My mother is 99 years old. My book, Reunited: When the Past Becomes a Present, was dedicated to our children and to her. Mom has been living at Reeds Landing, a life care community, in Springfield, MA, for almost nine years now, first in an independent one bedroom apartment with a little terrace and garden, and for the past four years on the second floor in assisted living. When she first moved there she was still extremely active, worked out at the gym intermittently, played bridge 3 or 4 times a week, drove her car to do her own shopping, continued knitting and reading every day, and was the “Mom” or “Grandma” we knew and loved. Things are different today. She is still very healthy, but memory lapses have increased and her overall wellbeing is diminished. She is still very aware of everything around her, feels comfortable in her surroundings, and always tells us that she is grateful that she is living in a wonderful place with loving people around her, but we have had to become adjusted to her limited capacity as time as marched on. Because of our lifestyle (and living in Florida), our visits are not as frequent as we’d like them to be. My sister lives only five miles away, though, so there is constant connection that way. When we do see Mom and make our trek up north for a visit, it is usually an event. Alan makes it an event. Alan wasn’t around when Mom lived downstairs, so he only knows her and the staff where she is now in assisted living. (My book describes their relationship from years ago, however, and details how much they meant to one another.) So, in his inimitable way, Alan carries on with Mom and the staff as soon as we arrive and it becomes an event.
Prior to our most recent visit I was contacted by Vivian, the director of assisted living, to inform me that it had become necessary to change Mom’s care plan because she was exhibiting increased anxiety and needing more direction from staff, and that I would need to meet with Vivian to review the change in care required. We had taken our time on the drive up north, stopping to see friends along the way, and arrived at Reeds Landing at about 4 in the afternoon. As we parked the car, I stopped short and remarked to Alan, “We don’t have anything for her!” We would usually arrive with flowers, candy, cookies, or other goodies, depending on the season and the occasion, but this time we had nothing in hand. It wasn’t until the elevator was about to open on the second floor, and we would be face to face with Mom, that I said, “Oh, my God, the BOOK!” We abruptly closed the elevator door and went back to the car to get a copy of the book from the box of books we had brought with us to begin distributing to bookstores, libraries, etc. on the Vineyard. I quickly signed the book for Mom. We had recently sent copies to family while we were still in Florida, but we knew that we would be seeing Mom soon and wanted to present it to her in person. In fact, I had been dreaming of that very scenario for a long time. As I finished the manuscript almost two years ago and I decided to add Mom’s name to the dedication, I thought about the effect the book would have on her. As time had moved on and her condition continued to change, I knew that the window we had might not be that great in order to get the best reaction.
As we approached the activity room where Mom was seated with other residents and, Cheryl, the activities director, was talking with the group, Mom showed her usual display of surprise at seeing us, and expressed her customary, “What are you doing here?” After some general chit chat, we then escorted Mom to the little alcove that she liked and where we usually sat with her for our visits. She uses a walker, but she still gets around on her own. As we settled in for our visit, I said to Mom, “I have something for you,” and I placed the book on her lap. She looked at it. Then, after a while just staring at it, she said, “What is this?” I said, “It is my book. Who is that on the cover?”, pointing to the picture of me from our senior prom in 1961. She quickly said, “That’s you.” Then as she began reading everything on the cover, she kept moving her fingers over my name. Following that, she opened the book and began to read what she could on the beginning pages–with no glasses, mind you! I tried to help her along, but then thought about going to the photo section and see how she would react to that. She looked at every single photo and read every single caption herself, and she remembered every one of those photos. She then kept flipping through the pages and attempted to read more of it, and I helped her along, selecting a few pages that I knew would be meaningful to her. She kept looking up at Alan and I, looking back at the book, and then she started caressing the book in a loving way, and started repeating over and over, “This is a treasure! This is a treasure!” Had I gotten through to her? Did she get it?
Well, she did indeed get it. I found myself choking back tears as I attempted to read sentences to her, because I realized this was a profound moment. From the beginning, I knew that I was writing this book for Alan, most of all, but it was also for my parents and Mom was still here to appreciate it. The other words Mom kept repeating to both of us were, “You must be very proud.” And she said, “Carmen would be very proud too.” Wow. Mom didn’t mention Dad’s name very often in recent years. We all tried to bring up his name and remind her of various past experiences, but we never got too much of a reaction. The book had awakened something in her. And she knew that Dad played a part in it all. The other very important thing that Alan recognized during this encounter, was that Mom began saying, “This will keep the name alive.” I continued to answer that by saying, “Well, there won’t be any more Patavinos, but the Votta name will survive.” But Alan realized that what she meant was that the book would immortalize all of us, and indeed the Patavino name would survive even though there were no more Patavinos to carry on the name! Wow. How incredible is that! This became yet another instance where Mom surprised us all, had clear recognition, and was able to react in an insightful way. We are blessed to still have those moments. And I felt exhilerated at what we had witnessed.
My book had had the desired effect on Mom. And then it had an equally fantastic effect on the staff at Reeds Landing. Cheryl, the activities director, was so excited and said she would order a copy for herself. She also decided right then and there that she was going to read the book to the group–the other residents. Vivian and Sandy both expressed great excitement over the book too, and Mom became delighted to see the interaction between all of us that ensued. Mom said that it made her happy to see that all of “her family” got along so well. When I mentioned that to the staff, they were overwhelmed.
We arrived at Reeds Landing the following morning to have our meeting with Vivian and we decided to bring another book for the staff. Mom had actually suggested it because she said she would like to put the book in the activity room. I told Mom that I wanted her to keep her copy in her apartment so that it wouldn’t get lost. Now, all of the staff will read the book and the other residents will hear it too.
It was more than any of us could have hoped for.