Frances Reed was my mother for seventy years. She nourished, supported and encouraged me physically, mentally, and spiritually. Once she saved my life, by introducing me to a spiritual path that enabled me to reverse a disastrous prognosis. But the most stunning learning program, which we embarked upon together, began with her descent into stroke-related dementia, where she lost the ability to access the spiritual practices she had taught and exemplified for many years. I will call her Frances in this story, though in life I only called her “Mom,” until her last days.
Frances was a story teller and writer from my earliest memory. Her favorite story, and the favorite of her five children, and our children, and our children’s children, was the Betty and Bobby Story. Betty and Bobby were twins who were sometimes four years old, sometimes five years old, sometimes ten, depending on the audience. The twins had a Magic Cloud they parked in the cherry tree (or pear, or plum, or apple, depending on who is telling the story) in the back yard. The twins could run out to the tree, climb on the magic cloud, say the magic words—Zippety Zippety Zoom—and speed off to Magicland. Magicland could be anything we wanted it to be. Flowerland, Teeny-Tiny Land, Candyland (a favorite for three generations), Christmasland, PolkaDotLand. She could even manufacture a story for something like Cowpie Land, if that’s what we insisted on hearing.
After 35 years as a farm wife and mother, Frances left my father to pursue a life of discovery and freedom. She started college at age 54, graduated at age 58, and enjoyed a five-year career teaching and counseling. After retirement she discovered a spiritual path she had sought for many years—A Course in Miracles—and it dramatically changed her life.
And mine. In 1983, when I was 42, I received a diagnosis of metastasic breast cancer. The prognosis: “Five percent chance of surviving for three years.” Mom sent me a copy of a single paragraph from the Course, and like her, I recognized it as the spiritual path I needed for my own healing. The book was designed for self-directed spiritual and psychological healing, and I began an intensive study. Frances facilitated study groups in her home, and I joined one of her groups. Within a year, her work had outgrown her apartment. With her meager Social Security income, she rented an older home in Southeast Portland, moved herself into the upstairs bedroom, and turned the main floor into The Portland Miracles Center. My husband, Jack, filed the nonprofit application, and by 1985 her Center had 501(c)3 status.
People seeking spiritual inspiration, study groups, intellectual stimulus, comfort and/or companionship came and went all day every day. She kept the coffeepot on in the kitchen, and used the dining room to publish a monthly newsletter. Her single guiding principle was this: “the Holy Spirit will guide us, and provide enough money to remain open and pay the rent, or we will close.” When there wasn’t enough money coming in to pay the rent and expenses, she took in manuscripts to edit in her upstairs room. The Center remains open to this day (2010), still guided by Frances’ principle.
In 1985 I experienced my own miracle of physical healing. The breast cancer did recur a second time after chemotherapy ended, and I used what I had learned in the Course to heal the new tumor without treatment. In my gratitude, I vowed to help Frances run the Center, facilitate study groups, teach classes, and train teachers. I took over editing and publishing the newsletter.
In 1992, when Frances was seventy-five, she told me a secret she had held her whole life: her father had sexually abused and molested her from the age of five. She had tried to protect her four younger sisters from his predations, but when she refused him at age twelve, he began to molest her sisters. She was unable to be with them every minute of every day, though she tried. When she married at age eighteen, her youngest sister became his target.
This news explained why my sisters and I were never allowed to be around my grandfather, and why she saw to it that her parents’ visits were brief. It explained why her sisters married abusive and philandering men, and why there were alcohol and drug problems, and even suicide. But Frances had married my father, for one important reason—he was kind. And so he was. The cycle of abuse had been broken by her, and only her, so that our succeeding generations were protected.
The primary message of the Course is inner peace through forgiveness, and Frances was finally able to forgive her father. I was not. I saw how her own inner torment continued. She offered healing to so many, but hadn’t been able to find complete healing for herself. She had periods of depression through the years, and had an almost pathological fear of dying, in spite of the teachings of the Course. She said, alternately, that she would never die, she would simply transubstantiate like Elijah; or that she would live to be 120 years old. She refused to take medications of any kind, even aspirin, and claimed she could not swallow pills; they made her choke. In fact, she was never ill, didn’t catch colds, had never even had a headache. I began to wonder if perhaps she would live forever.
