My Valiant Mom

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She screams herself out of her sleep. Sometimes, it’s pain from the phantom limb, sometimes it’s pain in the existing limb; sometimes, it’s both.

And sometimes, it’s from the nightmares. She’s in pure terror. I don’t know if it’s the memory of being beaten by her mother when she was a girl, or the memory of being raped by two men when she was 91, and I don’t ask. But she’s clearly trying to get away, and she’s screaming.

I run to her every time, in the middle of the day, or the middle of the night. I find her leaping out of bed in her sleep, and I get there just in time to keep her from falling. I bring her a heating pad to calm the nerves in her leg, I talk her down from the physical pain, or the psychological disturbance, or both. Mostly, I just say, "You're okay, Mom. You're here." And she sleeps.

She has started to thank me profusely. She says, “I don’t know how you got to be such a good person,” or “You do so many nice things for me,” or "You're so sweet." Things she's rarely, if ever, said to me in my lifetime. I think it has taken her this long to learn how to express her love, to realize that she is loved, that she deserves love. I think her defenses have been stripped bare.

Her mind is still active and relatively clear, but she’s barely eaten in months. Chocolate Ensure and whole milk, and maybe a bite or two of food a day, have kept her alive all this time. We can still talk and laugh, we can still discuss our memories of Dad and our remarkable life with him. But her hearing is less than half of what it was, so she can't listen to his recordings, the music that has sustained her for over 70 years.

She is quite literally skin and bones. She barely bumps her leg on her wheelchair and bleeds, and I dress the wounds on her limb that used to have a twin, that ran after me when I was little, that walked every inch of Manhattan and Paris, that climbed tree branches, and played golf. When I change her pajama top, I see her protruding spine, looking like that of a starving child in a third world country, or the cautionary photos of anorexic women here in the first world. Her body is failing, and she mentions it occasionally. New for a woman who, as many times as she's faced it, really doesn't like to talk about death.

“I’m drying up,” she says softly. “Am I floating away?” She’s never before expressed this, and I don’t have the words to respond. I just hug her gently, tell her I love her, roll her to the bathroom because she’s becoming too weak to do it on her own. I replace the pee pads on her bed, and give her fresh protective underwear (“Don’t call them diapers!” she warns) when she doesn’t make it. She’s embarrassed, she apologizes to me, and I say she doesn’t need to. This is life, this is love, this is sacred service. “You did this for me when I was little,” I say. “It’s my turn to do it for you.” And she thanks me, like a shy child.

"I don't feel old. Do I seem old?"

"Well, Mom, your body is 94. But your mind isn't old."

"Oh, well, that's all that counts."

We smile at each other, knowing.

Bit by bit, moment by moment, I’m losing my brilliant, witty, proud, fiercely independent mother, my best friend, my chief confidante, the person with whom I’ve experienced and endured so much, the one person in my life who knows the most about me, who’s known me the longest. And it feels like I’m losing part of myself.

I don't cry in front of her. I save it for others, for later.

I'm in pain, too, physically and emotionally, and I'm exhausted; but I move through it. I depend on the Eastern philosophies that have gotten me this far. I'm grateful to have many years of sobriety. My closest friends know I'll need them to draw me a little closer after Mom departs. They also know I'll need space and time.

I hope I'll have at least as much time as Mom has had, and at least half her incredible will. I don't have a child to care for me, so it would be best if my elder years were easier than hers. But there's no way of knowing. There's only this moment, in which I'm too busy to think about how much I'll miss her when she's no longer here.

Sometimes, when Mom’s abandoned Southern Baptist teachings surface, she says philosophically, “It’s the Plan.” I like to think that comforts her somewhere deep, where no one but God can see.

Anything that comforts her, comforts me.


About the author ~

Alexandra Leh is a New York City native currently living in Downtown Los Angeles. Her previous professional pursuits as singer, actor and television development executive led to her current career as a writer of short stories and screenplays, editor of books, and producer of live events and music. She creates content for The George Barnes Legacy Collection, a multimedia property tracing Barnes’ influence on American popular music via the extraordinary life and work of the electric guitar pioneer and musical genius–who also happens to be her father. Alexandra serves on the board of a global arts and media think tank, is a student of eastern philosophies, Hatha and Kriya yoga, and alternative healing techniques. She has been a full-time caregiver to her 94-year-old mother Evelyn for almost four years, and tries to find time to enjoy her other interests: digital photography, modern design, clean cuisine, being of service to her family, friends and community, and getting the rare good night’s sleep.

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