It’s a fact of life. We grow old and die. There are a lot of ways to do that. I think they all involve some degree of grieving. My mother passed away in the spring of 2016, a month short of her 97th birthday. Here are some reflections.
The phone rings and rings. She’s hard to get ahold of. It’s not that she’s not there. She sleeps a lot. More even, lately. Maybe because it’s easy. No permission required. No one to interact with. Besides, she’ll tell you, there’s nothing to do. Her friends are dead. The activities the retirement community puts on aren’t to her liking. So she sleeps a lot. More, lately.
But when she does wake up, she calls my brother, John. He’s her anchor. I’m the baby even though I’m almost 60. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t call me. He lives closer, too. He can be there in an hour if she needs him. He’s her window to the world, the one bit of certainty she remembers. He has the answers. She’s sure of that.
Her world is becoming like the tunnel vision of a glaucoma patient. There are shadows in the periphery of her vision. Those shadows, the people and things she used to know. My father, her husband. Died in 2006 at a ripe old age. Is he out of town? I haven’t seen him recently. Do you know where he is? My grandmother, her mother. Died in 1970. She says John, I want to go visit her, but she won’t answer my calls. My brother Bob. Died in 2010. Have you seen him? I need to talk to him about the farms. She calls him, the one thing she can count on. Maybe she doesn’t call every day. The questions, though. They’re the same. It’s like when the kids used to watch the same Sesame Street episode again and again. It drives him nuts. Like the two-year old who’s learned that “why?” elicits a response, she calls. It grinds his gears.
My father’s sister took care of their mother. When I was a teenager, I’d visit grandma in Worcester, MA. I’d do yard work. She’d regale me with tales of the past and make pancakes without any baking powder for me as a special treat and then be sorry she forgot the baking powder. I told her not to worry, the intent was good. They were made with love. She still had her own house up on the hill then. It was a few years later, she moved in with my aunt. And drove her nuts.
When’s the news on? She’d ask. How long until the news is on? My aunt professed Episcopal piety, but apparently that piety didn’t extend to the water torture of how long until the news is on. She could be pretty nasty about it. The news was my grandmother’s window, looking out into a world that had become the image presented by a pinhole camera. When the news was on, she still felt connected. (this was before CNN). When the news was over, it was like it never happened. The questions resumed almost immediately.
11-29-15. It was a raucous Thanksgiving, the kind my brother characterized as “a bunch of introverts sitting around ‘socializing.’” That pretty much nailed it.
Mom’s 96 and not as sharp cognitively as she once was. Her hearing isn’t all that great, either. She still enjoys conversation, and she’s still trying to make sense of life even as it becomes more remote. She no longer lives at home. The County got involved somehow and edictified that either she had to move out or she had to hire a live-in caretaker. Being of the 7th stage of man (everybody’s trying to rip me off), she couldn’t find a way, even when confronted with the choice of hiring a person or being moved to a “home,” to hire anybody. So she lives in a “home.” It’s a nice place. Not cheap. It sort of reminds me of a automobile junkyard, filled with shells of people who lived lives and had families and love and loss, shells like the skeletonized leaf I saw the other day. Transparent. Frail. A sketch of its living self.
She dispassionately says she hates the place. Maybe she does; maybe she’s reaching out, trying to evoke any reaction from the world so that she can still feel alive. I don’t want to go back there, she says. Conversation, like a 2-year old asking why, to get some response- -any response. In the words of Pink Floyd, “Is there anybody out there?”
John brought her over to dinner. They were having Thanksgiving there at the home, he said. Who would want to have Thanksgiving there? He asked, with a note of disgust in his voice. The question was real. There was doubt, angst, trepidation, maybe even a little fear behind it. Disgust is too simple a word for what his voice carried. Sadness? In the next breath, he detailed the adventure that had constituted getting Mom into his little, low-slung car. Each month when we take her to the pancake breakfast at the Methodist Church a mile or so from the blessed, berated home, it gets harder and harder to get her in the car. Her strength is fading. Entropy is harder and harder to resist. I don’t know. Maybe there will come a day when we can’t get her over here. We could still have dinner with her there. She likes the company.
Dinner in 3 acts.
Judy and I agreed to take her back to Kensington Park, the home. The conversation runs a lot like dialogue in a theatre of the absurd production. As with such a play, there’s no point in getting upset with the characters. They may (or may not) see life as the enterprise it actually is. After all, who’s to say what constitutes reality or delusion.
“Where are we going,” she asks.
“Back to Kensington Park, where you live.”
“I hate it there. Does this road go near Melwood?” Sometimes the world encroaches through her fog.
“Yep. We’ll go by Melwood.” My sister worked there for several years. Mom was an active supporter of the place, though not without friction in the later years of the engagement.
“What road is this?”
“Why are we going this way?”
“It’s the way back to your place.”
“I don’t seem to be able to get a hold of Mother.”
“That would be because she died in 1970.”
“Oh.” (Puzzled silence. We take the ramp onto I-495). “Is this the right way?”
“Yep. This is the way to Kensington.”
“Look at all the people.”
“Yep. They all had their Thanksgiving dinner and now they’re headed home. Lots of traffic.”
“Does this go to the Beltway?”
“This is the silly circle.”
“That’s what truckers call the Beltway on the CB radio. So, yes, this is the Beltway.”
“Oh. Look at all the people. Where do you think they’re going?”
“Like the wind, they’re going from someplace to someplace else.” (this was what she told me when I was little and asked what the wind was. “Lots of air going from someplace to someplace else,” she’d say) “In fact there are so many going the same direction that they cause a whirlpool, and all the rubbish settles out in the center, which is about where the Capitol is. No wonder the government doesn’t work very well.”
“Hmmmph! I don’t like sycamore trees.”
“Why? Their bark is pretty.”
“I think they’re plotting to take over the world.”
“Well now. It’s all about market share, isn’t it. Just because they want to make more sycamore trees doesn’t make them inherently bad, does it?”
“I still don’t like them. Have you seen Bob” (her eldest son)?
(with resignation, implied patience). “No. He died a few years ago.”
“He did?” (surprise in her voice). “How?”
“Well, he got the cancer, and he up and died.”
“I miss him. But boy could he be an SOB. Where does this road go?…”