As we near Mother’s Day, I naturally think about my mom and all the different experiences we shared. This is an excerpt from my newest book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together. This book features stellar ideas from more than 60 experts in creativity and dementia. Though this is a story about the dementia journey, it’s also a story about something we all want: love and acceptance.
Take a New Look at the Yellow Crayon
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 for a couple of years now. As long as Mom is near Dad, she seems happy enough. 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. 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.”
I hand Mom a yellow crayon and I pick up a purple. 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. END HERE?
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. I might see if she and I could draw something together. Whatever we did, I would cherish that shared time.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
COMING SOON: CONNECTING IN THE LAND OF DEMENTIA: CREATIVE ACTIVITIES TO EXPLORE TOGETHER