"Too many people nowadays forget their mothers. But not the Irish. No not us. We never forget our mothers." Tis
There is a photo of my mother. She is four or five years old. Posing in her Sunday best, hands straight to her side, hair in perfect ringlets. At the moment the camera clicks her face is raised, eyes closed, feeling the warmth of the sunshine through crisscrossing branches. A child of God.
This photo is framed in my mind beside the picture of mom at the nursing home. Seventy-six years old. She sits in her wheelchair posing for no one, clothes, posture and hair no longer a concern. At the moment I round the corner from the elevator, her face is lowered, eyes open, not seeing or looking at anyone or anything.
She looks up and smiles, stripping away about seventy years. I leaned down to hear mom’s voice, barely audible because of Parkinson’s disease.
“Oh, Larry, you’d better tell people.”
“Tell them what mom?”
“That your father’s dead.”
Deep breath. “He’s been dead these 20 years mom.”
Pause. “Oh, yes, of course.” She laughs. “You ever notice that I sometimes talk a lot of nonsense.”
“That’s OK mom.”
Visiting my mother in the nursing home always felt like walking past a homeless person. My eyes averted, barely noticing, taking in every detail. Guilt and shame served with a generous portion of fear.
Seems like just the other day, visiting mom felt much different. A sprawling bungalow in west-end Ottawa was the vortex of family gatherings for our large Irish-Catholic family. Though there were three from the brood with their own house in the same city, mom’s home was where we gathered. This house is where we had grown up, where we had struck out into the world, with some of us returning for temporary occupations, as careers and marriages sorted themselves out. Always a home-cooked meal and a familiar room through the revolving doors straight down the corridor to home. And mom. She might not approve of the reason for the return of a prodigal son or daughter, but she didn’t judge and she liked the company.
For mom, there were no revolving doors. For over 30 years she lived in her home, and never, ever wanted to give it up. People said, ‘All that space, all that work. Time to sell. Well, at least think about it’. Think about what? From a family of seven kids, married an Irishman from a family of seven kids, and had seven kids of her own. Lived in this, and one other house. Where do you go from here, and who would you be anyway?
And she wanted a house for us to come back home to. We visited regularly, but even a weekly visit leaves a lot of time to be alone. Often visits were as much about catching up with siblings as they were about seeing mom. She didn’t mind, just good to see the house filled again. Sunday after diner we dispersed to our lives again, and mom was left alone in the house. Twenty years a widow, seven mobile kids, fourteen grandchildren usually in distant locations, and mom settles back into her house, the most constant and sustaining relationship in her life.
What did Mom and her home talk about all those years?
“It’s about time you got home, Irene. I’ve been awake half the night worrying.”
“Now, you’re getting a new roof before winter, and that’s it. Otherwise you’ll catch a death of a cold.”
“Better put rugs down on that floor Irene. Hardwood floors are too slippery for you now, in your condition.”
“I can’t imagine praying at night without seeing the moon and stars outside our window.”
Then as the last of the temporary occupations ended, Parkinson’s extended its insidious, unforgiving grip around mom’s body and mind. A series of caregivers, all caring but not family, could only delay the inevitable. A decision was made for mom’s safety. Home would now be a nursing home. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
At a conference last summer in Victoria, a chipper presenter said that centenarians generally agree upon four ingredients as being essential to their longevity. First, members of the world’s most exclusive club tended not to be devastated by loss. Mom was a great example of Irish stoicism, having grown up on a farm outside Ottawa during the depression. But she must have known. For weeks leading up to the decision, she made offhand remarks about being spoiled by all the space in the house, as if it had recently expanded. She would mention the fact most people in the world, and lord only knows in third world countries, families of thirty-five haven’t as much space as she hoards for herself. Mom never complained about the loss of her house and she refused to feel sorry for herself. She never let herself wish that all could be as it once was, as she folded her life into a small suitcase. We nostalgic boomers are doomed to die a thousand deaths as we cling to a world we take for granted, and are devastated again and again.
Secondly, thriving 100 year-olds maintain a positive attitude towards life. Which becomes more amazing the longer you live. Those who are 100 years old today, have lived to witness the century of greatest change, war and carnage in recorded history. But most important, they have out-lived every human being they have ever loved.
Such epiphanies occur from time to time. For example, there is a tombstone just across the river in a Catholic graveyard in Quebec. Chiseled on stone are the names of twins who died in the year 1923. Their father’s name is recorded below the twins, having died ten years later. The mother of the twins, and wife of the father is recorded below her husband’s name. The year of her birth is 1900, but the date of her death is blank. Seventy-seven years after the death of her children, and sixty-seven years after the death of her husband, she lives and breathes and remembers from the new millennium.
But where is she, and what does she think? Does she grace the halls on my mother’s nursing home, sitting remembering? How often does she think about her dead twins, whose passing likely threatened to pull her to the grave. Or are the events of her life, once fantastical or mundane, all quieted now, the seeds of self, withered and displaced by the pre-occupations of bowel and bladder care? How many lives has she lived, born before air travel, insulin and e-mail?
