Under the hot afternoon New England summer sun, we sat on a bench outside of the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana meditation center. After ten days of meditation, nine of which were spent in silence, three of us lingered around long after most of our new friends had departed.
There, Kim, an actress, comedian, and photographer from LA and Suprita, a dentist originally from Nepal, shared the journey of their lives with me. In just 4 hours, we covered almost every aspect of our lives. Through those hours, Suprita and I listened to Kim reflect on the experiences that have made her who she is today.
A northeast native, Kim Mulligan was born in the Bronx, but was raised in New Hampshire. At the age of 5, Kim’s mother, Iris, lost her hearing to Encephalitis, a swelling of the left side of the brain, during pregnancy complications. Sick for months, her mother suffered nerve damage, but fortunately lived through the complications. After this period, Kim recalls taking care of her mother for as long as she can remember. As she got older, she played the role as a daughter and a caretaker.
Her mother never learned sign language, which made communication difficult growing up. Through her creative attempts to communicate with her mother, Kim slowly became the bridge between her mother and the outside world. She used art to create a better understanding between people, further drawing her to storytelling.
She went to Massachusetts College of Art for Photography where she also took acting classes at Emerson College. Much to the dismay of her mother, she was fought on going to art school. Eventually, her mother came around and became her biggest supporter. Early experiences of serving as a bridge enticed Kim to join the arts. Early in university, she was bit by the acting bug. Using photography, comedy, and acting to tell stories have always been her passion. After university, at the age of 23, she followed her heart to California with her high school sweetheart to pursue a career in acting.
Prior to moving to California, Kim felt torn between following her heart and staying at home to take care of her mother. She decided to follow her dreams. Kim’s carefree life in LA eventually took a turn. Around two years ago, in her early 30’s, she had a stroke and became very ill. Her health conditioned forced her to return to New Hampshire for a short period. This is when she noticed her mother continuously forgetting things. Her family told her she had nothing to worry about, but a doctor eventually told her mother she had a mild cognitive impairment. Struggling financially, Kim returned to LA and was unable to visit home again for almost a year. The emails from her mother became less frequent.
This past October, Kim took her mother to Puerto Rico after her father thought it might be a good idea. Her father knew her mother wasn’t quite right, but didn’t say anything more. “She’s fabulous by the way”, Kim tells me, “She was born in Puerto Rico in a teeny town called Lajas. It is in the mountains of Puerto Rico..her uncle was a priest and her aunt was a nun. The family was very religious and spiritual”.
During the trip to Puerto Rico, her mother couldn’t remember who she was. When she left New Hampshire, she knew everyone, but when she got to Puerto Rico, she had no idea who anyone was. Again, she felt like her mother’s caretaker.
During the days in Puerto Rico, Kim and her mother went behind her aunt’s house. The grass was overgrown and the paint was peeling, but it was a quiet and peaceful place. Everyday, they went to pray the resory, meditate or play with play-dough or crayons. Kim tried different types of therapy to find out what would help her mother’s memory the most.
On one of the last days, Kim asked her mother if there was anything she wanted to tell her from the trip. She said, “I made a really good friend”. “So that’s our relationship now”, Kim tells me,” I’m her really good friend”.
Suffering from dementia which grows worse day by day, Kim’s mother has no recollection of Kim or her sister’s childhood. “She doesn’t remember us growing up so that’s really strange”.
Late last year, Kim moved back to New Hampshire for a couple of months to spend more time taking care of her mother. “Never in my life has my mindfulness or improv practice, which I feel go together, have been so important. What I realized is that I have to be present every moment. As a new moment I never know what to expect, I just have to respond with love and patience. It doesn’t matter how she is acting towards me…you know you just have to be in her world and be okay with that. I love her just as much and I know she doesn’t know me as much, but I know she still loves me. If she didn’t it wouldn’t matter, I would still love her”.
During her time at home with her mother, Kim took pictures during their walks of appreciation. “I point out things that I think she will think are pretty…a house, flower, path, tree, baby...” Sometimes her mother will get into negative loops where she will be angry at someone who is already dead or at something that never happened. When Kim has her in the present moment, she realizes that this changes her mother’s state of mind.
They also started painting together. The appreciation of colors and using painting as a mindful practice also helps when her mother is having a difficult time. “They’re mostly abstract, but those are becoming a part of our story”. Now going back to California, she worries about her mother and what it will feel like to leave. “There is definitely more coming as far as the story”. Kim is not sure where her mother’s journey will go, but she does know it tells a powerful story of the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter.
She hopes to one day tell her mother’s story to the world- a movie, art piece, or even a book. As for now, she hopes to spend more time with her mother, getting to know her story. “The say when you have dementia it brings out who you are. She is so sweet and kind. She is always concerned for other people even when they don’t need it. That’s really her true nature and it’s been beautiful for me to see that”.