Happy Birthday, Mom.

The older I get, the more I believe that eternity and memory exist in the same domain. What we remember remains eternal, as long as the capacity for memory lasts.

The internet and social media have become storage places for memory. The permanence it offers punctures the restrictions of a single human life. Once something is posted, it remains eternally. Imagine this blog, if you will, as a dot on a radio wave, arcing through the heavens at this moment, to remain there in an eternal loop long after this planet is gone.

I feel a great compulsion to remember forgotten people by writing about them, in one form or another, in order to give them their own little star in the constellation of universal memory.

So on this day, February 12, 2022, I remember my Mom, Katie, who shared her birthday with Abraham Lincoln. The last time I saw her, on her birthday, 2020, her Lewy Body Dementia was fairly advanced. She was prone to hallucinations and to saying exactly what she was thinking. During that birthday visit, I told one of her caregivers it was Katie’s birthday, adding: “Mom shares a birthday with Abraham Lincoln!” (The caregiver was young enough to not know February 12 was Lincoln’s birthday.) Mom’s immediate reply:”Yeah, Abe Lincoln. Lucky him!”

The caregiver said, in her sweetest voice: “why is Abe Lincoln lucky Katie?”

Mom’s reply: “He’s dead!”

Katie and Me, February 7 (five days before her birthday) 2020

Now, there are a few things I know about my Mom, and one of them is that she would hate that picture of her and me . Yeah, she looked pretty good for 92, but if she had her way, she would have never ended up old and demented. She liked looking pretty. She felt she owed it to whomever she encountered to look her best.

I suspect most people have a favorite age – an age when we felt most comfortable in our own skin. I liked my 30’s and 40’s. But I’m also quite content with now. For others, like Katie, it was their 20’s: the years when she worked, met my dad, and had her first two children. (She was happy with her other children, too, for sure. Unfortunately, I suspect things were dicey with my dad then. Though we would have never guessed it at the time, this also became apparent in the last year of her life, when, in her hallucinations, she yelled at him and complained about him.)

Mary Kathleen, graduating from St. Stephen’s High School, Cleveland, around 1945.

A significant difference between Lewy Body Dementia and other dementias is the hallucinations. While she was still at home, Mom was constantly seeing something on the roof of the neighbor’s house. Sometimes it was a man, just standing there. Sometimes he was mowing the lawn. Climbing a tree. Lighting a fire. The nights I stayed with her, I experienced her night hallucinations. She saw ghosts. They were often behind me. When I asked her to describe them, she told me they were making faces at me. The most common ghost was her mother, Christiana Thompson.

Christiana Loretta Thompson

Now, this didn’t surprise me too much. A psychic once told me that my maternal grandmother was my guardian angel. I believed her, because I needed an angel like her.

When she appeared in my mom’s hallucinations, Christiana (Chris) probably looked like this.

Gus and Chris, 1948

Being married to an Irishman named Gus, Christiana became Chris.

Katie adored Gus. In the last months of her life, she told me he was with her all the time.

Gus and Baby Katie,

During those transitional months, I read Dr. Christopher Kerr‘s book Death Is But a Dream. As the Chief Executive Officer of Buffalo’s Hospice and Palliative Care center, Kerr and his team specialize in ELE’s – End of Life Experiences. In this book, Kerr walks a fragile line between pragmatism and and spirituality. Everyone, he reports, hallucinates as they approach death. Even the most tormented individuals end their lives in peace, accompanied by vivid hallucinations of those who loved them most.

Like my mother did. As she lingered at death’s door, Gus never left her side. Her mother Chris was there beckoning, as was her baby brother Jim, who preceded her by three months. Her sister Rose Marie probably greeted her with some comment like “what took ya so long?” Three months after Katie, her sister, my namesake Aunt Mary Lou, followed.

Considering the way my mom talked to me at the end of her life, I believe that in her near-death dreams, she saw herself as young again. (I asked her once how old she was. Her response: “well, I’m younger than you! Look at you! How did you get so old?”) Young, too, were her parents. Her brother. Her sister. Her lifelong best friend, Jeannie. Ultimately, my father. She had trouble with her memories of my father, but he was there in the end, too.

I have the photo album Katie kept, when she was in her late teens/early twenties. It was preserved well, and she meticulously labeled each photo. She looked at it often as she grew older, to remember who she was when she was happiest.

Today, as I look at it, I let myself believe that this is how my mother looks in her afterlife. Happy Birthday, Mom.

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