“Are you looking for Selma?” someone asked.
I turned around to see an attractive, young Latino woman with a name tag indicating she worked in the assisted-living facility where my mother lived. She smiled at me.
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
“She’s in our church service that’s just getting started. I’ll take you to her.”
I followed her down the hall past the main dining room. I recognized several of the women who were preparing the tables for the Sunday noon meal. It was Easter Sunday, and the tables looked lovely with centerpieces of fresh colorful flowers. The main dining room was a very large, bright room with a row of windows in the rear that offered good views of the manicured back yard. The round tables seated eight people. The napkins and table cloths were white linen. It was like a dining room in a resort hotel, or on the Titanic, I thought as I walked past it.
“Here we are,” Rosa said. She pointed to a room on our right. I stepped into the space as she opened the door for me.
The small, white, windowless room looked more suitable for a clandestine rendezvous than a worship service. But the cluster of seated parishioners waited expectantly as an older man in a dark suit and tie supervised a younger man and woman as they prepared to lead the faithful on this holiest of days. I searched the group for my mother but didn’t find her.
“Sheila, is that you? Well, darling, you didn’t call me. I can’t believe it!” I heard my mother’s voice and searched for the source. And there she was, sitting in a wheel chair in the front row that consisted of six women in wheel chairs. That’s why I hadn’t found her. I wasn’t looking at the row of wheel chairs because I had never seen my mother in one before. I was stunned and heart-broken. Since my last visit a month ago, she wasn’t able to move on her own. I walked to her and gave her a big hug and kissed her cheek.
“I know I didn’t call. I wanted to surprise you,” I said to her. “I hope you’re glad I came?”
She nodded, and her face lit up with genuine joy. “Oh, yes.”
Rosa brought a chair for me and set it next to my mother. She introduced me to the volunteer priest and his assistants—a young married couple who were helping for the special service.
“This is my daughter, Sheila,” my mother said to them. “She’s come all the way from South Carolina. It’s a thousand miles to South Carolina.”
They murmured their appreciation for my journey. Then, they returned to their preparations as they lit votive candles placed on an old, tiny, wooden table next to the brown lectern a few feet away from us. The trio appeared to be a bit disorganized as they attempted to separate well-worn prayer booklets from newer handouts made especially for Easter. We were close enough to hear them discussing their roles for the service while they distributed the materials to the residents.
“These people are Catholics, so we read a lot from books they bring,” my mother confided to me in a tone that was not her quiet voice. “The songs are awful. Nobody plays any music.”
Indeed, Mom was right. We read from the booklets whenever we all found the same page. Our liturgies were frequently interrupted by arguments among the women in the front row involving page numbers and the bold lettering of responses. The priest and young couple appeared unfazed and totally at ease with these outbursts regarding the order of worship and general confusion. They stopped, turned pages for the women, and moved bravely forward with the readings of the day. Thanks be to God.
Mom was also right about the music. It was terrible. I felt sorry for the poor priest who tried to inspire us to sing. Evidently, very few members of the makeshift congregation were practicing Catholics. Those who were had forgotten the un-melodic songs. Everyone attempted to make a joyful noise, but, in the end, the tunes lacked eighteenth-century chord structure, and the priest eventually gave up on us. The room breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The service culminated with the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. One slight problem was that no one remembered to bring the wine representing the blood of Christ. No matter. The younger couple had brought the wafers purporting to be the body of Christ, and they moved through the room offering the bread to each member of the congregation. Wine wasn’t mandatory for real communion, as their sweet smiles surely fed the souls gathered in that room. Amen.
When the service was over, Rosa came to collect her group that needed an escort to their area. I told her I would take Mom, and I pushed my mother down the hall past the main dining room to the Memory Care Unit. It was a short distance in literal measurements, but the length of the hallway spanned two different worlds. I reached the locked door to the Unit and discovered the security code had changed since my previous visit. I left Mom at the door and went to get the new code from an attendant. By the time I returned, another woman stood behind Mom’s wheel chair. She had decided to push the chair for some reason known only to her. I held the door for them, and she rolled Mom into the secured section.
She continued to push the chair slowly through the community room and down a smaller hallway to Mom’s room. As I opened the door, she wheeled my mother into her room and stood silently behind her. Mom seemed to notice her for the first time.
“What are you doing here?” she asked sharply. “You don’t belong in my room.”
“They told me to come in here,” the woman replied defensively. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Yes, you do,” my mother said with a degree of exasperation. “And, I want you to go this minute.”
“Mom, I’ll take her to her room,” I said. “Give me a second, and I’ll be right back.”
The elderly woman was attractive, but she had a vacant look in her eyes that appealed to me for direction. I took her hand and led her out of Mom’s room and down the hall to the left.
“Do you know which room is yours?” I asked her. She shook her head.
We stopped at each of the five apartment doors on Mom’s hall. It was like a college dormitory, I thought. Each door had the occupant’s name on a small brass plate. We stopped in front of every one of them.
“Are you Alice?” I asked. She considered that name thoughtfully, and then shook her head.
“Are you Mary?” I asked at the next door. Without hesitation, she shook her head vigorously. Definitely not Mary.
“Well, I know you aren’t Ben,” I said, as we moved along. Apparently, she wasn’t so sure. She stared at Ben’s door.
I felt someone behind me and turned to see Rosa walking quickly toward us.
“Willa. Here you are,” Rosa said. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you. We were worried.”
The woman whose name was Willa dropped my hand and reached for Rosa’s. She smiled and relaxed. Someone knew who she was.
