IT IS OCTOBER, the harvest, that great time for taking stock. Me? I’m grateful for many things, particularly the friendship and love of Margaret, my only sibling. We didn’t always see things the way we do now, and in that we missed huge chunks of each other’s lives. The reason for our separation? Our mother. The coming together? I credit time and patience and adult wisdom. And thinking about what might make a good harvest tale, I’m taking a chance here, and offering one about our difficult topic.
Our mother’s name was Allene. She is a descendant of Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero, and so her parents gave her their own form of the family name. As a child she was a tomboy. In college, she studied journalism and went on to become the Society Editor of The Long Island Star Journal, a New York daily newspaper that folded in the 1950s.
She became a wife and mother, a Girl Scout leader and a Visiting Nurse volunteer, and when my sister and I were raised, she went back to school and got a master’s degree in education and began teaching at a Montessori pre-school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. All in all, she was lovely, but gritty.
Then, somewhere in the 1970s, my mother’s mind went to battle with something, and lost. She became forgetful, angry, hostile and incompetent. She was losing her mind in handfuls. To Alzheimer’s disease. She was barely 50 years old.
Within five years she could no longer speak or recognize my sister or me. And while we still did things together, she was always agitated and seemed uninterested in anything but watching television and smoking.
Except on Sundays, when we went to church. There, she was calm. On the last day before she went into a nursing home, I took her to church as usual.
I remember leaning my head against the side of the pew and weeping. And then I noticed that my mother was singing all the hymns. Then she said all the words of the Lord’s Prayer. This from a woman who could no longer speak my name.
Not long ago, I got involved in a project that took my mind back to those moments of refuge on Sunday mornings. Our goal was to restore the right to worship to people from whom it had been taken away.
Without meaning to do so, we bar patients from places of worship at the moment they and their family members need it most. When someone cannot sit still, or be quiet or remain continent, we discourage their presence in our churches and synagogues. We don’t want them to disrupt the ceremony and the spiritual solitude.
So one autumn a few years ago, a bunch of us in Troy, New York, put together a service for people like my mother, around the time and theme of the harvest. We wanted to celebrate what we had, as opposed to focusing on what we had lost to the illness. Our group included a rabbi, an Episcopal priest and a Presbyterian minister. The service intermingled the themes of Sukkot from the Jewish tradition with Christianity’s harvest hymns and prayers. We invited patients and their caregivers. I wrote a prayer for the caregivers and one for the patients. We convinced the priest to keep his sermon under five minutes, we used a lot of music, and we encouraged walking around throughout the service.
When it came to the traditional offertory, baskets of apples were circulated; instead of collecting money, we hoped to give something to the patients and their families.
From patient to patient, I carried a huge African basket filled with apples. One very ill woman was furled in a wheelchair, her head slumped on her chest, her hands tightened into the gnarls we associate with the very last days of life. Her caregiver shook her head, indicating that the woman would not be able to hear or understand me. But I wanted the old woman to have an apple. I got down on my knees and tried to make eye contact. It was impossible. I tried to open one of her hands, but it was like a knot. Giving up, I got up to walk to the next patient.
At that moment the offertory hymn began. The opening bars of “How Great Thou Art” sounded from the organ and my husband, an accomplished baritone, softly began the words.
The woman uncurled. She straightened up in her wheelchair. At the top of her lungs, she sang every word.
The caregiver gasped. I literally staggered back, then watched as the joy and triumph of this woman revealed itself to us. She sang from someplace that most of us thought was long gone.
As the song ended, she curled back into her chair. But we had reached her.
There, amid the losses that had been diagnosed and charted, amid the grief of a family at what had looked like the end of life, was this offering of hope, this small bounty, this plenty, this harvest tale.