I paid her a visit recently on a clear spring afternoon. Standing at the edge of the bluff above Campus Point, I watched the waves roll in against the silhouette of Santa Cruz Island.
They say we are made mostly of water. Eight years ago, we offered my mother’s ashes to the ocean and to water she returned. My mother once said that when no one else understands, you could always discuss matters large or small with the ocean.
Somewhere in the middle of her life she began to feel she was losing her passion for the social and political causes that used to excite her. She was searching for her place in the universe and a new appreciation for the things that mattered. In an essay written at that time, she revealed a dialogue she had while walking on a beach at sunset in Spain:
Mother: “In my quest for greater appreciation, I’ve rediscovered my love for you.”
Ocean: “I’m flattered. But why me?”
Mother: “Just for being you. For the memories from my childhood when I ran along your beaches and dove under your waves. And watched you in awe on a stormy day with those waves rising ominously tall and crashing thunderously. And then lying out there calm and sparkling on a freezing sunny winter day with snow along your edge. And for today and your holy majestic splendor under a sky of fiery red and soft lavender. You inspire me to humbly thank the cosmos for my participation in all this glory.”
Ocean: “You’re too kind.”
Mother: “Of course, I am a Pisces, and we are naturally attracted to water.”
She taught me that profundity seasoned with humor makes a fine dish, and the acceptance of a compendium of opposites makes a person whole. Sadly, she taught another lesson as well — that a lifetime of learning and an accumulation of experience and insight aren’t always sufficient to undo the implicit memory of a traumatic childhood that exists beneath recall. That under the placid surface of the early morning ocean lay the violent currents that may arise in the descending darkness of night.
With Alzheimer’s disease, one often falls victim to the “sundowning effect,” whereby the more stable personality structure that greets the new day crumbles into a sea of turbulent emotions as daylight fades away. In her illness, my mother taught me that calm and chaos co-exist in all of us, and there’s no rational way to predict which state will prevail from day to day — or even, hour to hour.
My mother taught me that in the end, neurology trumps psychology and ontology, rendering our place in the universe quite tenuous indeed. She taught me that it’s never too soon to find a new appreciation for those things that really matter. Memory may be lost, but the moment is always here to appreciate. And if you have no one else to talk to, there’s always the ocean.
— Stuart Light, M.A., ME.d. is an affiliate faculty member in the Master’s in Clinical Psychology Program and the BA program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, and a member of the adjunct faculty with Santa Barbara City College’s Alcohol and Drug Certification Program. A licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in life transitions, he has taught numerous classes and published many articles and essays on the issues of aging in American society. He will be sharing his thoughts on “The Coming of Age of the Baby Boomers” at the April 19-20 Symposium on Healthy Aging at Antioch University. The opinions expressed are his own.