My mom has lived through a lot in her life.
There were few luxuries in the rural upbringing Betty Gilpin Miller experienced in and near her hometown of Salmon, Idaho, but she had many things that would make her happy — a strong family with strong values, siblings to grow up with, horses to ride, parents who cared about her and taught her the value of hard work.
The real challenges and tests of character came after she became an adult. She married a man who she shared a deep love with, had two children and conceived a third before that blossoming partnership was taken away in a heartbeat in a tragic accident. She was left to raise three children mainly by herself with one of them living with a severe case of cerebral palsy. She lived through the shock and pain of losing a son when he was 10 years old. Dealing with loneliness led her to a second marriage filled with abuse in various ways — including the violent kind — a third marriage that turned out to be a mistake, a relationship that was based more on her citizenship than any true feelings. She did find love again years later and experienced real happiness later in life, only to see that taken away much too quickly by a monster known as cancer.
She’s lived through raising two children to adulthood, dealt with poverty along the way, with worries galore. She’s lived with epilepsy and survived a benign tumor in her brain being removed. She’s shown concern to the point of worrying too much countless times. She’s shown a stubborn streak many miles long. She can also show love that’s genuine beyond measure.
She’s had to be strong. She’s among the strongest women I’ve ever known.
And now — nearing the age of 85, living in a care center in her hometown while still wanting to maintain her strong sense of independence, with kidney issues from not drinking enough beneficial fluids and some form of dementia along the lines of Sundowners Syndrome kicking in — this strong woman is showing just how fragile we are.
My family of five along with a son’s fiancee and a family friend made a trip to see Mom for the first time in much too long over the Labor Day weekend — for me, it’s been over 3 1/2 years, for others it’s been up to six years — and that fragility was on display.
We arrived in Salmon and went straight to her room at the care center around late afternoon Saturday. I knew going in that it wasn’t Mom’s “best time” mentally, although I’d seen her for the first time before around that time, and she still at least showed outright excitement to see me, recognition of who I was, and we’d share some happy talk. This time, she was extremely quiet, withdrawn into some other world within her own mind. I wasn’t convinced that she really knew who I was, although the way she joked around with me a little while into the first visit was a good sign. My daughter Alicia followed me in, and Mom’s confusion kicked in with her thinking Alicia was a “friend” of mine instead of her granddaughter.
We talked and tested her memory with various pictures in her room and made the most of it before it was time for her to go to dinner, where we left her for the day.
The next morning, my sister Lynda and I went in to the care center to get her ready to come out to my sister’s house for a few hours of a good lunch, visiting, and watching the younger ones play games in the yard. At first, she was more alert, more talkative, but I still wondered if she really knew that the people around her were a part of her family who loved her very much. My lovely wife Amy spent some time before the meal showing her a children’s book Amy’s been working on, sharing a mutual love for horses. I spent some time with Mom going through old photo albums, jogging her memory again, enjoying the sound of her laughter.
As the day wore on and late afternoon drew nearer, her mood started to change. The happiness turned into something I’d seen in her eyes since my childhood — worry, stubbornness, depression, withdrawal, more lack of recognition of her loved ones.
This strong woman was showing her fragility again.
We took her back to the care center and got her settled in for her evening meal, got her a pill for the pain that radiates from a kidney from a refusal to drink enough beneficial fluids, and left on as positive a note as possible.
The words from a song by Sting kept going over and over through my mind.
On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are, how fragile we are
Mom’s age and her own strong stubbornness were taking their toll. I used to be able to look into her eyes and say firmly that I wanted her to take better care of herself — exercising and drinking more — and I could get through to her, convince her. Not anymore.
After our own dinner back at Lynda’s home, we settled in for some fun. We played long games of Twister well into the night before calling it a day. I laughed and enjoyed it, but I kept thinking of the next morning when we’d have to leave to return home. Sadness crept in. I wondered if the time that I’d get to spend with Mom the next morning might be the last chance I’d get to see her alive.
I needed to leave on a positive note.
We got to Mom’s room Monday morning just after her breakfast. She was alert, feeling as fine as she could, showed a smile and a sense of humor again. We visited for another hour before it was time for us to make the long drive back to Utah. I got that positive note that I wanted to end on.
We all gave her parting hugs and kisses. I gave her strong hugs, heartfelt kisses. I had to bite my lip to keep my composure, but tears were still coming from my eyes and my voice quivered again as I pleaded with her once again …
“Please take care of yourself. I want to be able to see you again.”
How fragile we are.