another’s yielding due to my prayers. Through a spiritual pathway separate from her frontal cortex, Mom developed a conscious connection to God. Her radical acceptance reflected not so much blind resignation, but full-bodied resolve. It astonished me that as one always wanting to control, she could so easily relinquish it. One could say that Mom took charge of the precise way she wanted to leave this world.
Jews today and prophets of old access this timbre of religious devotion. How it differs in kind or degree from devout Christians I would never attempt a guess. I often think about Mom’s last prayer before her mind shut down. Without the complications of time, worry, control, or choice, she must have simply yielded over the last full measure of her heart’s desire. I find it useful in my own meditation to assume this posture.
One night during this period of numinous insight, I had the following dream: A fierce thunderstorm struck Mom’s neighborhood Friday afternoon. Arriving to survey the damage, I found nature holding its breath in curious stillness. The front yard looked refreshed and lush with a many-textured profusion of greenery. Walking to the back, I could see that it had taken the brunt of the damage.
I found Mom meditating in her usual spot, a half-demolished oak stump she called the “giving tree,” the name taken from Shel Silverstein’s book. She considered the land adjacent to the giving tree as sacred turf, bringing in truckloads of fertile, alluvial soil to undergird it. As a nature mystic, she believed that every created thing had a primal archaic soul that reflected the divine fingerprint.
When she rose to check the condition of an elm, her doleful eyes met mine. Her face etched with dark lines of grief, looked contorted. Suddenly, in a fit of bizarre rage, she grabbed fistfuls of dark soil and began vigorously rubbing them over her extremities. In between sobs, she said, “I need their power, Gail. This damn storm messed with my marrow, my inner core. These trees were immortal. Now they’re just like me.”
When she calmed down, we sat together on a low bench, listening to the rustle of squirrels underfoot. Mom heaved a deep sigh of relief, extended her arms to the sky, and said, “Oh, well, what I can’t control I’ll just hand over to God.”
As dusk settled around us, the flux of fading sun cast a pink glow on the wasted terrain. When she began weeping again, I rubbed my eyes to ensure they weren’t deceiving me. Profuse tears fell over her hands, transforming them into the ageless hands of a child.
At the close of my dream, she dried her eyes and asked, “Gail, can we light the Shabbos candles tonight? I want to thank God for all that remains.” As we gathered our belongings and walked towards the house, my feet, nimble and light, seemed to lift me above the sacramental ground.