Leap years only come around every four years. When I was a kid, I didn’t quite understand the concept of leap year. It seemed like a special day though to hear all the adults talk about it. I never paid much attention to leap year until 2008. That’s the year my mom passed away- exactly on leap day, February 29th- after a horribly long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The pictures above are how I like to remember my mom.
I found the two pictures on the left among hundreds of old black and whites stored in boxes at my parents’ house. It was just like my mom to keep everything, including every picture ever taken over the last two centuries. I noticed the Air Force pilot wings on her dress in the 2nd photo and thought that the picture must have been taken during the time of her first marriage. Her first husband was a pilot during WWII like my dad. Some of the pictures go all the way back to horse drawn carriages and turn of the century. I recognized my grandma and grandpa among many, and surprisingly, found pictures of my mom’s first husband and their two children, my half sister and brother. Mom was so young and beautiful. I gather that this was a difficult period in Mom’s life from reading some of her diary entries. She kept diaries for as long as I can remember. I was able to recover all of her diaries and started to read some of them, especially to find out what she’d written about my adoption – not a whole lot and not the kind of details I’d hoped for. After a while, it became too hard to read them, so I stopped.
When I remember mom, I recall her eyes and smile. Her eyes sparkled when she was happy. I loved when she was happy, when she was laughing and lighthearted. She was the life of the party when she was happy. When she was upset, it was like a storm unleashed in the house. She set the tone in our home, and I dreaded when her mood was stormy. When I went through those terrible teen years of mixed up identity and confusion, things were tense between us. As a mom now, I understand the kind of stress she was under. The loss of control and sense of helplessness she witnessed as her once shy and obedient daughter transformed into an overtly rebellious and selfish individual must have been more than she could bear.
When I got married, my husband and I were involved in a church group that did not encourage spending time with family unless they were members of the church. I know, really weird. It’s a long story, but as a result, I rarely made it back home to see my parents. My dad passed away shortly after I joined the church. I went back for the funeral, but ended up leaving sooner than I should have. In hindsight, I realize how insensitive and idiotic that was. I tried to call mom regularly after Dad’s death. My husband and I went back a couple of times to see her, but not nearly often enough.
Mom’s eyes always reminded me of the woman she was even towards the end. During the last stages when I’d go back home to visit, I’d sit by Mom’s bedside and look into her eyes intently, the only part of her still recognizable. There was nothing more than a vacant stare, the ability to recognize faces and even speak long past. It was the same woman’s eyes I’d looked into for years though. I had to believe that Mom was in there somewhere. I’ve heard it said over and over that Alzheimer’s is harder on the family members than the actual patient. Perhaps. It seems so cruel to witness the physical, mental, and emotional deterioration of someone who was once so vibrant. This year on February 29th marks the fourth year of Mom’s death. Another leap year. Although our relationship was difficult, I think had she lived longer, we would have become good friends. Deep down inside, my mom was a generous and loving woman who had her own demons to wrestle with. I never doubted her love for me.