The Final Journey
Loosely defined, a journey can take various forms. It can be a thousand miles or a thousand steps. A journey can be as simple as a trip to the neighborhood grocery store, as exotic as a trek through the Swiss Alps, as necessary as a pilgrimage from one country to another or as enjoyable as a trip down memory lane. My bittersweet sojourn began when I returned to my place of birth. It was my last opportunity to say both goodbye and pay homage to my mother, a woman who had traveled many paths in her lifetime and had taught me the importance of each little journey.
As a young girl, this Lancaster Lass had left her country of birth, the United Kingdom. Traveling with her parents and two older brothers, she had crossed the vast of expanse of water to finally arrive in Canada and eventually enter the United States. Although she was a mere seven years old, the memory of standing on the deck, a biting Atlantic wind nipping at her cheeks and whipping through her auburn hair remained with her. When my sisters and I were young, she blushingly regaled us about the first time our father, the most popular boy in the school, walked her home to the rectory where they lived. She was fifteen and our father was seventeen. Picking the daisies and cornflowers blooming along the dusty path, he had presented the final bouquet to her at the bottom of the porch steps of her home. Her father, an imposing minister with an authoritarian air, was standing just behind the porch screen door, appraising this young man through wire rimmed spectacles as if examining an insect. Normally his haughty demeanor would send chills down the spines of the young men who displayed a fancy for his only daughter, but our father, she confided, simply tipped his hat with a disarming smile and continued on his way. It was the beginning of a lifetime romance. An old, crinkled, sepia colored photograph framed in pewter had held a special place on the family mantle for as long as I could remember. After their marriage, they had journeyed to Minnesota for four years where he completed his residency before returning to their roots and Illinois plains.
As we grew older, our journeys were conjoined. She held my hand as we traveled the long walk from our front doorstep to the nearby elementary school early one fall morning. Together, we braved the sterile gray, hospital halls to visit her failing mother. It was on her shoulder I sobbed after a disastrous piano recital when I completely forgot the piece halfway through. When the time for college arrived, we drove for three hours reminiscing, laughing and discussing the possibilities the future held. At my wedding, she sewed a tiny blue silk ribbon to my dress as “something old and something blue”. And when my husband’s work required us to temporarily move overseas, she flew with me on that fateful day to the coast where I would board my overseas flight continuing my trek alone. All these memories and more, mental snapshots and videos tucked away in the recesses of our brains, she could recall with joyful clarity when nostalgia set in until, like relentless beast, a shadowy velvet curtain began to close around her.
My journeys were beginning as hers were diminishing in inexorably scope. Communications allowed us to remain in contact during the months we could not return, yet with each passing year her jaunts became fewer and fewer until suddenly her travels down memory lane were reduced to mere minutes as Alzheimer’s slowly laid claim to her thoughts and recollections.
And so began the longest pilgrimage of my life where I would assist my father in placing her in the care of noble nurses, far more capable of coping with the confusion associated with the disease. Quietly, I entered their bedroom, tentatively, timidly, not knowing what to expect. Her back was to me and she was looking out the window, mesmerized by a scarlet cardinal clutching a swaying branch in a nearby tree. Her full, auburn hair had faded into downy soft tresses of gray auburn. Once a fastidious dresser, she now wore simple house coats. Slippers adorned her feet. I gently touched her shoulder and she pulled her gaze away from the window to turn her eyes to me. Nothing registered in those milky blue eyes although she smiled tenderly.
She greeted me quietly. “Hello.”
“Hi mom.” I searched her face. “It’s me, Elizabeth.”
She nodded as if she understood yet her eyes told a different story. “Elizabeth…..Elizabeth… my daughter’s name was Elizabeth. Do you know her?” My heavy heart sank as I slowly shook my head. Looking down at her hands, she continued. “I haven’t seen her today. She’s in college.” Then she looked up. “She doesn’t live near here though.”
I knelt down beside her chair. “I know. She lives pretty far away but she thinks about you all the time.” The statement seemed to bring comfort to her mother. “Alicia tells me the stories you told her growing up; how you met Da……how you met your husband; the boat ride from Europe; your brothers. Such great stories.”
Her mother hung on every word. I could see the inner turmoil in her eyes as her brain battled for one brief moment of clarity. A single tear slowly fell from one of her eyes as her mind triumphantly parted the black curtain for one infinitesimal moment of lucidity, probably the last in her lifetime. In a voice barely above a hush, she whispered, “Alicia?”
“Oh mom.” I could no longer hold back my tears as I buried my face into her shoulder. A fragile, bony hand stroked my head, once, twice. Remaining where I was, I wanted the moment to last forever, knowing full well it wouldn’t. My tears spent, I gradually pulled away. Her smile was kind and maternal. But her eyes, the windows to her soul, were already opaque. The curtain had completely closed. Her gaze returned to the window.
Wiping my eyes, I stood up. My father crept up behind me, slipping his hand in mine. I grasped it like I’d never let go.
“It’s time, honey. It’s time.”
The odyssey from their home to the Alzheimer Care unit was probably the longest journey of my life. It began with anger and rage, traveled to bitterness with an occasional side trip to depression, punctuated with pit stops to wry humor before arriving at resentful resignation. By the time we reached the care unit, I could only watch with the hopeless realization this was our final walk together. Over the years, her memories had been entrusted to me as well as my sisters, in hopes the knowledge she had gleaned from every slide show of her life would somehow live on and remain vital.
That day was over twenty years ago. Looking back, I can see the different paths I have chosen. Footprints have walked alongside mine on numerous occasions but I underestimated their significance until that final journey with my mother.