I always knew my mother to be a dynamic person who could accomplish anything she set her mind to. A Kansas native who grew up during the dustbowl days and came to California in her twenties, she had an indomitable spirit. Along with being a loving wife to my dad, she created a warm home environment where she was primary caregiver in the raising of my three younger siblings and me.
Mom looked for opportunities to bring beauty to the world. As an artist, she always had a project going. From trimming everyone’s hair to climbing onto the patio roof to prune the avocado tree to shaping myriad plants into a veritable botanical garden; from sewing clothes for us children to refinishing furniture, repainting the house inside and out, and painting murals on the living room walls, she was forever finding ways to add some esthetic quality to life. Mother was my first teacher, evoking a love of reading and drawing early on, always engaging me in projects, and genuinely seeking out my thoughts and ideas.
Since I saw my mother as a strong woman and creative thinker, it was hard for me to acknowledge certain changes in her as she grew older. When others expressed concerns about her memory, I didn’t see what they saw. Since I know that change is constant, and since (through my Edu-K experience) I know that learning is available no matter the age or situation, I looked for what new learning I could support in her.
We had always liked to sing or paint together, or to take walks around the house and yard, and I saw that often when she thought she wasn’t up to it, after doing just a few minutes of simple movements with me—the Cross Crawl, the Thinking Cap, the Owl, and Movement Reeducation for feet* were some of her favorites—she would be happy to engage in one of these ways. In her later years, I was grateful to be able to facilitate Edu-K balances: helping her to make small improvements in her vision, release neck or shoulder tension, and stabilize her equilibrium in the context of a playful goal. I valued how, many times after doing a few of such activities, she immediately responded by letting go of frustrations, reminiscing more, and participating more playfully with me.
Yet we lived some distance apart, and as time went on I saw that my visits with my mother weren’t frequent enough to offset her now-sedentary lifestyle: after my dad’s death, the challenges of living alone in a rapidly changing world (and later, the challenges of having a care-giver nearby), and the stress of keeping up the house and garden.
In our phone calls, Mom often seemed stressed, distant, or disheartened, and sometimes she couldn’t seem to recall the conversational topic from a moment ago.
In her aging process, my mother went through a period of frustration and feistiness related to all the losses in her life about which she could do nothing—in particular, she talked about her loss of the strength and resources to be as self-sufficient as she had once been. Then she suddenly stopped talking about her problems or saying anything about how various family members should live their lives. She seemed to retreat and become more of a quiet onlooker. I couldn’t tell if she was having difficulty remembering or was simply no longer able to attend to a structured conversation. I was grateful to be able to do balances** to maintain my own wellbeing, and I found that these brought me continued new ways to connect with her.
After a while, Mom seemed to become an accepting observer of her own suffering, and perhaps the suffering of others as well. She began to empty herself of her everyday concerns and put her attention on something larger—perhaps on the wholeness of her life and the lives of her children.
I asked her once about this change, and she responded, “It’s not something I can tell you about, Gail. But you’ll see for yourself as you grow older.” It has made me wonder how much of memory loss is a choice to behave in a new way—a choice that may not be understood or supported by family members.
Mom often asked about her family in Kalvesta, Kansas, and for her 80th birthday my son and I decided to take her to her early home for a visit. We had a rich and fulfilling experience, enlivened by Mom’s stories and recollections from every aspect of her childhood. We all enjoyed visiting with relatives and taking some great photos, like the one of Mom pretending to drive her dad’s old combine. I could picture her as a freckle-faced 10-year old, playing with her siblings and friends, and helping her folks maintain the farm.
Yet, on a phone call just days after our return, my mother implored me to take her on a visit to Kansas as though we had never gone. In that moment, perhaps due to my staying centered with such activities as Hook-ups and the Positive Points, I was able to override my inclination to correct her and respond instead by saying, “Mom, you want to spend time in Kansas, and I like to write. Let’s write a book together about your experiences growing up in Kansas.” I think I imagined that I would hear a story or two that I hadn’t yet heard. Without hesitating, Mom responded, “Okay. Well, it should begin like this:”
What I remember most about growing up in Kansas is looking out over the vast, vast country, as far as I could see, and watching the fields of ripe wheat blowing back and forth. The wind would sometimes push the wheat till it lay right down on the ground, and then lay it down the other way, or blow it in circles—the golden tassels just whirling in the wind.
The wind was always an important presence in our lives—blowing our hair, our hats, and our dresses. For people who have never seen Kansas, a state right in the center of the United States, it might be hard to believe what it was like there in the 1920s and 1930s. Not everybody could understand Kansas, and many wouldn’t like it.
Tears filled my eyes as I scribbled verbatim notes as fast as I could write. Remarkably, for this moment my mom was no longer withdrawn or at a loss for words. She had apparently been waiting to tell this new version of her story, and she told it as quickly and eloquently as if she were reading it aloud.
After this, each time I called my mother I would do some Brain Gym activities, with the intention of being able to stay present with her and draw out more of her story. I would briefly catch her up on family events. She might at first seem not to remember about the book, yet as I read back to her some of what we had written and held that attitude of inquiry, she would most often continue her narrative with enthusiasm.
Within a few months we had completed a small, wonderful book—one that I treasure still as one of Mom’s great gifts to the family. Even more valuable to me was the bond that we deepened as she shared her thoughts and stories.
On one of her visits with me, Mom had some difficulty in walking, and needed to lean against me in order to get around. I figured out that her medication was affecting her equilibrium, and asked the doctor if I could wean her off of it. He agreed.
In the few days of her visit, we did Brain Buttons, the Thinking Cap, Balance Buttons, and Hook-ups together, as well as a lot of cross-crawling. Without the medication, Mom had some difficult moments of anger, despair, and irritation. Yet, each time, I was able to assist her in using the activities to calm herself, access greater strength and balance, and put any concerns into words. Within the first half a day, she was walking with a steadiness and vigor that I hadn’t seen for a while.
I also discovered that if Mom sat on a stool with her back to me, in front of the chair I was sitting in, I could wrap my arms around her, crossing her arms over her chest, and rock her very slowly from side to side in the My Little Boat*** movement. She found this soothing and restorative, and would sometimes hum as we rocked, as if she were rocking me. We would both quickly became more centered and connected; sometimes she would doze off and I would simply hold her hand.
Over the next couple of years, this activity became one of my favorites to do with Mom. It offered us many restorative moments, and afterward our visit would be characterized by the kind of conversation and relating that we both found so fulfilling. ♥
* The Brain Gym® activities mentioned here are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, (c) 2010; Movement Reeducation for feet is from the course Educational Kinesiology in Depth: Seven Dimensions of Intelligence.
**An Edu-K balance offers five steps to easy learning. The balance process, along with 11 Action Balances and the 26 Brain Gym® activities, are all taught in the introductory course Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Live (see instructor link below).
***The My Little Boat** activity is one of the twelve Integrated Movements from Educational Kinesiology in Depth: Seven Dimensions of Intelligence.
© 2013 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.