Spending time with my mother as she neared the end of her life, it felt like someone had set up a mirror at the point at which the spirit enters and leaves the physical realm. Her declining mental faculties and increasing dependence were a mirror-image of the increasing capacity of a baby developing into childhood.

Accepting the changes brought by dementia meant allowing myself to enjoy my mother’s ‘second childhood’, and to take delight in the same small things that she would have noticed in me as an infant – the few words that made sense in between the gobbledegook; helping with simple cutting, pasting and colouring-in activities in the weekly arts and crafts class; and lunchtime games that helped her to finish her veggies. All these simple things became opportunities for closeness, for celebration, and for wonder.

Mum as a baby

Welcome the child

 Jesus said you must become
as a little child to enter Heaven.
My mother took Him at His word!
In her later years she set about
dismantling responsible adulthood.

 As if she felt she had ‘mothered’ enough
and longed instead for some care and fun,
my identity morphed
from one week to the next
from daughter to mother to sister to friend.

 Coming home to a make-believe world,
she who had taught us to speak the truth
started breaking the rules and telling lies!
But her joy exposed the vanity
of clinging too tightly to sanity.

 And when she reached the end of her life,
closing the circle where it had begun,
I beheld her childlike innocence
with the same delight and tenderness
with which she had first welcomed me.

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I wish I could say that I graciously accepted the fact of my mother’s dementia from the outset. But I didn’t. For a long time I resisted what was happening, measuring her life with a yardstick of loss. I found myself snapping impatiently when she asked me the same question yet again, or told me the same story for the umpteenth time. Then I would feel ashamed and berate myself for my lack of compassion. I was unaware then that her dementia would open up a space in which I would learn much deeper lessons about life than I had from our ‘sensible’ conversations. But first I had to stop resisting.

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Life Cycle Lessons

Life’s equilibrium turned on its head:
Irritability, fear and dread,
As I watched my mother, the one who cares,
Losing her memory in her later years.

Facing mortality, witnessing loss
Of her capacity turning to dross,
I fought to resist it, not to move on,
But the pull of the cycle of life was too strong.

Far from the rational, certain and sure,
A land beyond logic was calling to her.
Fearless she stepped through the portal of grace,
Joining the elders whose love holds this space.

Week after week, the salve of her patience
Softened each one of my symptoms of fear.
I wrapped myself in the shawl of acceptance,
Knowing she’d gone before and would always be near.

Dementia blessings 3

One of the gifts of spending time with a parent with dementia is that eventually you give up trying to have a conversation about the mundane doings of everyday, and sink into a slower, quieter, more heart-centered engagement. When I started allowing myself to be with Mum in this way, it felt like the difference between communication and communion …

Communing

Communion

Forgetting has untethered you
From time and space and ought and should;
Freed you from multitasking myths
That bind me to anxious adulthood.

Simply being right here, right now,
Beyond the reach of memories
Or clever plans or strategies,
You dwell in present timelessness.

Patiently you wait for me
To tire of the unnecessary
Conversations that ask and tell
Of ‘what we did’ – inconsequential!

At last my pace begins to slow.

No need for words as we commune;
Your loving gaze invites me home.
You beckon me to make a start
Upon a journey from head to heart.

Dementia is on the rise globally, with the number of cases expected to double every twenty years. It can be terrifying to discover that your parent or grandparent is losing their memory. It brings up a host of fears about the future – both theirs and yours.

Yet, over the last 14 years of our mother’s life, as her cognitive faculties declined and she became increasingly dependent on others, we also experienced that this condition can bring with it the most profound blessings.

Over the next few weeks, I will be dedicating my nature solos to exploring and reflecting on this aspect of mum’s life and legacy. Here is my first offering …

mum clapping

Breaking through

No longer
chained to social norms
nor memories of loss
and pain,
as the past withdraws
your waning brain allows
your soul to soar.

 Your spirit
nourished through your life
by early morning prayer
breaks through
the density of flesh
to shine on us
with love and joy.

Dementia blessings – 1

This year started on a sad note. Our darling mum Elizabeth passed away on 17 January 2016. Mum had advanced dementia. Over the last decade, I had spent most Mondays with her, learning so much about life, love and communication. So, yesterday being Monday, I decided to continue the Mum-day tradition by spending time with my memories of mum in the supportive presence of Mother Nature.

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What drew me to this place beyond
your transitioning
On a day dripping with enervation,
Like your last day
When the heat-wave broke over you
Dragging you under?

The stony bed
Its stream departed, like your life
percolating away
With every rattling breath.

This boulder, as cold
To my back as your forehead
To my palm at our final parting.

That single leaf
Spiralling as it falls,
Released.

Cicadas, insistent,
Interminable as the priest
Belting out his too-long sermon,
Quickening the flick of my agitated fan.

Barefoot on the sacred ground
I light a candle
Contemplate your image
Kiss the lock of your white hair.

I mourn your passing, ache
For your soft touch, your
Knowing look, your
Ever-outstretched love.

The living-dying forest comforts me
With blessings of green-filtered sunlight.
Your spirit draws close
On the breeze.

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It was a still autumn afternoon as I sat at the weir on Nursery Stream at Kirstenbosch. The reflections of the forest trees were so clear that I could hardly make out the rocky bottom of the shallow pond. Something as immaterial as a reflection in the pond’s surface had effectively obscured what was ‘really there’.

It was a timely reminder that emotions can distort our perception of situations, and that it takes effort and a change of perspective to see what’s really going on ‘beneath the surface’.

illusion 1illusion most real

Still afternoon pool
mirrors encircling trees.
Whirligig
betrays the surface.

What is real here?

Upside-down world floats,
obscures what lies beneath;
rock and stone
lie hidden in the
shallow crystal stream.

Seen and unseen touch
where air and water meet.
Emotion
drowns reality,
veiling your truth from me.

illusion 3    illusion 2

Aloes are amongst the best defended plants I know. Their thick spiny leaves and bitter sap safeguard their watery reserves through the long dry summers. These defences make aloes look like really tough characters. But the aloe plant I sat with the other day told me a different story. Like many of us, its prickly exterior protects an inner vulnerability.

I learnt from aloe about the importance of boundaries. By protecting its leaves, aloe is free to give generously of its nectar throughout the winter when there is a huge demand for this high-energy food. It’s the same with us – healthy boundaries protect us from feeling exploited and burning out, and enable us to share our special gifts more sustainably with others.

aloe 1bitter-sweet aloe

You look at me – assume I’m tough,
able to survive a drought.
Thick of skin and sharp of spine, but
you don’t know me from inside-out.

 Protected by my saw-like leaves
and bitter sap is a tender heart;
I fear unbridled neediness
will fast deplete what I can impart.

But look again – in my ample arms
I cradle buds like lime-green cones.
Seasons of flowers, dripping sweet,
this is the gift I can sustain.

aloe 2     aloe 3