Monday, October 13, 2014

Patron Saint of Dementia, Life, Love and Hope During Ordinary Time - The Infant of Prague

When I first realized my mother was showing signs of dementia, I made excuses.  "She is just confused by all of the things going on today" or "She always has trouble remembering things when she is tired".  My favorite..."even I have trouble remembering what I had for lunch".  But finally, you get hit smack in the face with real life memory issues and it can no longer be denied no matter how much you don't want it to be true.  Dementia is a shadow that changes in the light of the moment, confusing and illusive and hard to grab a hold of.  Just when you think your loved one is lost to the darkness forever, they remember something so detailed and obscure that you are thrust back in your sunny place of denial.

My Blessed Mother Mary at 100
 I didn't want to recognize it.  I wanted my mom to be my mom.  She was always there for me and I didn't want that to ever change.  As she slipped away from me I had to do some serious self-introspection, deal with my control issues and let go of organizing the universe.  Most of all, I had to quit being someone's little girl and be an adult, care giving someone who was no longer able to take care of me.  I told myself when she didn't recognize who I was, I could put a salve on my own discomfort by staying home and she wouldn't know if I came to see her or not.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

Memory loss comes and goes.  One moment she made no sense but then her brain somehow inventively found another way to connect the neurons and she not only made sense but made abstract enlightened sense.  We laughed and talked and I learned  I could figure out what she was saying even when no one else could.   It was like being in a private club with only the two of us as members using a secret language. I learned that a pokey thing was a fork, that gender was interchangeable and that holding a baby doll was comforting for her. She taught the doll how to drink from a straw and in doing so she remembered how to drink herself. One day after the two of us had played with her doll she smiled at me and said "I'm not sure how this works because she isn't really real, you know".  I loved those times with her.  I learned to redefine what a good visit was and how to do for her what she had done for me for so many years....ask questions, listen and make her feel like she mattered.

My mother could recite any recipe in detail.  For years she sent everyone she knew a birthday card. Once you were on her list you could count on a card every single year with a handwritten note even if you had been her garbageman, the Safeway store clerk or met her fishing on her riverbank 20 years ago. She knew how to grow a garden and how to preserve every vegetable in Josephine County.  She knew how to make cheese from milk she got from a real cow and how to make mayonnaise using a fresh egg .  She knew how to feed a family all winter on fryers she raised from chicks earlier that spring.  Most of all she knew how to care about you and make you feel valued.  All of that gradually changed.

There were times I wanted my mother back so bad I could barely breathe.  Sometimes I could hardly face visiting her.  After all, I wanted to remember her the way she was, not experience her the way she was now.  But I  forced myself to stay present no matter how much it hurt.  I made myself be with her, learn her language and I worked to make her feel like she was contributing to every conversation even when it made no sense.  For all of my discomfort and self absorbed pain, I learned that this was just another component of our relationship like a fractal.  Oddly the pattern was the same as it had been.

Broccoli from my garden showing fractal pattern
A fractal is a never ending design, repeating itself over and over.  They appear on the outside to be utter confusion.  As you look closer at the details of a snowflake, a sunflower or a head of broccoli  you see the pattern repeated over and over again putting order to the disarray of their design.   What felt like chaos with my mother was the same pattern just on a different scale. We kept doing what we had always done, smiling, loving, caring and sharing as her mind lost its foothold.  We both found comfort in the familiar patterns of the relationship while in the midst of what seemed to be an indecipherable mess.

At the end of one especially happy visit filled with laughter and stories of our lives together, my own mother asked me how my mother was.  Even though my heart squeezed tight with grief for a moment, I told her about herself...that my mother had broken a hip and was now using a walker but she was getting better.  I told her I  often visited my mother and always brought a bouquet of flowers from my garden.  For a confused moment my mother looked at me and then gave me the warmest loving smile and said "Oh, that's right.  You're the one who brings me flowers."   That was good enough.

The Infant of Prague from Chris Hart Studio
After one especially difficult visit, I received an order for an Infant of Prague statue from a church in the Midwest.  This saint statue is of the Holy Child in a robe with his right hand raised in a blessing while his left hand holds a sphere topped with a cross symbolizing the universe resting in his hands.  The statue always wears a crown and a beautiful robe. Ancient tradition is to change the color of the robe based on the liturgical season following the church calendar.  A red robe symbolizes royalty, Holy Week and the Holy Cross.  I sometimes will paint the statue wearing a white robe trimmed in gold leaf symbolizing purity and holiness for Easter and Christmas periods.  A violet robe represents repentance for Lent and Advent.  The most common color of robe is green because it represents life, love and hope during Ordinary Time.

As I painted this particular statue with a green robe, I thought about the life and hope I shared with my mother even with dementia.  The Infant statue served as a reminder of Jesus as a real human being, here on earth.  I thought about the fact that my mother was still a real human being even with her dementia here on earth.  I could not begin to understand the greater plan the Almighty might have for us but I could understand the value of sitting with someone who didn't always remember my name.  She may not recognize me but she recognized love.  She may not have been able to say "I love you" but she could nod when I said "I love you and you love me".  She may not have known how to hold a pokey thing but she knew how to hold my hand.  She may not have remembered the names of the flowers but she knew the meaning of the bouquet.  That is life, love and hope during Ordinary Time.   





  1. What a beautiful story, and yet another beautiful statue. Your work is so wonderful and inspiring! What we feel when we lose someone so close to us truly can't be expressed by words alone. I want to thank you for what you have done, your stories have deeply touched me, and everything you do will continue to make an impact on the word. Your mother must have truly been an amazing woman, and I know that she was grateful to have such a wonderful daughter. Keep going strong in all your works, and keep your eyes looking towards heaven.
    You and your mother will always be in my prayers,
    God bless <3

    1. Thank you so much for the inspiring comment. By sharing our experiences with each other we find even greater meaning.