Filling the Empty Spaces

[First posted in August 2010 on]

My mother was notorious in our family for buying cheap paintings of landscapes and bouquets and hanging them on the walls of our home. Over time, splashes of bright purple, pink, and orange would appear in these paintings—odd flowers suddenly dotting subtly green trees or popping up in pastel bouquets, where Mom thought a little more color was needed.

Lakeside Village

For most of us, family is our first experience of community—with all its delights and sorrows, its gifts and idiosyncrasies. Family is the community that, for better or worse, most of us are stuck with.

My mother can no longer wield a paintbrush. She has believed at various times recently that I am her grandmother, that a 12-foot-long albino alligator with blue eyes is prowling around her assisted-living facility, and that a famous astronaut lives next door to her—“but he’s very down-to-earth about it,” she declared, totally missing the irony. Sometimes we experience a tear in the fabric of community, and sometimes it’s a total rupture.

Last month, the day after my mother was admitted into hospice care with a diagnosis of end-stage Alzheimer’s and “failure to thrive,” I began a search. It ended with the online purchase of “Lakeside Village”—a 20” x 16” paint-by-number landscape, with splashes of flowers throughout, 42 brilliant colors of paint to apply, and more than a thousand tiny spaces to fill in.

I have not done a paint-by-number in about four decades, and my eyesight has declined a bit in those years. But every night, as I painstakingly brush another color onto the white-and-gray cardboard, I commune with my mother, remembering the woman she was and offering prayerful focus to the journey she is on now. A different form of accompaniment, a different type of community.

People with Alzheimer’s disease often suffer from gaps in their brains, along with debilitating plaques and tangles. I believe it’s the gaps that are the real problem, the separations that over time become impossible to bridge, creating an emptiness in those of us who find that someone we love is lost and unreachable. As I paint each night, I ponder the rhythms of letting go and embracing whatever is around the corner, trusting that the empty spaces will be filled. And knowing that sometimes community can happen only in the gaps where mystery resides.



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