L ife happens and then it just stops. The “happens” part, with all the starts and pauses, joys and disappointments, make up modern family life. My family consisted of my parents, my son and his wife, and my precocious granddaughter. The modern label is the “club-sandwich” generation; here, in the South, we just call it family. Life, too, is full of obvious truths that in any family are either ignored or unaddressed. It’s called “the elephant in the room.”
Now, obviously, a real elephant in any room would be impossible to ignore. This is when life teaches us that pretending something doesn’t exist is merely choosing to not deal with issues that overwhelm us. And so the elephant stomps or snorts, rumbles or roars, and its presence can no longer be ignored. We have to pay attention to this four-ton creature in the room, no matter how much we might want to pretend it’s not really there.
I was born late in life to parents who had been assured they could never have children. It was the 1950s, and Mama was a “Leave It to Beaver” stay-at-home mother, complete with pearls and high heels. Come to think of it, I never, ever saw her mop a floor. Daddy was the president of our community bank, head of the chamber of commerce, and lay speaker at church.In the South, summers were hot, humid, and lazy. Days were endless except for the month we spent at the beach with Mama teaching me to swim and Daddy making sure I could hit a mean tennis serve.
Fall always came too soon, bringing with it a new school year. Mama was always at school, which embarrassed me. Not only was she room mother every single year of my student life, she was president of the PTA. She knew every teacher and every mother of every friend I ever had. Sometimes I was tempted to get in trouble just to see if she would find out, but the fear of seeing her eyes lose their sparkle, as they had the year her sister died, kept me from giving into that temptation.
Daddy knew everything about all things. People would drop by just to ask for his advice or help. I once asked him how he knew so much and he said, “Well, when you survive the Great Depression you learn a great many things.” I kind of got that, but it seemed to me that this Great Depression was a nebulous concept found in history books, like the Louisiana Purchase, memorized for a test and then forgotten.
I once told him, “My friends’ fathers also survived the Great Depression, but they don’t know everything or they wouldn’t always be asking you.”He chuckled, rubbed his chin and called me “little darlin” in his soft Southern drawl, which embarrassed me since I was thirteen. I just avoided the subject altogether after that.
Somewhere along the way I started taking him for granted and expected all men to be like him. When I finally did marry, it didn’t last long because no one measured up to him. The ensuing years of being both mother and father as a single parent brought with it the realization that it’s easy to have a “hero measuring stick,” when you can’t see what’s right in front of you.
The elephant remained an immobile presence in the room, reminding me it was too late to change that ending.
During my teen years, there had been an undercurrent of unease at home. Daddy worked long hours and Mama stayed in her room much of the time. I began helping out as much as I could, hoping it would ease the tension, even learning to cook. Even today, I avoid cooking because it reminds me of that unpleasant time.Eventually the rebellious Sixties gave us all the freedom to challenge our lives and to accept the consequences of that challenge. Weary of the roar that wouldn’t go away, I finally asked my parents about that period in our lives. They looked at each other for a long time as if they were communicating telepathically, which made me feel excluded.
“Sometimes,” Mama said finally, “people get so busy doing what they think will make the other person happy, that they lose sight of being happy themselves, which is really all that the other person wants.”
The elephant entered the room, roaring, “Didn’t your happiness matter at all?”
My parents had always been there and I assumed always would be. I just hadn’t counted on their loving, beautiful minds failing long before their bodies did. Mama became increasingly forgetful, which initially was amusing, then irritating, and ultimately frightening.
The elephant, ever present in the room during this time, gently reminded me, “Thorns in life are hard because sometimes they are things you can’t fix.”
The tipping point occurred one fall day when my phone rang; the caller ID showed the name of my parents’ next-door neighbor. My hand hovered over the phone. I dreaded picking up the receiver.
“Linny, it’s Bobbi Jean,” the neighbor said. “Your mother went out for a walk this morning and hasn’t been seen since. I called the sheriff’s office and they just got here. You need to come right away.”
“Missing! Where’s my father?”
“He’s here.” She hesitated. “But he’s not handling this well.”
The elephant’s rumblings came from outside the room: “This morning! That was hours ago. Why are they calling you just now?”
Emergency vehicles covered the driveway and lined the curb in front of my parents’ house. I stopped my car in the street and with a pounding heart seized the sheriff’s arm with trembling hands. “Where’s Mama?’
“We don’t know,” he responded slowly, his steady gaze holding my own. “We’ve been searching the area for the past hour. It’ll be dark soon so I’ve called in the county helicopter to search with a spotlight down around the lake. The brush there’s pretty thick.”
Darkness came quickly and the helicopters’ searchlights shone over the wooded areas. My fear mounted until I heard a shout, “There she is!”
Mama descended from the cab of an RV parked in Bobbi Jean’s driveway. “What’s going on?” Mama asked. “What’s that thing up there?” She pointed to the searchlights above.
“Mama, why were you in Bobbi Jean’s RV?” I asked, the pain from my fingernails digging into my fisted hands keeping me from shouting.
“Waiting for your Daddy to come drive me over to see Mary, but just like always, he’s late.”
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I gathered my sweet mama into my arms, alternately rubbing and patting her back, more to comfort myself than her.