If she sits in my mother’s nursing home, her final years will likely be filled with time to reflect on her many lives. There are many activities at the nursing home, but nothing much to do. Most of the occupants live in wheel-chairs clumped in corridors, sunrooms, or peaking out of shared bedrooms.
The third characteristic of the 100-plus club is that although members may be old, and have done much, they are not finished yet. There were no intimate late-night whisperings between mom and her home at the nursing home. There was nothing to worry about at the nursing home. Twenty-four hours every day, staff are there to ask all the questions and provide all the answers. The nursing home is well maintained. It neither gives nor receives care. Work, fretting over meaningless details, profound human struggles, seem to be reasons we get up in the morning. There are no aspiring ‘Freedom 55ers’ among 100 year old club members.
Old, worn-out residents with nothing left to do, watch you come and go to what you have yet to do. For all their inglorious stares, they were vital once, with places to go, people to see. They had thriving careers, complicated marriages, and people who counted on them -- some made love under a full moon; stopped by regularly for a cup of tea and a smoke; were filled with jealousy; thought that the goddam job would never end; fell foolishly in love; worked passionately in the garden; waited up desperately for news of a wayward teenager; laughed uncontrollably about nothing; thought nothing about laughing uncontrollably; felt desirable and could inflict it on a crowd just by walking in a room; feared never finding someone to love; escaped poverty for the war; hated high school; despaired of acne; were inspired by a grade-school teacher; were tenderly picked up and passed around by just about every adult; were framed in many photos, just like my mom, and still knows, deep down inside, that she is a child of God, even if the world has forgotten.
In the nursing home my mother shared a room with a woman who is 105 years old. They never met. My mother and her roommate spent most of their time in the corridor, crowded between snoozing residents. They likely passed each other in the corridor again and again, but never knew it. Perhaps it didn’t matter. Mom’s roommate was never cognizant, and mom became less and less so.
“Hi mom, how’re you feeling today?”
“Larry, is that you? I thought you’d died.”
“Died? But I’m here mom. I just went away for a week to a conference in Victoria. How is it that you think I died?’
A thoughtful look. “Guess it doesn’t make much sense.”
“You don’t seem to have been too upset about me dying.” Said with real hurt.
A childlike smile. “No, I don’t, do I?” Now a giggle. “Guess I got over it pretty quick ’cause I knew you’d be coming today.”
“So mom, how’re you feeling today?”
“Pretty good. How ’bout you? You look terrible, like you’ve been running too much again.”
During such moments, my mind tended towards the recent past. It was only six years ago when had a big surprise party for mom’s 70th birthday. All her friends came, many of whom had known her for almost 50 years. Her sister, her brother and his wife, dropped in from California. Mom drove her own car then, went to church every day and to the hairdresser every week, even traveled with her sister to Ireland. She had a gentleman friend. Though a decade older, he took care of mom with a sense of chivalry typical of his generation. They went to restaurants together, had common friends, similar interests. Mom and Archie were partners, not in the multitasked, ambiguous sense of the word today. Archie was her no nonsense card partner who demanded that you pay attention to the game. Which mom often didn’t do, much to Archie’s chagrin. But as long as he kept her mind challenged by the intricacies of euchre, and the need to be ready at a certain time, she thrived. She had things to do; she wasn’t finished, yet.
During this time Parkinson’s had been creeping into her life slowly. Slow enough for us to kid ourselves that with new drugs and determination, things could go on pretty much the same way forever. She deteriorated, but with the help of a live-in caregiver, the house seemed normal again. At least until Archie died. Archie had had two sons die in the previous eighteen months, became tired, and probably decided that he’d had enough, even if it meant giving up euchre.
Mom often said that she missed the old guy, but not much more. No longer would she have the arm of a gentleman to steady her through the shopping mall or down the corridor to her church pew. Her escort from now on would be a caregiver of her own gender. Her sons and daughters hardly qualified and were never available for the daily routine. Still, she continued making her daily pilgrimage to church and to the shopping mall. Once joy ended, mom persevered stubbornly. She might never come close to joining the centenarian club but she was determined to navigate through life without complaining. And with a touch of humor. One day while shopping a man in a great hurry brushed by mom. After mumbling an apology over his shoulder, mom whispered to her caregiver.
“It’s so nice just to feel the touch of a man again.”
“Irene! I can’t believe you just said that!”
“Well, I’m not dead yet!”
Mom’s makeshift euchre parties after Archie’s death were not pleasant. She hallucinated frequently, seeing a room full of people she didn’t know in the house. Later, in the nursing home, she hallucinated constantly, never quite used to the rooms full of people crowded up and down the corridors of ‘home’. She was walking then, but the anchor of her life, her home, had been lost at sea. One day, mom, fragile and precarious on her feet, bumped into a wheelchair, and fell. She had fractured her left hip.
