|My nephew Josh, Mom, Josh's daughter Kenley, and Kasey's Emerson in October
My mother and I sat in identical chairs facing each other in the social worker’s narrow office, waiting for my mother’s discharge meeting. After nearly two weeks in hospital and then rehab, we are both ready for a change, to move forward to whatever that may be, although the possibilities are narrow, closed in by time and aging. Beyond the open door, nurses and other personnel, patients and family members moved up and down the long corridor. In my mind’s eye, we are poised the same way, eyes downcast, shoulders hunched as if bracing for a blow, nervous fingers alternately drumming on the arms of the chairs or picking at nonexistent bits of lint. I am afraid to lift my eyes and confirm our discomfort. The silence is thick and cloying. My mother sighs and I brace myself, but she remains silent, itself a potent omen.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of clichéd phrases, well-meaning admonitions about change, but they are little more than words, a strong statement from one who makes her living, nay, constructs her life from words, but as those phrases flit through my brain, they have little meaning and offer no consolation. I shift in my chair, recross my legs, and my eyes stray to the tall bookshelf, laden with books on aging and illness, dementia and death. Many I have read or at least picked up and flipped through the pages over the past two years as my mother’s age and the insults of it have become increasingly obvious, more of a challenge to negotiate, and so I know much of what is on those pages. But there on the bottom shelf, one slim volume catches my roving eyes, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
“Oh,” I breathe and my mother raises her head, her eyes questioning my single word.
“What?” she asks.
She has grown smaller over the years, not the smiling round-faced woman who delighted in her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Instead, she has collapsed in on herself, become thin, her once thick dark hair now thinned and gray; the quick eyes slow to focus; the words she used so readily lost somewhere in the depths of her mind.
“A book,” I say, leaning forward in my chair to pull the slim volume from its place.
The cover is deceptively simple: pale pink-beige background, simple black letters. I flip the cover open, ruffle through a page or two and the words leap up at me.
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.
And so it is. In some instant, when none of us were really paying attention, my mother’s life, and by extension the lives of those who know and love her, changed in the instant, never to be the same or the familiar. We had entered the narrow path of life’s dwindling days.
My mother and I have never had the kind of relationship that either of us wanted, longed for. Two people bound by blood could not be more different. And yet in strange ways, we are very similar, and that unholy combination has made it very difficult for both of us. My mother is much more traditional, happiest to be at home taking care of her family or working in her other caretaker capacity as a registered nurse. Our interactions are checkered with tears and accusations, furor and sorrow, long periods of not speaking to each other, and unrealistic expectations by both of us.
For my part, I carry a haunting memory of her walking out of our house in a furor at me and not returning, and of an argument that resulted in her slapping my face for being cheeky. For her, she is haunted by the fact that when I left home for college at eighteen, I didn’t return for years, and she spent nights wondering if I was alive. We are both haunted by what I suspect are the same – or at least very similar – childhood demons. Years of therapy have put many of mine to rest, but I fear she still is plagued by hers. Although I did come back home and she has been part of our lives for many years, were we not bound by blood, we likely would have given up on each other long ago. But she is my mother, and that tie binds me closely.
My father’s death brought us together, for we both adored him, carried him close in our hearts throughout his life and even now that he is sixteen years gone. My dad grew up in an orphanage after his mother abandoned him in the midst of the 1920s, and was taken under the wing of the gentle and caring woman who was the director of the home. Many people who went through such an experience would have come away hardened and bitter, but not my dad. He had a smile as big as all outdoors, a compassionate heart, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a love for his family that defies description. I have suspected for many years that my mother, who loves and misses him deeply even now, saw him as the person who saved her from her own unsettled life and gave her purpose and meaning.
One night, almost sixteen years ago to the day that an ambulance took my mother to the hospital here, my dad went to bed the wrong way – head beneath the tucked-in covers at the foot, feet resting on the pillows at the head. It was there my mother found him, reoriented him, and in the morning when he was clearly no better, took him to the hospital. He never came home.
And so the emptiness of his absence brought us together in an uneasy and still often fractious relationship. Although a day never went by when I didn’t think of my dad, for my mother, each day in the house they shared was an aching reminder of him, and her world began to shrink in on itself. Oh, she still went about daily activities: picking up the newspapers he had read so carefully, buying too many groceries and stockpiling them in a spare room, shopping simply to be out amongst people, and lunching with the increasingly smaller number of friends, but her missing him was obvious in everything she said during our daily phone calls.
As the years passed, it was increasingly obvious that her abilities were waning along with her enthusiasm for life, so when her first great grandchild was born, none of us were really surprised when she began advocating that we all move north to be near to family. It was a move we had been planning for some time, but her desire to see Silas, that first great grand, growing up, pushed us to move north eight years ago, earlier than we had planned. And so we moved.
But even that was not enough to slow her diminishing abilities, and the past eight years, although joyful in many ways, were also fraught with arguments and disapproval, confusion and anger that tested all our abilities, often leaving her angry and me crying in frustration and increasingly fear for her well-being. It became the path to where we are today. Clearly, my mother’s life was waning, and that realization brought me face to face with my own mortality, an unpleasant and unsettling place to be.
When I picked up the phone just a few weeks ago and heard her say “I’m sick”, the world collapsed. As I followed the ambulance in to the hospital, sat with her in the emergency room, walked over to the acute care unit with her, I knew our lives were about to change forever. It was a chilling realization. Our time to resolve our relationship, our time to say the things we needed to, our time to be together was waning.
Perhaps worse, with the specter of my mother’s mortality staring me in the face, I realized that with her inevitable passing, I would become the last surviving member of the family of four that not always comfortable, was, well, familiar and sure. What that means unsettles and eludes me, but I do know that the one thing I have wanted most – the ability to develop a closer relationship with my mother – has slipped away. What I must accept is that all can do is support her, and love her, and prepare myself to say goodbye.
After my mother decided, during that fated discharge meeting, that she would move to assisted living rather than returning home, forty feet away from me, I went home and cried. I mourned the loss of morning coffee together, her joy in the great grands and our dogs who adore her, the moments of laughter and connectedness. Then I found my own copy of Didion’s slim book on death and grieving. In between collecting the things my mother needed, arranging to move some of her furniture, setting up her care with the nurses and support personnel at the facility, I reread The Year of Magical Thinking.
“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all,” Didion wrote. such it is for both my mother and me.
I have realized that though I am grieving for my mother as she is grieving herself, I also am grieving for myself. I have realized that one day, I too will not be at all, and in this final time with my mother, I must abandon how I want things to be and simply accept that this is what they are, to live in the ordinary instant, for it is always ephemeral and changing.