Journalist Jane Gross describes it as a “bittersweet season”, this ambiguous time of tending to an elderly parent. Referring to her own experience, she has said, “My mother and I had a very difficult relationship. I didn’t race to the loving caregiver’s role with an open heart, shall we say. I sort of weighed in my mind what seemed to me like the lesser of two evils. You know, was I going to do this because it was the right thing to do or was I going to bail and feel guilty for the rest of my life? On balance, with that as the rock and a hard place, I decided, you know, do it and do it right.”
That’s how it’s been for me, and, as I realize only lately, for so many of my generation. With our elders living far longer than anyone’s expectations, navigating our own complicated lives while overseeing that of an aging parent can be tricky and emotionally exhausting. My beloved father died when he was still relatively young, and my mother is now celebrating her 91st birthday.
Well, as one wise old lady told me, “We get what we get.” My mother has resided in an assisted living facility for about 15 years now, and I have remained her steadfast visitor through various crises and long stretches of bleak. It’s a wearisome duty, I admit it, and it’s gone on so long, but my heart insists that it is the right and only thing to do, so I don’t see any leeway. I’ll just have to keep doing my best. To quote Jane Gross again, “You have no idea how long it’s going to last. You have no idea what’s going to happen next. And I think so many of us are used to feeling in control of what we’re doing…you make a to-do list and you check everything off the to-do list and then, when you get to the bottom of the page, whatever the task is, you’re done. This doesn’t work that way.”
I’ll say. And even when things seem to be humming along rather smoothly, you never know when the next disaster will erupt: a fall, a broken hip, new dimensions of dementia. But you know? There are also some rewards: above all, I have learned forgiveness right down to the core of me. I have learned how compassion, patience, and duty cleanse the soul. I have learned to retrieve from the rush of time that which is worthwhile, and to release what can only cause bitterness and sorrow. There’s been an unexpected addendum to my history with my mother and it shines a different light on things.
In many ways I’m lucky: my mother is sweeter now than I ever remember her being. She is confused but always knows me and has kept important memories intact. A year ago we were told she probably had only a few more months to live, and now she has improved to the point of no longer needing hospice care. She’s deaf as a stone even with her hearing aid, requires a walker, and has lost her lower dentures, but unless she’s in pain, her general demeanor is one of cheerfulness, acceptance, and appreciation. People seem to like her, and that works in her favor.
So I organized a party for her 91st birthday with a big cake that had her name on it, surrounded by pink roses. Quite a few of the residents joined us in the community room, and she was delighted.
Which brings me to another unexpected good thing about this experience, since I’m always looking for the good: the people, or at least some of them. There are caregivers who do difficult work with diligence and good-heartedness, and there are residents whose dignity and resilience inspire me. (I’ve written in the past about a few of these residents such as Augustine, Jaime, Marge, Toby, Jack, and others.) Even in a relatively pleasant place, as this one is, facing the daily routine can’t be easy, and I’m touched at how 92-year-old Pauline manages to emerge from her room each day impeccably dressed, including lipstick and eyeliner, or how graciously Jaimie shares stories and kisses my mother’s hand, and the intelligence and thoughtfulness of people like Toby, who might remind my mother if there is a Friday evening Shabbat service or escort her back to her room when she seems momentarily lost.
In fact, at the birthday party, I mentioned to Carolyn, a resident and friend, that I thought this might be the season of life that requires the most bravery. Carolyn quickly agreed. “It’s because we’ve lost control of our own lives,” she said. “We’re still the same inside, but we have to depend so much on others now, and our choices are so narrow.”
I’m remembering a lovely man named Len who lived here until he passed away several years ago. He was a small, wiry fellow who always wore a jaunty cap, and he was one of my mother’s friends, and to this day, his remarkable daughter Paula still regularly visits my mother. It’s hard to get my mind around such generosity.
“Paula is amazingly kind,” says LaVerne (not her real name), the daughter of another resident. “When my mother dies, I swear I will never set foot in this place again. I’ve been coming here every day for 12 years, and I’ve watched my mother go downhill, and it’s depressing. I’ve had enough! I come here every day and I think about death. My mother’s had enough too…haven’t you, Mom?” Her mother’s weary expression indicates that indeed she has.
But if we think about dying, we’re thinking too about living, and it was so good to orchestrate a happy day, to be present in a sunny room, to hear some anecdotes from the diverse and interesting lives that happen to have converged here.
In an essay called To Grow in Wisdom, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following: “What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten.” So Toby held the cake upright so we could take a picture of it with my mother, who sat there like a queen, visibly delighted, and dear Marge wheeled over, leaned in, and offered her best wishes. All in all, there were about ten guests around a long table, and we sang happy birthday to my mother’s deaf ears, and even if she doesn’t remember it today, it happened, and it was a very fine moment. A lady named Lou from Milwaukee, 96 years old, joined us near the end, wearing a plaid shirt and pink shorts and sandals, full of exuberance and ready for a piece of that cake and seconds too.
I was still in my 40s when this tour of duty began, still in the midst of working and raising a daughter, prime time. And here I am, beginning to think about my own old age, while the duty continues, and I imagine there will be harder times to come before it ends. But I am blessed in many ways, and I am grateful, and this was a good day. I feel human.