“Those with dementia are still people and they still have stories and they still have character and they’re all individuals and they’re all unique. And they just need to be interacted with on a human level.” ~ Carey Mulligan
Today, as I’m writing about this memory, it is October 7th, the Feast of our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Pope Benedict XVI has shared that “it is as if every year Our Divine Mother invites us to rediscover the beauty of this prayer, so simple and profound.” The rosary is a meditative set of prayers recited on beads that recall different aspects of the Holy Scriptures. The recitation of the rosary invites us, through the repetition, to come into a place of blessed, contemplative peace. My mother taught me to say the rosary prayers with her when I was a preschool aged little girl.
Yes, my mom, Eileen, was a sweet, attentive, deeply loving and devoted parent. A quiet, intuitive, gentle type, she was known for her hospitality, generosity and her warm laugh. My mom had a propensity for remembering events, people, poetry and history; we all loved this about her. My brothers and I all tremendously benefitted from mom’s encouragement and her vision for each of us to pursue our gifts so we could serve the world with love.
Eileen had known adversity, being born in a rural town in Ireland during the depression with her younger sister passing at 3 weeks old and then her dad passing when she was only seven. Right after World War II, in her teen years, she was sent to work in England and developed rheumatic fever that caused her to be hospitalized. Fortunately, at age 19, my great-aunt Margaret sponsored my mom to come to the United States. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that she would again face tremendous sadness with the death of three of her brothers to cancer in a very short period. But none of this could have prepared mom for the final chapter of her life. In late 2003, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia, a disease that reduces blood flow to the brain, damaging brain functions, memory and cognition. In the last decade of her life, we witnessed the tragic dissolution of her independence. Fortunately, my dad and my youngest brother’s family were incredible in providing for her care.
In May 2007, I decided to go back home to Connecticut to spend Mother’s Day weekend with my parents. They were still in the home where we had grown up and dad was thrilled for my visit to provide him with a bit of respite from caretaking. Dad had found that rituals helped my mother to feel safe, and they had a tradition each weekday morning of watching Catholic Mass on a local TV station. It was Friday morning, and dad headed out early to make his golfing tee time. With the progression in her illness, by this visit, mom no longer knew who I was, but she did recognize that dad had warmly greeted me, and so she seemed happy to be in my company. We watched Mass together and at the end of it, the Priest invited us to say the Rosary – so I went ahead and pulled out beads for mom and me, and started to recite the prayers.
I’ll never forget how she looked at me in that moment with such great curiosity. When it had ended, I turned off the TV and she immediately said, “teach me – teach me what you were saying.” It took everything in me, not to burst into tears. It was one of those moments in life where I called upon the Blessed Mother to give me strength. And with so much gentleness, I placed my mom’s fingers on each bead, and slowly taught her the words of each prayer. She was absolutely enthused about it. My hands had trembled, many times my voice had cracked – but this wasn’t about me. This was about beautiful Eileen, the woman who had cared for me so lovingly, and had taught the same prayers to me over 50 years before. It was sacred time. As we held the beads formed in the circle, I was reminded of the circle of life, and what a privilege it was to be in that moment with my mom.
Later in the day, when my dad got home, mom was just overjoyed sharing that she had learned the rosary from the nice lady who was having a cup of tea. My dad and I exchanged a tearful glance and dad warmly congratulated her for her accomplishment.
On this day each year, I think back on this very special exchange that mom and I had that day many years ago now. I was given a glimpse of the beautiful, sweet little girl my mother must have been. Tia Walker has shared that “to care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors” — yes, indeed it is.
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