My memories come in two forms. Some are like butterflies – colorful, bright, and fluttering happily and busily through my mind. Then, of course there are the bothersome gnats – those recollections that cloud my vision, follow the scent of my past relentlessly, and have me dodging them erratically and willy-nilly as I walk down my path of memories. I love remembering the butterflies, but the brushes of their wings are not always able to wipe off the gnats from the sticky skin of my soul’s memory.
I received the butterfly memory shown here from a young cousin. The photo is one she found while sorting through a box in her closet, and is one her father had taken of our eldest son, Josh at about 2-1/2 years of age. Fuzzily pictured in the background is his Daddy, watching with that “Abba” kind of love that speaks of pride and joy. Josh is looking into the camera’s eye, standing there in his pajama-blanket, a bit sleepy-eyed, his head crowned with taffy-like, curly blond hair. He’s not exactly smiling, but certainly not frowning. He has the look of a boy with grown-up answers muddled with child-like questions. Josh, now 33, is our dreamer. He has always been thoughtful with his questions and answers, and filled with a multitude of observations of the world that surrounds him. I am constantly mystified by what he notices, but also by what he doesn’t. He seemed then, and still, to see things and understand what others do not, while often missing the obvious. But then again, what is obvious to each person is different. And Josh was always and is still wonderfully different, and he daily brings me butterflies.
We are a family of singers. When our boys were young, we sang children’s songs, or simple choruses, and sometimes a spiritual. We all loved music and enjoyed listening to and singing, again and again, our favorites in order to pass the time spent on long drives to visit family. One of the songs we sang frequently was “Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me…look away beyond the blue.” When Josh was about the same age as in the picture above, I was driving our boys over the southern part of Vermont from a small town in up-state New York where we lived at the time. We were on our way to New Hampshire to visit for a while with my parents. Matt was still a baby, and slept through most of the journey, snugly fastened into his car seat. There are several spectacular views of the Green Mountains of Vermont as you take the route we were on, and at certain points you can see out over the range of mountains, towering over the valley below. It was a crystal-clear, cloudless day, and Josh and I were enjoying the scenery and adding our own musical soundtrack. As we rounded a curve, we saw before us a glorious scene, and our voices were immediately hushed. I pulled the car over and we stopped to gaze at the sunlit mountain vista, spread out like a gift just for us. Suddenly the quiet was interrupted as Josh gasped and then shouted, “Oh, LOOK Mommy! ‘Way beyond the blue!'” To this day I can hear that sweet voice, and I remember with tears that holy moment. I was intensely aware of Josh’s profound understanding of what he was witnessing. What had been to us a song to pass the time had now become something very real to him. He had been imagining the scene, as we sang it countless times, and suddenly there it was in front of him, and he could not contain his awe and joy.
Gnats have their season as well. They crop up in swarms sometimes, and while I work to swat them out of my mind, the efforts generally fail, and for me that is probably best. Contrast has served me well, and continues to make the butterflies brighter and more vivid. I do not know when I became aware of how different I am from my mother in this respect, but as I grew it became increasingly apparent that she had the remarkable ability to forget the gnats. She kept no memory of anything “bad” in her life. Even when she recalled the death of her father, it had become a butterfly long before it was relegated to her memory bank. While Mom was still in her 20’s, and shortly before my eldest brother was born, her father had a heart attack and collapsed before her eyes. She began to do whatever she could to keep him alive. While hastily doing some measure of CPR, she heard a voice clearly say, “Pearl, let him go… let him go.” And so she did. At the same instant that she lost her beloved earthly father, she received the blessed assurance of the intimate presence of her heavenly Father, and was at peace. As long as she was able to remember anything, she remembered that moment with joy. The last ten years of her own life, however, saw almost all of her memories erased by Alzheimer’s Disease. It is difficult for me to describe that time as anything but a slowly unfolding nightmare – a nightmare that took more than ten years to end, and one that still haunts me in its own fashion.