When Frances was seventy-eight her youngest son, my brother Tim, died of melanoma. Mom wore chiffon to Tim’s memorial service, a long red chiffon dress, Tim’s color. The gymnasium at the school looked like a political nominating convention, with red balloons, pictures and posters of Tim, and bleachers for the hundreds of students, teachers, parents, and friends. The family sat in the front row. Me and Jack and Mom. Mom smiled through the Trumpet Voluntary played by eight trombones, a lineup of brass across the front of the gym, Tim’s band buddies from all over the city, grownup men blowing their horns through tears and snot. Mom smiled during the eulogies. Smiled while people stood in line to squeeze her hand and offer tributes to her son.
That same year on his birthday she had her first of three strokes. She lost the ability to do linear processing, and could no longer teach or write or manage the Center. I took over the Center and became Frances’ primary caregiver. She was able to live in her own apartment, but needed help many times a day with the simple tasks of everyday living. She had stroke-related dementia, which grew progressively worse.
Cocoa and post-its:
Jack was still being watchful and careful with me. After Tijuana, milk had gone sour in the fridge, we ran out of butter and coffee, the bread went moldy, and the only meat on hand was a weeks-old package of deli ham. Laundry spilled over the baskets next to the washing machine. The same sheets had been on the bed for over a month.
Jack took over kitchen duties, shopped for groceries and cooked. He did the laundry, changed the bed. He no longer asked why I wasn’t checking in with Mom. Instead, he stopped by to check on her, and spared me any discussion of How Mom Is Doing when he returned.
Not that Mom had been that much in touch with reality while Tim was sick, but now she lived in a place in her mind in which everything had turned out the way she planned. Coping with the parallel universe sometimes put her in a semi-panicked state of confusion. The phone conversations were surreal.
“Judy, good morning, or is it afternoon, how are you dear?”
“I’m good, how are you?”
I could tell how she was coping by the way her voice was. If she was deeply into denial, her voice was dreamy and chirpy. Other times, the panic times, her voice spun tight and high and fast and her words stumbled over each other, stuttering.
On the phone that afternoon she started out chirpy and soon went into panic.
“I thought I’d just make a cup of cocoa…but…have you seen my cocoa? It’s…I can’t find my cocoa, I’ve looked everywhere.”
In Frances’s tiny kitchen, the cupboard over the sink was where she kept tea and cocoa and condiments.
“Have you looked over the sink? That’s where you usually keep it.”
“I’ve looked there, looked everywhere. I can’t find it,” she said. She coughed twice, her dry unnecessary cough. “Judy, Could you come over?”
It was April now and morning sun filled the room from above and all around. Daffodils were still in bloom just outside. The daffodils were King Alfreds, but not Dad’s King Alfreds. Dad’s King Alfreds were deep, rich glow-in-the-dark gold, with trumpets the size of coffee mugs. These days the daffodils they called King Alfreds were bright yellow, large as daffodils go, but not Dad’s King Alfreds.
“I’m sewing, Mom, can’t you just look again?”
“No, I’ve looked and looked, and I know I have some cocoa, but I can’t find it. Please, please, come over, just for a minute?” Her voice stopped on a high note of pleading and alarm, her voice the new Frances, new since Tim died.
If only Jack were not at work. Often he stopped by after work to see her, helped her find things, left me out of it. She lost things, misplaced things, couldn’t find the FM switch on her radio, forgot where she put her checkbook, her glasses, her car keys. Normal stuff, probably, especially if she was grieving. Hard to tell.
I looked at my watch. Early afternoon. I hadn’t been to her apartment for quite awhile. Maybe I should take her out for lunch and spend some time with her. Maybe we could talk about Tim, how we missed him. How we were all we each had left of family.
