My mother is 96 years old. She has lived in a community center, i.e. nursing home, for almost five years. We talk by phone three nights a week, and see each other on Skype most Thursday mornings. She has outlived my father by 26 years and my brother by 14. Lately she has slipped a lot, it seems.
My cousin, now also my adopted brother, visits her . . . well, until the past couple weeks he visited her every day and taken her out for lunch (mostly to the “Chit Chat” or “Jean’s”) every Sunday and Monday, and then taken her to her home where he has lived with her or alone for decades. My sister-in-law, my cousin-in-law, and I recently convinced him that he must take Tuesdays off for himself.
Mom and I live far from each other but I’ve heard her say thank you for “rounding out my day” probably a thousand times. (The first two years I called every day.)
When Mom was my age, she had already fallen on the wet kitchen floor, broken her hip, had a metal pin inserted, and was walking with a walker. She’d had a heart attack that was followed two days later by a cardiac arrest that was, at that time, the longest heart stoppage ever at Mercy Hospital in Mason City, Iowa, and the second longest ever at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where she was transferred. She was in and out of consciousness for more than a week. The doctors came to me three times to sign papers to let her go if she started to slip away again. I told the doctors to go away, they didn’t know my mother.
When my sister-in-law told her I was there, she didn’t recognize me but tried to take off her wedding ring. She had told me years before that it would come to me. Two weeks later she sat up in bed and started doing crossword puzzles. That was 26 years ago.
Now we talk about the weather. It is cold in Iowa, she doesn’t like it, but “we have to take what’s given us.” She played cards today, or did she? She feels good “considering.” She asks how I’m doing and says “Oh, I’m glad” to my answer. We repeat this a day or two later, or maybe again in the same phone call. We no longer talk about books she is reading, because a year ago she stopped reading books. She reads magazine articles and local news items. They are short and she doesn’t have to remember the storyline from day to day. She made the transition seamlessly and never explained, but I didn’t need an explanation.
I yawn when she talks, not out of boredom but from releasing accumulated tension. I have a mother and she is the loving gentle creature that she was not when I was young. So what if the conversations are repetitive, the sound of her voice has become a mantra I hear as “You have a mother.”
It is holiday time and I am becoming obsessed with my family, those alive and those gone. I think about who my mother and father were aside from our parent-child mismanagement. In the last months I’ve revised memory and history to make them more comfortable and intriguing. Mom has done it for years. In her, it is called senility. In me, it is called “erasing and embracing.”
I am nothing like my mother at my age. I am more alive than ever. My health reports have never been better. I feel good and look good, my mind is snapping and passions are rising. I will be snorkeling in the Galapagos in January and expect to be taking photographs and doing interviews in Afghanistan or Gaza this spring. There is nothing I really want to do that I can’t do except marry someone half my age. That’s a bit of a bummer – but marriage as a concept has lost much of its charm anyway.
And I am not alone. My life is overflowing with (usually single) women “of a certain age” who shine. We are burnished and glow. We are vintage with bouquet. We are graciousness over steel. We have the energy, talent, and often love lives of women decades younger, and we cap it off with experience, style, compassion, beauty, and humor. We laugh a lot.
Yet we haven’t all made it. Some of us are ill or gone. This closeness of loss makes each day more vital, precious, and to be savored.
I am at the pivot point in the expanse of what I experience as my family, those gone or leaving and those emerging. Looking one way, I see a frail 100-pound woman trying to remember what she did that day. The other way, I see my daughter as a spokesperson for NASA or twirling upside-down from red ribbons at her aerial recital.
And I see a 6-year-old boy captivated by math and the size of the universe and the size of quarks, and a 4-year-old girl who stops giggling only long enough to assert her will, and who dresses herself in wondrous absurdities, and whispers, “When Mommy’s gone, let’s have dessert before dinner and not tell her.” This is my family and it extends from when my mother was born until when my grandchildren leave.
That’s what I see from my catbird seat, and I say, “Yeah, this works.” Or as my mother tells me at the end of every call, “Have a beautiful night and a beautiful tomorrow.”