Alzheimer’s takes its toll in stages, and is not content to exact that price from just one person, but also from all who love and care for those suffering from this cruel disease. The essential person is gone while the shell of a body remains to constantly remind you of who s/he was and is no longer. I am often plagued with great swarms of gnats from this time, yet there is also an exquisite butterfly that is able to scatter them. My mother was among the most joyful, joy-filled people I have ever known; she truly lived out her faith in the Savior she had loved since childhood. She always seemed to have a smile on her face, or laughter in her eyes. She was tender-hearted, concerned, active, and confidently prayerful for all in need. She personified joy. I was of a decidedly different temperament, and when I was young, this quality of hers irritated me to no end. On maturing, I came to know how blessed I was to have her in my life. Butterflies always hovered near her, and all who knew and loved my Mom were graced with their beauty.
As the Alzheimer’s advanced, caring for her and keeping her safe became more than we could handle on our own, and she entered a nursing home. One particular day I went into her room and found her crying, a sight that shocked me deeply. I had seen her cry only once before in my life with her. When my eldest brother telephoned her shortly before he shipped off to the war zone in Viet Nam, she softly wept as their bittersweet conversation ended, and she said good-bye. It did not take long for her tears to dry. She prayerfully yielded her sorrow to God, and soon exhibited her confidence that everything would be okay. When I saw her crying that afternoon at the nursing home, she looked up at me with fear in her eyes, something I had never seen in her, and said, “Paula, is everything going to be alright?” My own tears began to flow as I hugged her and said, “Of course it will, Mamma – everything is going to be fine.” Her next question cut even deeper into my heart: “How do you know?” There came to me only one answer, and through my tears I blurted it out, “Because you told me so.”
Always with patience and love, my mother – throughout my difficult and painful adolescence – helped me to accept life as it happened, to learn from it, and to grow. Mom told me – through all the trials, hurts, and sadness – “Paula, let it go…everything will turn out just fine. Be patient, put your trust in God, and release your anger, pain and fears – let God have it all. God will take care of you. Everything will be OK.” Remembering well the lessons she taught, her plaintive question, “How do you know?” broke my heart. Besides having robbed her of the wonderful memories – the dazzling butterflies – of her life, it seemed Alzheimer’s robbed her of the “blessed assurance” she had for so long possessed. At the time, that is all I could understand of what was happening to her mind and body.
On one of the last days I saw her, and the last time she spoke to me, I was sitting with her in the common room of the nursing home. She had that terrible, blank and empty look that is so typical of Alzheimer’s – the look that says, “Nobody’s home.” I was babbling on, telling her about what I was doing, how my husband and our boys were doing, and what was going on with our extended family. She was paying no attention to anything I was saying, indeed she had no attention to pay. So I ceased talking at her, and just sat with her, holding her hand. Completely unexpectedly, an expression – a sign of thought and total comprehension – came across her face and was apparent in her eyes. I sat forward and said in wonderment, “Mamma, what are you thinking about?” As though she did not hear me, she turned her head away, and so I repeated the question: “Mamma, what are you thinking about?” Very deliberately then, she turned her face toward me, looked directly into my eyes and said,
“Love one another.”
Then, as quickly as the certainty had come into her eyes, it was gone again. But I at last knew and understood that it was still there inside of her. God had spoken to me through my mother as surely as God had spoken to her on the day her father died. That butterfly came and has hovered near me ever since. Buried, deep inside of her by an awful disease, God lived in her heart, and my Mom knew it. She understood it, and was holding fast to it, in the deepest recesses of her soul. Those words of Scripture, spoken by so many in passing, and which are often just words on paper or recited by rote, she had truly grasped, ever since she came to know Jesus Christ. Just as Joshua understood the beauty around him, so too did my mother understand the Word that lived within her still.
“Love one another… love one another… love one another… love…”