The fourth and final feature of the 100-year-old club, is that members stay physically active throughout their lives. Mom mended slowly from the surgery on her hip. Pins held the frail bones together, and after a stint in hospital she looked and acted ancient. For a while with some assistance and much pain, she wobbled down the crowded corridor, but for most of the day she sat alone in her wheelchair without moving or speaking. Whenever I visited mom during the next two months, my one wish was that she would not be in the same spot as I’d left her. Unreasonably, I feared that she stayed in the same spot in the corridor, sitting perfectly still until I returned to the home. Mom was never physical active in her life, at least in the extreme way that people define it today. But she had never been forcibly inactive, and before she could get used to the new restrictions, she fell again. Mom was not what you would call trendy, but after two falls, she lay in a hospital bed, tragically hip.
Another x-ray was taken after her second fall. There was no apparent damage, and she was returned to the nursing home without treatment. Three days later and still in pain, a doctor noticed that mom’s foot splayed outward, indicative of hip fracture. The subsequent x-ray confirmed that her right hip was broken, but since more than 24 hours had passed, the opportunity for pinning the bones together under a local anesthetic had passed. She now required a full general anesthetic and partial hip replacement. Invasive surgery coupled with a full anesethic for an elderly person in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s is quite simply, too much. All personal control and vestiges of dignity melted way. Nothing left to do.
The neurologist said that it was to be expected, a natural thing. Mom got pneumonia, as medically predicted. Prognosis fatal, chances of recovery nil. At first we gathered by her bedside, just like Sunday dinner at mom’s. Then we took shifts so that mom would not be alone.
The current thinking in palliative care is to take the patient off of intravenous treatment and wait. Without fluids and food mom was expected to die peacefully within three days. She persevered for 16 days. We think that she was comfortable during this time and that she died peacefully, but we were all wrecks. I guess nobody told her that she could go. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
There are moments of understanding that even a positive attitude cannot will away. Whenever mom talked about Parkinson’s disease it was within the context of what she was doing about it. There were appointments to go to, drugs to take, hot new experimental ones to try, all swallowed with a sunny disposition. Until one day last winter when mom said simply,
“I’ve come to the realization of just what this disease means.”
“Why do you say that mom?”
“Because I can’t kid myself anymore.”
“Do you not feel well today mom?” Sinking feeling.
“Not too bad today. Not too bad at all.”
“Maybe you’re just tired mom. Have you had your nap today?”
“I lay down for a while before you kids came over, but I couldn’t sleep.”
“Why don’t you try to sleep now mom. There’s still time before dinner.”
“No, don’t think I will. I want to watch the young ones play.”
“Are you sure mom?”
Mom looked death in the face without blinking, as I looked away. Again and again. Every time I left the house after that, there was a moment at the door. Mom would look me directly in the eye. There were no words, no tears, just the smile and wonder of a four-year old, searching. I would look at mom for a few seconds, and then something of foreshadowing, exposure, seared me raw. I felt angst, guilt, impatience in the face of undistilled love. A child of god and a sinner.
“Enie, for the love of Gawd would ya give a look here.”
“Daddy, I can still see the branches moving even with my eyes closed.”
“Lawdy girl, I haven’t got all day. The O’Toole’s are waiting to eat.”
“Can I stand here for a few more minutes, Daddy?”
“I’ll tell ya what ya can do. Ya can stand straight and look at the camera ’afore we starve dammit.”
“Daddy, the sun feels like it’s burning my face, but it feels yummy.”
“Christ sakes, that’ll do.”
“Can I make a wish Daddy?”
I mourn mom’s death. But I also lament the passing of my parents’ generation, of their people. Their people, once so familiar, seem strange and distant now. Irish-Catholic -- didn’t emote much; never complained, and for all their repression and our freedom, had a hell of lot more fun than we ever did; strong on religion, family and community, but mighty clannish about those outside of it; tended to stay in one place, maybe ’cause of all the kids, but had life-long friends whatever the reason; treated us kids as a herd, but seemed to know each of us enough to love each of us; not big on the individual thing, so we lacked for lessons but were spared neurotic expectations.
In many ways my parents were rooted in the 19th century more than the 20th. I remember family picnics with other large Irish-Catholic families -- a hundred or so folks, violins, square dancing, a wee bit of drinkin’, lots of talk, horseshoes, cards, singing, a mass of cousins (what relation we never knew) running wild, with the veil of discipline and order down for the day. Hours, days, years spent in church, with only the smell of incense a relief from boredom. Weekday mornings clumping through snow to seven o’clock mass at the cloistered convent, terrified. Terror as a glass of milk spilt in front of my father’s plate at the dinner table, again. My mother’s forgiving word to save the day, again. Watching my parents watching Wayne and Shuster and laughing, and laughing at my parents laughing, and wishing that they laughed more often. Christmas-eve mid-night mass and then Chinese food take-out before opening a few scant presents- how in the world did we ever get so excited about so little?
Because for all the faults, and there were many, the package was nearly complete. And even for what was missing, it was a place that we could return to. Parents, a family, a community, shared values, palpable and real, to be feared and respected, abandoned but never totally forsaken. Home.
We don’t have or know these things today. We are free instead. We have endless choice, but this tidal wave of individual freedom has cost us. Death by ambiguity. The ennui of self.
The image of my mother standing, searching, serenely pleading at the front door to her house will always pull me back into a bittersweet past. Nostalgic dribble I suppose. But there may be something to that lost world. Something to resurrect. Something to pass on to my kids. