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The Gift of a Moment

I step back hopefully, readying my camera in determined expectation.  We have been planning all morning, doing everything to lure her out of the deep, dark woods that conceal her life. Now, she is at the edge, turning her gaze to the outer world. She follows the steps of passersby and turns back to us – a softening look of recognition in doe-like eyes – yet never quite over that tiny glint of panic, that readiness to bolt at the slightest unexpected movement.  Reading that, I hesitate, wanting to savor the moment, not wanting her to bolt away, back into that deep forest where we cannot and would not follow. 

The noise and hustle of the restaurant around us is oblivious to our little drama.  Cracker Barrel on Thanksgiving is not my first choice of where I would spend the holiday. But we had driven down for the week to relieve other family members of their caretaking and we felt the restaurant option would work best for my wife’s mother.  We know she will never again cook a Thanksgiving meal for her family.  We just want her to be present with us for Thanksgiving – such a small wish, and yet, so momentous.  So we wait patiently for a table.

            I pause with the camera, my wife and I trading anxious glances over whether she will linger long enough at the edge of this reality for photos and a holiday meal, or whether she will bolt back into the darkness at the slightest unexpected movement.  The crowded restaurant has graciously given her and my wife seating at a little table adjacent to the dining area.  I wait beside them, side-stepping the busy wait staff.  Alice and I are salvaging each moment of eye-contact, each moment of recognition, each pause of silence in the surrounding clamor of culinary frenzy, savoring what may be our last Thanksgiving with her mother.

            Even if I can get just one good picture.  Ever since I have known her, she has disliked having her picture taken.  For a time, she would get angry even at the appearance of a camera.             

            “Put that thing away!” she would say, “Nobody wants to look at the picture of an ugly old lady!” During those years, she anguished over the creeping infirmities and deepening wrinkles that were coming upon her with the years.  She wanted to hide.  She didn’t want to be remembered as “an old hag.”  In more recent years, she would make funny faces at the camera, deliberately hiding the angst of her years in the contorted folds of her face.  What she hid best from us, though, was the relentless disintegration of her once-brilliant mind.

            As a teen, she had survived the bombings of Paris in World War II. She came to the States as a war bride, began working as a secretary at a university while taking classes on the side.  While raising three children, she worked her way up to a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and became a college professor – feisty and irascible, with a strong opinion about everything. Yet, no mother had more commitment toward her children. Now, it is questionable whether she recognizes her own daughter sitting across from her.  

            Damned Alzheimer’s, that cursed disease that robs the minds of loved ones and saps the energy, essence and hope of those who share their lives!  Even in my counseling practice, I never got used to it – let alone seeing it in family.  Yet, I have come to know that the physical brain is really more like a modem for the deeper mind, which is housed by the soul.  For people suffering with Alzheimer’s, less and less of them is able to enter our world through the brain, to communicate with the rest of us.  With each dying neuron, the dark forest of unknowing grows up around them, especially concealing us from them.  But they are still in there; yet whole souls that wander ever deeper into that dark forest.  And there are times we can coax them out – if only for ever briefer moments. 

            Anxious and hesitant, I hold the camera where she can see it.  She knows we are there to have dinner together – maybe she even remembers it’s some special occasion, if not Thanksgiving.  She seems peaceful and not given to making a scene.  When I take a picture of somebody, I like to do it in a way that captures more than a physical image – the imprint must go deep – all the way back to the soul.  So, I wait, praying she will linger on this side of the forest long enough for pictures and a memorable meal together.  It has to be right, because something tells me this may be our last occasion for pictures – if only she could understand. 

            Our eyes meet.  Recognition slowly spreads across her face, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud – lighting the spaces in the forest. She sees the camera and softly smiles, the light coming across her face and shining out from her eyes. 

            Framing the picture on both of them, I softly call for Alice to look back over her shoulder. I step back, almost into the path of a busy waiter carrying trays. Going around us, he pauses in homage to the moment, as I take the first shot.  The sounds in the restaurant seem to fade as we three move into this shared moment – this precious moment together.  

            I step in, taking a close-up of her, then another. In her temporary reprieve from the tangled thickets and choking vines, basking serenely at the edge of our shared reality, she is smiling sweetly for the camera.  For this moment, the light in her eyes reflects the devoted mother and grandmother;  for this moment, the tenderness of a soul lingering ever so briefly at the reflecting pool that distracts from the life behind her and the life beyond.

            For posterity, I think, as I take one more shot. Looking into her eyes, I suddenly realize our thoughts are the same.  She knows.  For this moment, she is at peace with that.  And, yet, I know she will not go gently into that good night.  She will tarry with us awhile, lasting through most of this special meal, before the falling light and the lengthening shadows take her away from us again.

            But we will remember these special moments with gratitude – and especially her gift – coming out of her dark forest to leave us golden memories of her presence.


Granville Angell   © 12/2006


Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, is the local author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us. Email him: angell(AT)transitions-counseling.com, call his private practice, TRANSITIONS , at 704-276-1164; visit his web site: www.transitions-counseling.com, where you can read prior articles.


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