When I Sleep…
My mother, Carol Saling, died September 27, 2018. She was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, in 1924 and would have been 94 this Christmas. Her dying, which was unexpected, followed a stroke that had occurred several days before. There was some lucidity for a day or two that brought about a rush of hopeful optimism among my brothers and me. But I think we recognized it for what it was and weren’t surprised when it proved itself short-lived.
Mom died in the hospital. But the house where she was living when she died is the same house she’d bought with my father 54 years before. It was the first house they’d bought since before I was born, and, for all I know, it was the only house either of them had ever owned. My father died in 1999, and for the 19 years following his death, she lived by herself in that house.
But she wasn’t alone. My brother Jim, who owns his own financial firm and helped both Dad and Mom manage their resources and enjoy their years together, continued watching over Mom after Dad died. He came to the house on weekends and spent time with her. He helped with projects inside the house and out. Sometimes my brother Jerry, who has years of construction experience, would be there to help on large projects like building a porch across the front of the house.
Jim would also visit throughout the week and go to church with her on Sundays. He would take her shopping when she wanted to go. And when she got older and couldn’t drive anymore and found it more difficult to get around outside her home, he’d do the shopping for her. My brother Jeff, who lived just outside of DC and worked at the Pentagon both before and after he retired from the Air Force, made it a point to call her daily as he drove home from work. He also got to Columbus frequently and spent time with her whenever he could, and he wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a hammer or saw and work on the house right along with Jim.
Mom always had plenty of company on the holidays when Jim and his wife scarlet would pack up what they needed and take it to her house to cook the holiday meal so she could visit with whomever came in.
She had plenty of people who loved her and who looked out for her well-being. Family, neighbors, people from the church, friends. All of them loved her and all of them wanted to see her do well. But not being alone is not the same as not being lonely.
Loneliness is one of the side effects of growing older. And its effect on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being is a major health problem and a threat that can lead to major illness and even death. And Mom was lonely. If you asked her how she was doing, she’d say fine and ask if there was anything she could do for you. But you could hear it in her voice. And sometimes she would say it. She was fine, she’d say, “but I’m lonely.”
There are ways to combat loneliness — ways to change an environment that leaves a person little choice but to feel lonely. Ways that we missed or didn’t follow through on. My main regret is that I didn’t do more to help keep that loneliness at bay.
The poem below, which was first published online in Carcinogenic Poetry on August 27, 2014, is not about my mother. But I publish it here in honor of her memory.
When I Sleep I Dream
When I sleep I dream, even though
I can’t close my eyes. But in my head,
I go away. Sitting at a piano
on stage, I’m illumined
by a single spot,
and I can’t see beyond
it’s cone of light. I know
the theater’s full. I can hear
the whispers and coughs
and the hush settling over all.
I raise my hands toward the keyboard.
They don’t reach. I feel myself
move backward, rising from the stage,
but the music plays anyway.
I move farther away and then
I’m aware again of everything –
the nurses, the janitor taking the trash,
those three at the foot of the bed
who never stop staring.
Those three I can’t tell about the dream.
They don’t know I dream because
my eyes don’t close and they can’t see
me go away. And they don’t know
when I come back or that I never left.
They talk to me. I see their lips move.
I feel them touch me but I can’t tell them.
I need their touch. It’s the only way
I bridge the gulf between
their world and me. But I can’t
tell them, and they can’t hear.
And then I dream again.
There is another way to make it stop.
I won’t know when it happens.
I imagine it will be much the same
As the dream. Perhaps it is the dream,
but instead of keys, I’ll reach for their faces
and never touch them. Just float backwards
listening to Debussy,
© Joseph Saling and The New Word Mechanic, 2014, 2018.