I was with my mother yesterday for only the second time since COVID began. She has Alzheimer’s Disease and lives in a memory care unit, which means our access to her has been extremely limited. As I expected, she no longer recognizes me as her son.
I would like to blame that loss on COVID, but the truth is that her capacities were already in steep decline. She has been sick for more nearly 10 years now. While I would not wish this disease on anyone, I have learned so much from it. The greatest lesson my mother has ever taught me is her last one.
Over the years, many well-meaning people have warned me how awful dementia is. Last year someone told me the worst day of my life would be the day my mother no longer recognizes me. This has not been my experience. One of my mother’s mantras at the beginning of her illness was, “It is what it is.” This tautology seems trite, yet I have found it to be pregnant with meaning. What does it mean to accept reality as it is? It means questioning my expectations of how life should be and learning to embrace what actually is.
When I harbor the thought, “My mother should recognize me,” my limited time with her will be full of suffering. Yet if I am willing to question that thought and instead ask, “Why should my mother recognize me?” I can be open to what is—a beautiful, innocent human being who does not recognize me but is willing to share an hour together.
What a gift! Nothing in reality has changed—only my thoughts about it, yet the experience is vastly different. My resistance to reality creates my suffering, but if I can accept and even learn to love what is, suddenly hell becomes heaven.
I do miss the hilarious, caring woman my mother was. I wish my son could know her the way I once did, but sitting with her yesterday was far more beautiful than painful. Conversation is not something she is capable of anymore, so instead we just sat together, soaking in the time we had.
We sang to her for a while. I played her music that she once loved, not because she would remember it (I don’t think she did), but because this music was once meaningful to us. Perhaps it can be so again. As a child, my mom had John Denver on vinyl. I can still see her close her eyes and smile when we used to listen to “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” Yesterday, I played it for her, and one line hit me like a ton of bricks, “If I had a day that I could give you, I’d give to you the day just like today.”
Tears fell as I realized, it is what it is. Reality is enough. I do not wish to give her days gone by. The day we were spending together was full of sunshine and beauty. The only thing keeping me from seeing it are my thoughts of what should be. But if I can accept and love what is, then our time was a taste of heaven.
How much of our suffering comes from fighting reality? If we can learn to accept and love what is, we are free to experience life in its fullness—what Jesus called abundant life (John 10:10). In a time of many losses over what once was and fears over what will be, learning to embrace reality as it is may just be the path to the life we have always wanted. It is what it is.
Written by the Rev. Joel A. Esala, Circleville Presbyterian Church for The Circleville Herald.