“I’ll be over,” I said. “Let me finish up here, give me half an hour.”
“Oh, good,” she said. Her voice dropped back to normal. “Thank you, honey.” She hung up.
Mom answered the door and was childishly glad to see me. She opened her arms wide and pulled me to her. Hugging was new in our family. Our family, now two people. I couldn’t remember when it had started. Mom hugged students at the Center, and now it was spilling over into the rest of her life.
I hugged her back. It was like hugging Yoda, a shrunken, wise elder. She wore black tights and an oversized pink sweater. She was barefoot. Her white hair was flat and limp like I’d never seen it before, not its usual fluffy wisps. Her ears stuck out through her hair. She seemed smaller and more fragile than ever. She seemed old.
Mom stepped back to let me into her apartment. The first thing I saw was the Post-It notes. There were Post-It notes stuck to every flat surface, the tables, the side of the refrigerator, her computer screen, her telephone, her kitchen counter, the windowsill.
Mom sat in her white wingback chair. Her pink sweater had a faint tea-colored stain down the front.
“Why are you here?” she said.
I sat down on the white sofa. Tried to remember to breathe. I settled back into the cushions and started to put my feet on the coffee table, then stopped. There was no place for feet. The table was littered with papers, Post-It notes, crumpled napkins, pencils and pens, Scotch tape, newspapers, books, magazines, used tissues, crossword puzzles, and yellow lined tablets covered with wavery writing that started out in the upper left corner, but edged away from the left margin at the beginning of each line, until the lines at the bottom of the page were only half as long as those at the top.
I leaned forward and casually gathered up the tissues and paper napkins and dropped them into the wastebasket next to Frances’s chair.
“I’m here to find your cocoa,” I said.
“Oh, right,” Mom said. She reached into the wastebasket, plucked out a tissue, and tucked it under her sweater cuff.
The Post-It notes were different colors and different sizes. Some were tiny, almost the size of postage stamps, others were larger squares, and some were the size and shape of post cards. A square blue Post-It note had detached itself from the side of the refrigerator and settled onto the handle of a paper grocery bag on the floor.
A paperback book lay on the coffee table, Freedom From the Known. Stuck to the orange front cover was a Post-It note with a phone number, nothing else. I held up the little yellow square.
“Mom, whose number is this?” I said.
Mom leaned forward, took the note and stared at it, mouthed the numbers silently. She got up from her chair and stuck the note back on the book, centered it on the front cover with care. She smoothed down the sticky edge with her thumb. She stood up straight and folded her arms across her chest, a tiny warrior with flashing blue eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Most of the Post-It notes littering the coffee table were square. Post-It notes apparently came in more than the standard yellow and pastel blue, green and pink—some of these were lavender, orange, and neon colors—pink and turquoise and purple.
I scanned the loose Post-It notes on the coffee table.
Pastel blue: Lori’s son. Isaac?
Neon purple: buy timer
Pastel pink. Where did all the flowers go
Neon blue. make appt
Canary yellow. Aloha
Fuchsia : 91.5
Bright blue: Joan Wed
Pastel green: half and half
Glow-in-the-dark orange: ch 10 Friday 9 Bill M
I stuck the tomatoes note next to the half-and half note.
Frances was still standing across the coffee table from me. She grabbed the tomatoes note and stuck it back on the copy of Yoga Magazine.
“Don’t move it!” she yelled. “I don’t come to your house and move things around!”
A lined yellow postcard-size Post-It was stuck to the front page of The Oregonian.
Frances had no plants, no flowers, said she had a brown thumb and couldn’t keep plants alive.
I got up to walk around the apartment. Her small kitchen counter, normally empty and clean, was stained with brown rings and grease, littered with saucers, crumbs, glasses and cups, three strips of well-cooked bacon on a paper towel, scattered loose tea, a black banana, a half-empty jar of salsa with no lid, spilled sugar, a nearly-empty can of chocolate frosting with no lid, matchbooks, several sticky lavender crystal wine glasses, a piece of burned toast, a dried-up and shrunken orange, sticks of incense, Oreo halves with the cream filling licked off, and more Post-It notes.
