The moment I passed through the locked doors, I saw her at the end of the hall. It was unusual to see my mother, who was a resident of a locked memory care facility, out of her room. But today was different.
There were several other residents in the hallways chatting. My mother was in the center of the social circle and turned to greet me. She walked towards me with her arms stretched wide, eager to give me a hug. It was clear, by the amount of her enthusiasm, that she did not know I was her daughter.
We were in Covid lockdown, and I had only been allowed to visit due to a medical exemption. I was wearing two surgical masks and a face shield. It is likely that even in a solid mental state, she may not have recognized me, so to not do so in her decrepit state was no shock.
My mother raced to me and gave me perhaps the biggest, most heartfelt hug I had ever received from her. Then she gently held me by my shoulders and said that she that she loved me and that she was happy I was there. Had there been any doubt before about her recognizing me, this clenched it.
The first few times I visited her in the locked ward, she would hardly speak to me. I would try to connect with her in any way I could, but she just wanted to watch T.V. Twice, she called me on my cell phone after I had left to tell me that the most annoying lady keeps coming to visit her and she hated it. So, to be greeted with a hug was a unique and unexpected experience indeed.
There was something different about my mother on this day. She was happy. She smiled as she talked and had a relaxed way of carrying herself. Her hair was styled, and she was fully dressed, which was not something that had occurred for some time. I stood next to her as we both looked out the window at the church next door. She looked hopeful.
Then my mother’s expression turned mischievous, and she confessed that she’s “been thinking about taking a gap year” because she didn’t really like college anymore. She continued to say that the classes are so boring, and she just didn’t want to do it. What she really wanted to do was travel and go see the world.
With a voice full of optimism, my mother then said that she had to go get ready for us to “go out” and started to fuss with her hair. A nurse came in to check on her and my mother gleefully introduced me as a “really good friend” and told her that we were getting ready to “go out.”
Watching this old woman relive her college days reminded me of Soren Kierkegaard’s quote; “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” This fragile woman, who was writing the final chapter of her life, had the good fortune to take a detour into her past. In this past, she was not yet a mother but a young adult brimming with optimism.
It brough a sense of calm over me to see my mother in this state. As she talked almost non-stop about all the places she wanted to visit, I smiled. I smiled because I knew that she did all those things and visited all those places. Her life may have not been the type of life I wanted but it was certainly what she wanted.
A few short weeks later, my mother asked me to “please kill her.” The pain of losing control of own mind was too much. Then she stopped talking. Two weeks later, she laid dying as my brother and I did our best to assure her that she could move on and let go of this life.
A year after my mother’s death, I decided to take a “gap year” and do all the things that I had been dreaming of. I pursued my artistic interests, spent quality time with our children, then spent quality time away from our children. Whatever, I could think of, I did. I allowed myself to become bored and then inspired and then bored all over again. I spent days, sometimes weeks, reflecting, meditating, and growing both spiritually and emotionally. Which almost inevitably was followed by Netflix marathons and baking sprees.
It’s hard to say whether the experience with my mother in her final days laid the foundation for me to take a gap year but I’ve certainly thought of it often over the last year. My mother’s life was tragic from my perspective, but time has taught me that my perspective isn’t the only one. From the perspective of the young lady, who was plagued with deciding whether to take a gap year, her life was a smashing success.
As my gap year ends, I am as ready as I ever could be to dominate whatever comes next. My heart is full of gratitude that I was given the opportunity to simply exist for a full year. I am excited to take all my artistic and philosophical musings with me as I prepare for my next adventure.
Today, I will be grateful for what exists in the here and now and carry optimism with me into tomorrow. I will take with me the lessons learned and look forward to learning something new. And I will always fondly remember the power of a taking a “gap year”.