“I was running out of doors,” I said. “I’m glad you found us. Willa was fine, but I think she was worried, too.”
Rosa led Willa away, and I watched the two of them. Willa was like a lost gentle lamb that had been rescued by a familiar shepherd.
“It’s time for lunch,” Rosa said. “Do you need help with Selma?”
“No, I’ll bring her now.”
I dreaded lunch in the Memory Care Unit. We ate in a modest room around the corner from the common living area. The tables had the same white linen napkins and table cloths like the ones in the main dining room and a reasonable attempt for floral centerpieces, but it was decidedly different. The first thing I noticed on this Easter Sunday was there were fewer people in the group. The tables were arranged to seat two or three now instead of the longer ones that had accommodated six and eight. Many of the usual faces were gone, and I wondered if death had taken them, or if the economy forced their caregivers to move them. I counted twelve, and I remembered the number had been twenty-two when Mom joined the Unit two and a half years ago. Six of the twelve had been with her from the beginning.
I knew the staff, and they made a place for Mom and me at a table for two. This involved changing the routine seating arrangements and wasn’t easy. Willa was sitting alone and happily exchanged her chair to sit in Mom’s regular place next to Jean, who showed her displeasure by slapping Mom’s hand when she moved. Mom quickly notified everyone in the room, and Jean was properly admonished by the staff for her inappropriate behavior. Jean and Mom had a shaky relationship at best, and I had a feeling this conflict wasn’t unusual. Jean didn’t display a shred of contrition, and Mom forgot it ten seconds later when her fried chicken arrived.
The food was delicious, and Mom and I both enjoyed the meal and being together. She told me to be sure and save room for dessert because on Sunday, we got ice cream sundaes. We did get them, and they were as good as she promised. Our conversation was the only one in the room, however. The others were quiet as the three women who served us moved among the residents to encourage them to eat. Jean continued to pout and complained periodically that Mom was too loud and that the woman who was sitting with Mom wasn’t supposed to be there. Communion with attitude. Amen?
The traditional Easter egg hunt came to us mid-afternoon through the children of the staff members. The day was beautiful, and the fenced courtyard area was the perfect setting for a party. Those in our lunch group pushed their walkers or were wheeled outside into the bright sunlight, and those who could sat in the Adirondack chairs under the portico. I met three other daughters who were visiting their mothers today and was glad I was there with my mother.
Willa was one of several women who made their own Easter bonnets in a pre-party craft activity. She was quite pleased with it and carefully held it in place on her head the entire afternoon. Mom missed the bonnet fun, but she loved watching the children find the eggs with the candy in them.
The Latino women who took care of my mother and the others brought their children to enjoy the search for the pastel-colored plastic eggs filled with candy in the tranquil setting of the facility’s outdoors. Eggs were hidden everywhere, including on and around the residents. Jim, a tall, sad, unshaven man who never spoke and who struggled to move opened the egg Rosa placed in his shirt pocket and ate the candy before the kids arrived. He wasn’t waiting.
The small group of children burst into the courtyard with an exuberance all youngsters bring to filling an Easter basket. Ages ranged from four to twelve, with one six-month-old baby girl held by her mother. They were dressed in their Sunday best. Little boys had ties and jackets, and little girls were in pretty dresses. It could’ve been a movie set, I thought, because they were strikingly good-looking. They flew around grabbing eggs with gusto, and their baskets filled quickly. They were noisy, laughing, talking, and incredibly alive.
It was the Resurrection. For a few brief minutes, the stones were rolled away from the minds buried deep in the tombs of the bodies that kept them hidden. The children raced around the residents searching for treasures and exclaiming with delight when one was discovered. One little boy overlooked a blue egg under a wheel chair, and Jean tapped his shoulder and pointed it out to him. He was elated, and flashed a brilliant smile at her. She responded with a look of pure delight. The smiles and murmurings of the elderly were clear signs of their obvious joy and happiness that proclaimed the reality of Easter. Hallelujah. We were all risen.
Memories were made and lost that afternoon. The children who came to the place where their mothers worked to find eggs among the old people were unlikely to forget this day. Years from now some will tell the stories of the Easter Egg Hunt with the Ancient Ones. The stories will be as different as their own journeys will take them. For my mother and her friends, no stories will be told because they won’t remember. My mother doesn’t know I was there for her on Easter this year, and that’s to be expected. But, I remember I was, and it’s enough for now.
I was born on Easter Sunday morning in April 1946, and that makes this year my sixty-fourth Easter. I recollect a few of the earliest ones from my childhood, and they are good memories because they are about the love and warmth of my family. I also remember having a hard time finding eggs in the church hunts. But, to be honest, in recent years, Easter Sundays have been difficult to distinguish from any other day of the week. When I moved away from my family in Texas as a young adult to explore my identity and resolve my conflicts within myself, I didn’t know I’d be gone for forty years. I also had no way of knowing one of the costs of my freedom from family togetherness was my absence from family rituals. Distance, travel time, money, job obligations, girlfriends—these were the obstacles I had to overcome for visits home. Or, maybe they were just excuses. I usually made the trip at Christmas, and less frequently, one more time in the summer. But never for Easter.
This Easter was special for me because it was a day with no excuses necessary. I shared a Sunday sundae with my mother today at a table neither of us could have envisioned a few years before. It was just the two of us, and, if there were barriers between us that once seemed too impenetrable, they were now lost in the cobwebs of time.
We are all risen, indeed.
Glad you had the time with your Mom,. bittersweet as it was.
Yes, it’s been good to be with her these last years…