Nausea filled my eyes with tears. I swallowed hard several times and went to the sliding glass doors that led onto a tiny balcony. Four green plastic pots filled with red petunias were lined up in an orderly row against the railing.
Orderly, like Mom used to be. This chaos in her apartment had happened somehow when I wasn’t watching. Something bad, something destructive, had happened to Mom when I wasn’t watching.
“Mom, where’d you get the petunias?”
Frances fell back into her white chair and clasped her hands in front of her chest. “Tim sent me those.”
“Tim sent you flowers? Mom, Tim’s been dead two months!”
“It had to be Tim. I opened the door one morning and there were four pots of red petunias on my doormat.”
“But Mom…” Mom believed that no one died, they just went on to live in another dimension invisible to us, a parallel reality.
Maybe. But how could the dimensions overlap, how could petunias cross the border from one dimension to the other if the dimensions were parallel. Parallel meant…separate. No overlap.
“I know he sent them. I was lonely, and I asked for a sign that he was OK. The next morning, there they were.”
Believing Tim had dropped in and left an Easter surprise was at least as valid as believing he had just become nothing, blipping out like the last little light on the TV screen when it’s turned off. If only I could have experienced red petunias at my door, or even a single red carnation.
My eyes burned.
“Just in time for Easter,” I said. “Tim loved Easter.”
Mom got up and went to the sliding glass door to look at her red petunias. “Yes, he loved religious holidays, didn’t he? Maybe because of the music…”
She turned back to me.
“Did you find my cocoa?”
“No, Mom, I haven’t even looked yet.”
Mom followed me to the kitchen. I opened the cupboard over the sink. There were not one but two boxes of hot chocolate drink packets. I pointed. “Do you mean the hot chocolate packets?” I said.
Mom’s mouth was open and slack with shock. “Where did those come from?” she said.
“I just opened the cupboard and there they were”
Her face suddenly contorted, a face I couldn’t remember ever seeing before, but it scared me the way a child is scared of an angry parent.
“I looked there. Several times, I looked there.”
“Mom, listen, listen to me. You know how it is, sometimes we look right at something and just don’t see it. Then someone else comes along and they see it. It happens to everyone.”
Mom’s eyes were an arc of cold blue electricity. “That cocoa was not there before! You brought that cocoa in here.”
My mother was accusing me of planting cocoa mix in her cupboard.
Who was this woman?
I took a packet of Swiss Miss Cocoa Mix with Mini-Marshmallows out of the box and closed the cupboard.
“I’ll make you a cup of cocoa,” I said.
Mom turned and marched into the living room, her back straight. One foot seemed to lag behind the other. She sat in her white brocade wing chair and folded her hands in her lap.
“Fine,” she said.
The small table at the end of the counter where the white microwave had been now held a phone book with pink, blue, and neon orange Post-It notes clinging to the cover.
“What happened to your microwave?”
“I gave it to Angelfire,” she said. “She needed one, and I couldn’t remember how to use it anyway. All those buttons.”
I put the stainless steel kettle on to boil. The shiny surface was dulled with fingerprints, water spots, and grease.
“Angelfire? Who’s that?”
“A girl who comes to my classes.” Frances said. “I’ve counseled her a few times. Can’t remember what about. She needed a microwave.”
I tore open the packet of Swiss Miss and poured the powder into a gray mug. Her favorite mug. Nice women don’t make history in red letters on the side.
“Angelfire… where’d she get that name?”
“What’s the matter with her name?” Frances said. “It’s as good a name as any. Good as yours.”
“Mom, you named me after your Grandma Judy. My name has a family history. Where in the world does a name like Angelfire come from? Did she make up her own name?”
I watched the teakettle, didn’t look at Mom. “Sounds like a made-up name to me, unless she was born to hippie parents in some Sixties commune. How old is she?”
