Attending. (the) Last. Stretch.

She leaned across the table, peering around the fresh lace-cap hydrangeas I had cut, the little pink roses peeking out, and asked me in her kindliest voice, the one reserved for the politeness due strangers, for my name.  The air was sucked out of the dining room where my family had gathered for a Mother’s Day dinner, where my husband’s sizzling lamb and asparagus were set before her, the air gone out for one sliver of a moment, before I recovered and jumped up to put my arms around her, saying Mother, it is me, your daughter, and she cried to know that she had not known.

As I tuck her arm into mine to navigate down the hallway of their home where smooth white carpeting stretches before us, my reassurance that all is flat and safe ahead is not entirely trusted.  For her, there are paralyzing stairs to negotiate as she trembles forward, sliding her loafer ahead to test each frightening step.  The way ahead, she seems to intuit, is one of descent.

I have watched my father’s muscles abandon their posts, one by one, seceding with ALS from his clear and commanding mind.  Now, I am watching my mother’s mind foreclose.   As my father’s muscles grow still and stiller, her legs grow restless and anxious to roam, as though she carries the jump and flare of movement for them both.  She wanders rooms, grasping a cane, peering into darkness, with a lifelong need to be of use.  But what she is looking for eludes her.  She is at home, looking for home.

African Americans in the South have a word for this stretch of the journey.  They call it traveling.  As though there is a fluid time between life and death, an in-between, a crepuscular hour through which one may meander, visiting the dead we cannot see, going far places we do not know how to name.  I prefer traveling to the medical terms we dread to hear — it honors this stretch as integral to the journey.  It suggests a necessary loosening of the grip on this mapped territory and clocked time, an opening to other mysteries that surprise us yet.

So, my mother is traveling, I want to say. She describes the waiting room where she looks for a plane to board; she prepares for a crossing toward home; she searches the darkening sky. Her eyesight is gone, and so she is right to move cautiously through the dim shape of these days, seeing things only through a glass darkly, yearning toward the face-to-face.

My father sits beside her, his slurred words now too thick for her to understand.  He holds her hand when he can reach that far; he smiles to warm and reassure her; he grieves to see her go another way.  She blows a kiss back to him, across the foggy bottom.  Even there, in the murky, tenebrous passages they travel, love is never lost.

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~ by Susan on 05/22/2012.

16 Responses to “Attending. (the) Last. Stretch.”

  1. Beautifully sad; inescapable.

  2. Oh Susan,
    Traveling, yes. Wandering…yes, that too. Going down to places we don’t want to visit, much less abide. Your words light that pathway with love, pain, wisdom, beauty. You are indeed her daughter, and his, and your many gifts as a writer, teacher, friend, arbiter of woven stories and treasures is a tribute to both of them.

  3. Thank you, Susan, for sharing these lovely thoughts with us. I was a member of Laurens First Baptist when David and Jane were there. We love them and continue to follow them through Christmas letters, facebook, and emails. My mother, who is 92, really loved David. She moved to a patio home at Martha Franks Baptist Retirement Center in 2006. This past January Dr Patterson told her she needed to move to the dorm because her health was on a decline. My mom has always been very healthy and loved being a part of everything going on at church and the Center. She isn’t able to do that now and that breaks my heart. She lives in a state of confusion. I like the idea of calling this time the traveling time. It definitely is a time we are all going through. I’ve subscribed to your blog and look forward to following your posts. Yours in Christian Love, Nancy Stroble

    • Thank you, Nancy, for these words that join us.
      Blessings on you and your mother.

  4. Susan,

    So beautifully written, so sad, so true. I wish I had had this to read before my parents passed on.

    Sarah Haydon

    • Sarah Martin,
      How astonishing and lovely to hear from you across the years. Thank you for finding your way somehow to this site, to the Hull family, and for writing so that I could find you. I would love to have a peek into your life. Did you know that my father’s last trip was with me to Goettingen? We met David’s family there and toured old ground and often was your name mentioned. I hope you’re well. Warmly, Susan

      • I knew you had been back to Goettingen. I have kept up with all of you thru the years, first from things Mother and Daddy would hear, then from the great Christmas newsletters from your mom and dad, and finally, thru this blog. I have written a couple of times to Bill and Wylodine–didn’t expect an answer, just wanted to let them know that the marriage service he performed “took”–45 years and counting! I did so appreciate the final newsletter you sent out filling in some of the details of their lives. You all will always be a part of my extended family. I can still see us all packed like sardines in that little VW “bug!”

        Please continue to share with the world. YOu write so beautifully–I can hear your Dad sometimes! I have passed word of this blog along to several people, not just those dealing with ALS, but other end of life issues as well. What you have to say helps anyone.

        My best to all of you–
        Sarah Martin

  5. How marvelous, Susan, to find your words so incredibly beautiful about times that are indeed and obviously so difficult. As I read your tribute, I’m torn between being excited to hear what you have to say– and how you so eloquently say it– and being moved to tears at your journey with your parents. Bless you.

    • Tate, You are wonderful to stay on this path with me and Stephanie, and so devotedly. Thank you, and for your generous, welcome words. Susan

  6. Thank you Susan, for sharing your experience with your mother and father with us as we become their students once again during these traveling times.

    They have been teaching thousands of us all of their lives. And now, you and your brother and your extended family help us, and them, more than you can know. Peace to all of you. Thank you.

    • A wonderful surprise to hear from you, Malcolm. Thank you for your words, for being in touch, for following the family. I hope you are well. Susan

  7. I read this quietly, struck by its pain and power. Thank you for sharing your graceful writing with us, for sharing your parents and your reflections and deep, profound thoughts. I send you healing thoughts and prayers as you continue.

    • Elizabeth, Thank you for continuing to be with me and Stephanie along this way. Your comments always inspire and keep me going – I’m so appreciative of this back-door kinship I feel with you. Susan

  8. Beautiful Susan. Exploring the concept and experience of “traveling” with our parents is intriguing. We are in the process with our family now as well and this post came at just the right time for me. Seems as though many of your and Stephanie’s posts do! Sending love.

  9. My responses to what you write are so filled with overpowering emotions that I keep staring at the blank space for “reply” feeling unable to express them with mere words, dear Susan. Thank you for saying so much so beautifully, my friend. Your Dad’s recent letter about your Mom and his enclosure of your most recent blog came as a shock and evoked a flood of tears. I love each one of you very much and “would to God” that your lives were not filled with as many heartaches and challenges. Thank you ever so much for a new way to think of “traveling” as a stretch of time to “honor…a necessary loosening of the grip on…mapped territory and clocked time, – an opening to other mysteries that surprise us yet.” I am blessed and grateful to reconnect with you through this amazing blog by you and Susan, and will read much of what you write many times over. With a heart full of love and many prayers, Ann Claypool Beard

  10. Oh my, Susan. What a road YOU are traveling.

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