My mother would have turned 100 this week. She actually made it to 89 and for most of those years she was vibrant, engaged, confounding, and challenging (this from a daughter’s perspective). I have now had 11 years to reflect on who my mother was and with each passing day, I find myself humbled as life is now handing me similar experiences. Now that I am dealing with the challenges of arthritis and widowhood, I have much more compassion for what my mother went through. In this and in so many areas, I apologize to her for my failing to have understood what her challenges really were and how incredibly stalwart she was in facing and overcoming them.
If she were still here we would be having a blow out of a party. My mother loved a good party. Minimal expectations would be to have a family gathering at the roadside restaurant where the family has gathered for generations. We would start with drinks at the bar, then be seated in the private room. Ordering from the menu, my mother would choose “Poor Man’s Lobster”, onion soup, the salad bar, and a baked potato. (For a woman who never weighed more than 110, she could put away a meal!). Coffee and dessert would follow, although how she had room for this was beyond me!
She would systematically work her way through all the food and all the while be engaged in conversation, reminiscences, and story-telling. As she aged, these stories took on that oft-repeated tempo. Listeners would wait patiently, already knowing the story’s arc, but too polite to interrupt. We would laugh in the appropriate places and appear to be surprised at the endings. I suspect my mother was aware of just how patronizing this must have felt, but she was too much of the doyenne to call us out on it.
My mother’s greatest fear was that she would have to leave the family home and go into assisted living. The family home had seen generations borne and die in it. It was a bit museum-like, filled with furniture, books, artwork, and knick-knacks that triggered memories and provided comfort. It also was a beast to care for and presented challenges including only having one bathroom on the upper floor, and needing modernization in the kitchen and basement. If it had been economically feasible, having a staff such as Downton Abbey had would have made my mother’s life much less taxing.
My husband and I did our best to keep my mother in that home as long as possible. We paid for remodeling and landscaping. We made sure appliances were up to date and viable. But age and infirmity finally caught up with my mother and the house. She was unable to climb the stairs to her bedroom and she began to fall more frequently. Her safety needs trumped her emotional ties to the house. On an August afternoon, I transferred my mother from the family home to a lovely assisted living facility across town. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.
My mother went into a numbed state for almost two years. While she understood at some level that she could no longer manage in her home, her heart was broken in leaving it. The place she moved to was filled with loving, caring people, but they were not family, and their very presence was a daily reminder her of inability to stay independent. I, on the other hand, found myself actually sleeping better, no longer having to worry that my mother was lying on the floor, helpless.
Time healed some of these feelings. My mother’s personality eventually emerged from her grief, and she demonstrated a quality she had had all her life – the ability to draw others to her and make them feel special. Her caregivers delighted in her stories and went out of their way to see that she was loved and cared for. She would call me on Sundays and tell me the latest gossip and share with me the new friends she had made. This went a long way in helping me to manage my guilt and feelings of having failed my mother.
Eventually, my mother succumbed to a combination of cognitive and physical decline. She was transferred to long-term care where she finally died. I was able to be with her, having been encouraged by the staff to fly out. Truly, this was her final gift. I shared the news with my cousins and family friends. Here is what I wrote:
Hello All — Mom died peacefully tonight at around 10:00 pm. She was resting comfortably, listening to Yo Yo Ma play Mozart. She had wanted her body donated to science, however, she had lost so much weight that it wasn’t viable. Instead she will be cremated. She did not suffer, and was cared for by wonderful people — to the end, my mother had a way of charming everyone she came in contact with — such a sweet soul.
I find myself in many ways relieved that she is no longer physically in pain — her kyphosis (hunchback) and arthritis were quite taxing, and her heart condition made it difficult for her to sustain activities. I also find myself relieved that she no longer is experiencing anxiety.
With that said, I am adrift without my anchor to Watertown and family. She was the one who remembered the birthdays, recorded the special events, and kept in touch –
This week, as her 100th birthday comes around, I find myself celebrating who she was. I have revised so many of my thoughts and feelings, which is a gift that age has brought with it. Her gifts of how she lived her life continue to inform who I am and how I want to age. Most of all, I am learning to forgive myself. Happy Birthday, Nonnie!