“Your Great-Grandma Judy knew how to keep a civil tongue in her head.”
The teakettle whistled and spurted steam. I poured hot water into the cup. In the silverware drawer the forks, knives and spoons were jumbled together, no longer in their proper slots in the plastic tray. I found a spoon, wiped it off on the dish towel hanging over the oven door, and stirred the cocoa. Tiny dry marshmallows floated to the top of the cup.
There was a coaster on the table next to her chair. It was the classic yin-yang design in black and white, stained with tan rings. I set her Nice women cup on the coaster.
“Mom, are you doing classes?”
Her voice from her chair was frosty. “I did one, but it didn’t go well. So I’m taking a little break.”
Why didn’t you tell me about mom?
“Why didn’t you tell me about Mom?”
It was still light out, the sun slanting red and purple and gold into the kitchen through Jack’s stained glass piece that hung in the window over the sink, the window that looked out on the neighbor’s side yard. The kitchen smelled of the fried bacon that was cooling on a paper towel, and potatoes and onions simmering in clam broth. A sourdough baguette browned in the oven.
Jack poured himself a glass of Chablis. He held the bottle up to me and raised his eyebrows. I shook my head and he put the bottle back in the cupboard and pulled up the stool next to me at the butcher block. The butcher block he built with edgegrain maple for the kitchen island, oiled it with olive oil, sanded down the raised grain and oiled it again.
“Why didn’t I tell you about what?” he said.
My look at him was incredulous. “You have to ask?” I said. “All the times you’ve stopped by there in the last couple of months, and you didn’t notice what’s been happening to her?”
Jack leaned on his elbows and took a sip of red wine. “I noticed. But what good would it have done to pile that on you right now? You had enough to deal with—Tim, his funeral, grief. There was nothing you could have done anyway.”
“There is always something I can do. If I know the situation. I could clean up her apartment, take her food, help her take a shower…”
I made a circuit around the kitchen, opened the cupboard, pulled out the bottle of Chablis and poured myself a glass. “What happened to her, Jack? It seems like she just fell into some kind of chaos. She isn’t even washing her hair, or her clothes.”
Jack sipped his wine. “Yeah, that’s not like Frances.”
I added another pint of milk to yhe chowder, turned the heat down, and crumbled in the bacon.
I crumbled bacon into the chowder. “She imagines Tim brought her flowers. She seems to be losing her memory. And one foot drags.”
“Did you notice that her speech isn’t always clear?” Jack said. “And she has trouble following a conversation?”
I hadn’t noticed. The Post-It notes, and the cocoa, and the red petunias, were enough to narrow my focus.
“How long has that been true?” I asked.
“She’s been having trouble with her memory for a long time,” he said. “You probably didn’t notice, you were with Tim. I’ve been helping her pay her bills for months. She’s forgotten how to write a check.”
I took the bread out of the oven and dropped it onto the butcher block. “What is it?” I said. “Is she sick? What’s going on?”
Jack took a serrated knife from the knife holder on the wall next to the stove. He sliced into the baguette. “I think she may have had a small stroke,” he said.
A bowl in each hand. I set them on the stove. Added a lump of butter to the chowder. Ladled the chowder into the bowls.
“A small stroke,” I said. I set the bowls on the butcher block and dropped onto my stool.
Jack laid a napkin in a basket and scooped the bread slices into the basket. He brushed the crumbs off the butcher block into his hand and tossed them into the sink.
“Maybe several small strokes,” he said. He sat down next to me and played with his spoon. “They call them T.I.A.s.”
“What the hell is a T.I.A.?”
Jack took a slice of bread. “Transient Ischemic Attack. It’s a mini-stroke. I asked Doctor Ellen when I installed her cabinets.”
Where had I been? My mother had become demented and crippled, Jack taking care of her, and I was unaware. My attention was all with Tim. Mom couldn’t stay in the room with him, so I did. I stayed with Tim and burned with resentment. They could all go to hell.
