“We should all know this: that listening is not talking; it is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. The true listener is much more beloved, much more magnetic than the talker. He learns more and does more good… So try listening. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.” ~Brenda Ueland
By Robin Mullins Senger
A few years ago the phone rang. It was mom.
“Rob, I need you to look up something for me.” Mom sounded puzzled. “Get on the computer and tell me what this prescription is for.”
I got on the computer. “Ok, what’s it called?”
I typed it in and started reading, becoming sick.
As a former hot-line worker, I thrived on helping people in crisis. But this felt like a developing crisis call I suddenly wanted to hang up from.
“Well…tell me what it says” mom ordered, rousing me out of my sudden silence.
“Are you sure it says Aricept?”
“Yes, of course. I saw the doctor this morning about that pain in my neck, and he prescribed this. But he didn’t tell me what it’s for. Is it a pain killer?”
I briefly considered saying it was stormy and I had just lost Internet connection before I could find out. But instead I wiped away the tears making the screen blurry, and read:
“It says Aricept is used to treat mild to moderate dementia … caused by Alzheimer’s disease.”
I can only guess what was going on inside my mom, but it was one of life’s most devastating moments for me.
Why am I the one telling my mom instead of the doctor? Why do I have to find out this way? I felt horrified at this completely unexpected turn of events when life changes in one phone call.
The hot-line worker in me frantically searched inside for just the right response to turn this crisis around. For once I found nothing.
“Maybe it’s for something else mom. Maybe there’s something in it that will relieve the pain and it has nothing to do with …” I couldn’t say the “A” word again.
After we awkwardly hung up, I collapsed on my bed sobbing, screaming over and over into my pillow: angry, confused, and scared.
It was not brought up again. In fact my parents forbid the “A” word to ever be spoken or acknowledged. That seemed to be the end of it with no noticeable difference in my conversations with mom.
A long time later after moving closer to them, I invited my parents over for dinner one evening. As mom and I sat on the back porch in rocking chairs enjoying the brilliant sunset, we visited like we always had. The horrid phone conversation from long ago was mostly forgotten and seemed to have just been a terrible mistake.
After a lull in the happy chit chat, mom smiled brightly at me. “So, do you have any family that live close by?”
For mom’s birthday last year, I took lunch and cake to my folks to celebrate. My mom tried, but couldn’t find the words she wanted anymore. She mostly just listened.
Over lemon cake, I shared my excitement about the promising work I was doing with abused women, the Toastmaster’s group I had bravely joined, and how my domestic violence website was reaching thousands of readers a month. I respectfully pretended my mom understood what I was saying, but knew probably very little made sense. If she even recognized me as her daughter.
And then a miracle unfolded, although I nearly missed it.
Mom leaned forward and looked me in the eye, raising her finger to emphasize her words. I listened expectantly.
All I heard was gibberish. Disconnected words. Incomplete thoughts. Struggle. Blanks. Hanging. Trying again.
Disappointed, I smiled politely, and continued talking.
But mom persisted, determined to get it out.
It was then I realized, I was listening with my mind. Mom was speaking with her heart – the one thing Alzheimer’s could never touch. I closed my mouth and opened up my heart to hers – this time to really understand.
She tried again, and her message came through – imperfect yet powerful: “You’re doing good… You’re making a difference… Don’t give up… I’m proud of my daughter.”
Profoundly touched, I thanked her for the gift she’d worked so hard to give me. In return, I gave her the gift of being truly heard, valued and understood.
This past March, mom passed away. It was not expected to happen so quickly. She had not even been put on Hospice. But I sensed a gentle whisper inside one morning… You need to take the girls and go say goodbye to your mom. You will not get another chance.
I trusted that inner voice and kept the girls out of school to go say goodbye to mom. The four of us sat with her, and in our own awkward and painful ways, said good-bye to our beloved mom and grandma. She didn’t respond much – the best she could do was barely lift her hand in our direction. But we knew she was trying the best she could to let us know she heard us and loved us.
She passed away quietly that night, and I am forever grateful I listened to my heart and went to say goodbye before it was too late. I know that she is in heaven now, free from the prison of an unresponsive mind and body. She is once again young and free and full of life. We will be with her again someday – I am proud of my mom for courageously making it through to the end of her journey in this life, for giving me life, and deeply loving God and her family.
Sometimes only the heart can and should hear what is deaf to the ear, so that a miracle really can take place.
“Laugh, even when you feel too sick or too worn out or tired.
Smile, even when you’re trying not to cry and the tears are blurring your vision.
Sing, even when people stare at you and tell you your voice is crappy.
Trust, even when your heart begs you not to.
Twirl, even when your mind makes no sense of what you see.
Frolic, even when you are made fun of.
Kiss, even when others are watching.
Sleep, even when you’re afraid of what the dreams might bring.
Run, even when it feels like you can’t run any more.
And, always, remember, even when the memories pinch your heart. Because the pain of all your experience is what makes you the person you are now. And without your experience—you are an empty page, a blank notebook, a missing lyric. What makes you brave is your willingness to live through your terrible life and hold your head up high the next day. So don’t live life in fear. Because you are stronger now, after all the crap has happened, than you ever were back before it started.” Alysha Speer