My Cousin is a Duck, and I Am Loved

Mom and her fuzzy friends. Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom and her fuzzy friends. Photo by Callen Harty.

Some days when I visit my mother she thinks I’m her brother or someone else. Most of the time she knows who I am, but not always. Going to visit can be saddening or it can bring me joy–I never know which until I’m there and engaged in conversation. Sometimes you can tell she is not quite sure who you are, so she acts as if she recognizes you so as not to give it away that she doesn’t know. It can make it difficult to tell where her mind is at any given moment.

Last night when I stopped in she seemed to realize it was me, but she didn’t call me by name or anything, so I thought maybe she couldn’t remember. I asked how she was doing and she said she hadn’t been well. She is normally not a complainer in any way, so that surprised me. When I asked what was wrong she couldn’t really define it. When I told my brother about it later he mentioned that about a week ago she said to him that she thought maybe she was dying.

Of course she is dying. She has for years now been on a slow, steady decline, but she has also shown incredible strength and resolve each time we thought she was near the end. She received Last Rites almost a year ago and was kicked off of hospice because she had been doing so well after it looked pretty bad there for a while. She is 90 now and has been bedridden for about a year and a half or more.

This weekend’s visit was mostly good. Mom has several stuffed animals as friends and she acts as if they are family. They lay in bed with her and keep her company and brighten her days for her. They can be there when the rest of us can’t. There are two bright yellow ducks with large orange bills and because this is Wisconsin they have a friend that is a Holstein. Today I took a picture of them watching over her and it drew her attention to them. She asked how they were related to me. I said, “I’m not sure. I think they might be cousins.”

“And him?” she asked, pointing at the Holstein next to them. I said I thought it was a friend.

She asked where they live and I said, “Here, with you.”

She wanted to know about the Holstein. She said, “And him?”

I answered that he was staying here with his two duck friends. She asked, “What about his parents? Are they sick?”

I could only say that I didn’t know and then I thought about how sick my parent has been for so long and how her mind has slowly abandoned her. Dementia can be so cruel. We sat there silently for several minutes. She just stared into space as if pondering some deep philosophical question, but eventually whatever thought it was gave way to her eyes closing and her body settling into sleep again. I sat watching her for a while until I moved a bit and accidentally startled her awake.

“What was that?” she asked. I let her know I had moved suddenly and that I was sorry I woke her. She started laughing, embarrassed that she would be so frightened by a little movement. Her laughter can brighten the darkest day.

I stood up and kissed her on the forehead and said, “I need to get back home and I don’t want to keep bothering you when you’re tired.”

She looked me in the eye and said, as seriously as I’ve ever heard her say anything, “My children are never a bother to me.” She took my hand and we held hands for a couple minutes. Her hands are so thin and frail I was afraid of hurting her.

I bent down and kissed her again. “I’m going to go now. I love you.”

She replied something along the lines of, “I love you as deep as love can be.” It took me by such surprise I wasn’t exactly sure how she had phrased it. I looked in her eyes and I knew she knew who I was at that moment.

It didn’t matter if my cousin might be a stuffed yellow duck, or that earlier she had asked if her own mother was still sleeping. It didn’t matter that on another day she thought I was her brother. All that mattered was that moment. I looked deeply into her eyes and said, “That is the best gift I could have gotten today.”

I kissed her again and left, somewhat reluctantly, but also wanting that to be my last memory for the day. I said I love you again and she repeated the same to me. As I turned around one last time at the door she lifted her hand in a weak wave. I never know if my visit might be the last one. If it proves to be this visit was certainly a gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life. If not, I hope the next one is as good.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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2 Responses to My Cousin is a Duck, and I Am Loved

  1. Sandi K says:

    This blog touched me. I am currently helping a man with dementia and see how cruel it can be. What a wonderful moment you shared with your mom, one that will stick with you long after she passes. I will keep you both in my thoughts and prayers.

  2. marcea0k says:

    I experience much the same with my mother though she is 10 years younger than your dear mother. Her body is still pretty spry but her mind is becoming a bog, sticky in spots and full of mist everywhere.

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