Apparently Mom had.
The chowder breathed wisps of steam onto my glasses. I took them off and polished them on my T-shirt.
“Transient Ischemic Attacks,” I said.
“It’s from high blood pressure,” Jack said. “Something about the blood supply to the brain.” He spooned up chowder. “You sure do make great clam chowder.”
“Learned it from Mom,” I said. I ate a spoonful. “Geez, Jack, you’ve become Mom’s caretaker. You’re the one who keeps tabs on her. Can she still cook? Does she still cook?”
He took another piece of bread and dunked it in his bowl. “Not much,” he said. “She lives on snack food she gets at the store, ice cream, cocoa, toast, poached eggs, olives, stuff like that.”
He stopped to finish off the chowder and wiped his mouth on the purple napkin.
“I take her healthy food from the deli,” he said. “Salads and chicken.”
His face was deep laugh lines around his mouth and eyes. I touched a line at the corner of his mouth and smoothed it flat.
“You are an angel,” I said. “How long have you been taking her food?”
He got up to refill his bowl at the stove. “Quite awhile,” he said. “Since Tim went in for that last surgery, the one where they took out his spleen or something, and you stayed there with him. I took her over to see him then took her home, and went to the fridge for some milk for my coffee. The only thing in her fridge was milk, cheese, and eggs. And some bowls covered with green mold and plastic wrap.”
My stomach turned over. “Did you throw out the green stuff?” I said.
“I tried,” Jack said. “She wouldn’t let me.”
He sat down with his bowl and picked up his spoon.
“So that’s when I started taking her food,” he said. “Not that it helped any. Every time I opened the fridge to put in a new takeout box, there would be all the stuff from the last time.”
I winced. “Why didn’t she eat it?”
“She said she forgot it was in there,” he said. “So sometimes I’d just heat it up for her right then and sit there while she ate it. Until she got rid of her microwave. After that it wasn’t so easy. She doesn’t have many pans, says she burned up her favorite pan, forgot it was on the stove. She threw it away.”
My appetite was gone. I pushed away the chowder. This felt like coming in halfway through the movie and not being able to pick up the thread of the plot. Mom was burning up pans on the stove? And Jack didn’t tell me? Because I was so involved with Tim and with my own grief that he figured I couldn’t handle it?
“Omyfreakinlordy,” I said. “You’ve been juggling all these balls for me and I had no idea…”
Jack carried our bowls to the sink, poured my chowder down the drain, and rinsed the bowls under the faucet.
“You’re starting to eat like your mother,” he said.
A spike of anger flared inside my belly. “Don’t say that!” I said. “I’m not like my mother. I’m never going to be like my mother.”
Jack leaned against the sink, crossed his ankles and crossed his arms over his chest. The corners of his mouth jerked the way they do when he’s trying not to smile, when he knows a smile would be exactly the wrong expression in that moment.
“Never going to be like your mother, eh?” he said. “Sometime when you’re in a better mood let me count the ways you already are like your mother.”
The spike of anger changed to sick fear. “I’m never going to be in that good a mood,” I said.
“It’s not all bad,” Jack said. “She’s not a bad-looking woman for her age. Well, except maybe lately…”
The sparkling bright hair turning dull and greasy with neglect, the dirty clothes, the dragging foot.
I’d never be able to use a Post-It note again.
Jack came around to my stool and put his arms around me from behind. “I’m glad you see where things are with her now, Judy,” he said. “I was getting kinda strung out trying to keep up with things over there.”
Leaning back into his solid chest. “What else is there?” I said. “What else did I miss?”
“Well, you know how she can keep up a good front when she has to,” Jack said. “Like when she knew you were coming today. But sometimes when I’ve stopped by after work she was still in her bathrobe, sitting on her couch with all the lights off while it was getting dark out.”
He felt the shudder go through my body and tightened his arms. “Judy,” he said, “be patient with her. She’s pedaling as fast as she can.”