Mama was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Not wanting my parents to live apart, I moved them both into an assisted living center with a memory unit. The doctors assured me it was the best thing for their safety and welfare, but the change seemed to exaggerate Mama’s confusion. Every time I visited, Mama had taken all of her clothes from the closet and folded them on her bed for packing.
She greeted me by announcing, “I’m almost ready. When are we leaving, Linny?” She leaned over, whispering confidentially, “You know this place really isn’t all that nice.”
After I reminded her that she had already moved, Mama grew very quiet, gazing into space; not talking as I hung her clothes back in the closet. Then, on the next visit, the scene would replay, until one day I snapped and shouted, “Mama! Listen to me! You have moved and you are not to take your clothes out again!”
The elephant roared, “Your mama has Alzheimer’s and you must accept that she will never be the same.”
Looking into Mama’s stricken face, I began to cry and then to sob as her arms encircled me. She began to rock me back and forth saying, “Now Linny, you’ve got three weeks before the prom. Dry those tears, wash your face, put on some lipstick, and you just flirt your way into getting that nice Smith boy to ask you.”
Our eyes met, and we laughed and hugged through our tears.
On my next visit, her clothes were still in the closet. However, on the bed were two boxes; one contained her books and family pictures, the other her shoes. She greeted me with “What time are we leaving?”
This time I took Mama and the boxes to my car, drove around the block, and took her back to her room. “Now this is a much nicer place,” she exclaimed. “That other place was dullsville!”
The elephant quieted as I entered Mama’s reality, finally accepting that I could not change it.
Each evening at twilight, Mama cried and begged for her baby, until the nurses gave her a life-size doll. With my own eyes, I could see how she must have cherished me as an infant. It made me realize that, in raising my own children, I never seemed to have the time for that level of tenderness. The demands of being a single mother, working full time, preparing dinner, cleaning up and trying to finish one more load of laundry, exhausted my time and energy.
The elephant stood still as I suffered my regret.
Gradually, Mama stopped talking. She developed pneumonia and was sent to ICU, which, ironically, was the old labor and maternity ward of the hospital where I was born. Late one night, as I held my bedside vigil, I saw her eyes were open and she was looking at me. I gently took her face in my hands and asked, “Mama, do you know who I am?”
Her eyes blinked.
“Mama, I’m Linny, your daughter, and I love you.”
Without hesitation she responded, “And I love you.”
Mama died that night.
The elephant bowed its head in silence, as I cherished the final memories.
Daddy was inconsolable after Mama’s death. He searched endlessly for her; asking nurses, entering the rooms of the other residents, and becoming agitated when he thought she was hiding from him.The elephant stepped back into the room saying, “His reality is altered. It’s time to find out why.”
We sat in the last two available chairs in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. Immediately, Daddy began singing in his best baritone stage voice:
“OOOOk-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,
And when we say
We’re only sayin’
You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma O.K.!”
“Daddy,” I whispered, “Shhhh.”
“Oh,” he said, “Sorry.” Then he began singing,
“Hey Hey, good-lookin’
Say, what’s cookin’?
Do you feel like bookin’
Some fun tonight?”
“Daddy! Stop singing that song.”
A look of confusion crossed his face. “Well, what song would you like me to sing?” Looking around the room at the smiling faces I shrugged and entered his world, “You pick.”Delighted, he warmed up his voice: “Me me me me me meeee.” Fortunately, the nurse called his name. The entire waiting room cheered and clapped as he happily exited with high fives and thumbs up from his fans. Once in the exam room, Daddy asked the nurse, “Well, now pretty lady, have we met before?”
“Well, that’s just too bad,” he responded with his most debonair leer.
“Sheesh, Daddy,” I groaned.
The nurse beamed with a becoming blush, leaned toward him and in her sexiest voice said, “It certainly is.”
The elephant was rumbling so I kept the “sheesh” to myself this time.
Daddy had Alzheimer’s. How could this happen to both of my brilliant parents? But, Daddy remained cheerful as he continued to sing his show tunes over and over as the doctor delivered the news. Not unexpectedly, he declined quickly and soon stopped eating. I stopped by to feed him, with the same process, every day:“Daddy open your mouth.” He opened his mouth and I put the food in.“Close.” He closed.“Chew.” He chewed.“Swallow.” He swallowed.And so it went, each meal, each day. My father, who knew how to do everything, had forgotten how to eat.
The elephant cleared its throat and asked, “Has he?”
My parents’ funerals, three months apart, left me with a loneliness so painful I didn’t think I could survive. To do so, I became numb. My son hovered over me, waiting for this pause in life to pass.
My granddaughter was the one who called out the elephant in the room. “I miss Granny and Granddaddy.”
I nodded, unable to speak, avoiding the elephant’s “told you so” presence.
“They’re in heaven you know,” she said with all the confidence of a four-year-old.
“If there is a heaven,” I mumbled.
The elephant trumpeted his condemnation.
My granddaughter smiled, “Well, if there’s not, they’re gonna be soooo mad.” Then as she considered that possibility, she quickly assured me, “Don’t worry, Nana, if there’s not, they’ll make one for us.” In her gaze, I saw my mother’s sparkling eyes looking back at me.
I lifted my granddaughter into my arms and rocked her side to side humming, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The elephant quietly left the room.