Before he leaves for his outing, my father beckons me out onto the ramshackle porch of the rental cottage. He solemnly hands me a tablet of thick white artist’s paper and a pristine box of 24 crayons.
“I want you to get your mother interested in art again,” he says. “I believe she can still draw and paint, but she resists when I mention it. You’re the only one who can help her.”
My parents, my brother’s family, and my two daughters and I are on a family trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Mom has been struggling with forgetfulness and odd behaviors (or rather I should say Dad has been struggling with her forgetfulness and odd behaviors) for a couple of years now. As long as Mom is near Dad, she seems happy enough, paddling around in the swimming pool, being near her young grandchildren, and reminiscing about her earlier life. But when Dad takes even a short break, Mom’s mouth tightens and her eyes search wildly. “Where is …?” she asks, over and again, twisting her hands.
Today, my father is joining my brother and the children for boating and tubing. Since Mom doesn’t like such heat and noise, I volunteer to spend the day with her.
I nod gravely when my father hands me the “art supplies.” I seriously believe I, Super Daughter and Muse, can fulfill my father’s request to reunite my mother and her passion for art.
I haven’t yet accepted Mom for who she is now. I’m still grieving the loss of the mom I’ve always known and I earnestly believe that the best possible idea is to return her to the artist, mother, wife, and grandmother she used to be.
That afternoon, shortly after Dad leaves, I lure Mom to the small Formica kitchen table with coffee and chocolate chip cookies.
“Where is…” Mom asks, knotting together her fingers.
“He’s out with Dan and the kids. They’re going boating,” I tell her. “He won’t be gone too long.”
Mom stares at me accusingly.
“Where is Paul?” she says, her voice wobbly.
“He’s with the kids. He’ll be back soon.”
I hand her a sheet of paper and take one for myself. I spread the crayons out and say,
“Why?” she says.
“Because it’s fun,” I say, touching her hand and looking into her eyes, just as I imagine a muse might do. “Because you enjoy making art. You’re good at it.”
After I left home for college, sketching and painting became Mom’s creative mainstays. She produced hundreds of paintings, often bringing to life old photographs that captured a snippet of family history: Dad’s father appearing wickedly self-confident in a game of poker; her own mother, before she immigrated to America, as a shy young woman with an upswept Gibson girl hairdo; her grandchildren dancing around my den in a mad-cap talent show. But she hasn’t touched a brush or pencil in several years, and Dad has mourned mightily over her abandoning this passion.
“Where is…?” Mom asks.
“Let’s make a picture for Dad,” I say. “He’ll be thrilled.”
I hand Mom a yellow crayon and I pick up a purple. I draw a series of squiggling lines. I add in a green, then a blue. I envision Dad’s beaming face when Mom hands him her sketch of yellow roses. I imagine his warm hug and his grateful, whispered words, “Thanks, Debbie. I knew you could do it. I feel like your mother’s come home.
My wild colorful lines fill the page. Finally, I glance up, ready to admire Mom’s work. But all I see is a blinding sheet of yellow. She has scrubbed the yellow crayon across the page. No flowers, no independent lines, no blending of colors. I bite my lip, tasting bitter failure, and imagining the look of despair on my father’s face.
That was before I had learned to let go of Mom as a representational artist and embrace her mellow yellow creation. That was before I accepted the challenge of journeying to my mom’s current world instead of struggling unsuccessfully to drag her back into mine. I finally did let go and embraced my mom as she was. Mom learned to laugh at her forgetfulness; she learned to communicate with smiles and gestures; she learned the art of living in the moment. And I learned along with her.
Today, if I could once again sit beside her coloring, I would simply enjoy the process and not set myself up as a failed Super Muse. I might just say, “I love the brightness of that color,” and not yearn for a bouquet of roses that would prove Mom was the same as ever. I might see if she and I could draw something together. We’d take turns making lines on the paper, sketching out a non-verbal dialogue. I’d play some of her favorite songs while we drew and we’d sing along. I might include some soothing lavender tea, accompanied by decadent chocolate chip cookies. Whatever we did together, I would cherish that shared time.
By Deborah Shouse, excerpt from Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together
Deborah Shouse is a writer, speaker, editor, former family caregiver, and dementia advocate. Deborah’s latest book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, features dozens of experts in the field of creativity and dementia. These innovators share ideas that engage the creative spirit so you can continue to experience meaningful moments of connecting. Deborah and her partner Ron Zoglin raised more than $80,000 for dementia programs by donating all proceeds from her initially self-published book, Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey, to dementia-based non-profits. Central Recovery Press has since published an updated version of Love in the Land. To learn more, about Deborah and her work, visit DementiaJourney.org