Smoke Signals in the Purple Haze

"I will continue to give small tokens of love, hoping she might glimpse the color purple and say to herself, 'my daughter loves the color purple, too.'” by Wendy Gorton Hill

As time slips away, pulling my mother further from the shore, I find myself trying to make smoke signals, to remind her I’m still here, longing to speak to her. Of all her children, I am the most like my mother. My facial features mimic hers; my temperament and interests practically cloned. But those similarities once shared are dwindling. Dementia has stolen her away.

Our biggest shared passion was for books, both reading and writing. Alas, she can no longer read. Gone are her favored book recommendations. Regret stabs whenever I finish an outstanding book and realize I cannot share it with her. As a writer, I long for her to read my words and offer up her constructive criticism or her biased praise. My pages cannot cross the barrier. Like sending letters via a pigeon in the rain, by the time they reach their destination they are illegible to her eyes, ears, and heart.

In the past, I was not a consistent gift-giver, often merely sending a card. But lately, I’m compelled to present her with gifts, neither wanted nor needed, driven by the craving to connect. I long to express how much she means to me and how much I am missing her, even while she’s still here. A desperate plea saying, “I see you. Let me comfort you. Link us once again.”

My first grand idea? I bought her a purple weighted blanket, recommended for dementia patients and autistic individuals to soothe restless sleep. We both love the color purple. I sent it as a colorful hug, hoping to wrap her with warmth and inspire calm. Alas, she loved the color but could not tolerate the unexpected weight. I returned the gift.

I flew to visit her, bringing a gift bag with a soft pair of purple pajamas and a purple plaque. As we sat together, she discovered the present again and again, opening it each time with fresh eyes. “Oh, these are for me? I love the color purple.” Then she wrapped them back in the tissue paper and reinserted them into the bag. Twenty minutes later, noticing the bag anew, the actions repeated. She has already forgotten the plaque was from me. As for the pajamas, she resists altering her clothing choices, preferring to wear the same outfit, and yes, her favored top is purple.

Such visits are hard on both sides. The initial days induce confusion and anxiety about properly introducing me. At one point, she came and bid me adieu because they were heading to church and, clearly, she considered my visit done. How unsettling to see her irritation when she learned I would accompany them. She eventually calmed, as my father promised. 

I kept my visit short, to avoid distressing her. By the time she fully recognized me, it was time to head home and she grew sad. We shared a brief connection. She saw me. She remembered me. She felt my love. I think.

On her birthday, I again ached to send something to show my love and establish further connection. After hearing complaints about her too-heavy purse, I sent a lightweight purse like her current one. My sister was visiting them. She said every time my mother observed the date on her computer she realized again that it was her birthday. Nonetheless, my gift required a reminder of the occasion.

Somehow I doubt the success of this gift, as well. Can she make the switch? Will she think the purse belongs to someone else because it doesn’t resemble the purse she recognizes? I’m desperate to find the perfect gift for a woman who gave me life, who nurtured my love of books and writing, who encouraged me on every step of my journey. But her journey takes her to a place I cannot go. 

My gifts are, indeed, smoke signals fading into the haze. I cannot tell if she receives my messages. Yet somewhere, deep inside the shadow of my mother, she lingers still. If I am frustrated on my side of the chasm, I cannot imagine the frustration her side must bring. So, I will continue to go, offering the brief gift of a visit, even when she can no longer introduce me with conviction. And I will continue to give, small tokens of love, hoping in some stray moment, she might glimpse the color purple and say to herself, “my daughter loves the color purple, too.”   

Wendy Gorton Hill is the daughter of retired officers, Majors Ronald and Sandra Gorton. She lives outside of Indianapolis, Indiana, where she writes a book review blog and cares for her family (husband, sons, and dog). 

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