About twenty years ago I heard of one of the most creative pranks. One day a family installed around a dozen plastic pink flamingos on their front lawn; the next day all of the flamingos were missing. No one in the area had seen anything. A week later the family received a postcard from the flamingos… who were now in France! The following week another postcard arrived from the flamingos, now in Spain. Every week another card came from yet another country, sometimes written in the language of that country, oftentimes in a language that left the family unable to understand what the flamingos were trying to communicate. For one year the family lived with the unsolved mystery of their world-trotting flamingos… until one morning they looked out the living room window and all of the flamingos were back, now dressed in the garb of the various countries to which they had supposedly visited. No one ever owned up to the caper.
As our mother’s developing dementia deepens I feel very much like that family who, one day, discovered that they had been robbed. Mom now seems to say things which are not connected to anything that we might be discussing with her, almost as if she is involved in an interior discussion to which we are not privy. Much of that conversation seems to be rooted in her childhood, particularly in that period when Mom was ten, her mother died and her father took to drink for two years. It has taken us awhile to figure out that when she says “I can’t count on you… I don’t feel loved… I feel so alone” she is most probably addressing these comments to her parents and not to whomever happens to be in the room with her. Even at 90 Mom is still trying to make sense out of the feelings of her ten-year-old self.
In the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black” one of the characters says of finding herself in prison, and of discovering her ability to do the terrible things that she needs to do in order to survive there: “I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am.” As prison-life forces the character to face various hidden feelings within herself, over time she eventually comes to the conclusion, “I guess this is the closure that I came here for. Maybe it’s not what I wanted, but maybe it’s all there is.”
As this character comes to realize, and as we are seeing with Mom, aspects of our inner life with which we refuse to deal will eventually come up to the surface anyway; in the end there seems to be nothing that we can run from. My own experience in life has been that once I stop running from what frightens me, once I turn around and face the issue, it immediately loses its ability to pursue me. Instead of running from the thoughts about ourselves and our life that discomfort us, perhaps there is something for us to learn from the flamingos: Being forced to take the journey does not mean that we cannot come to enjoy wherever it takes us. Send postcards!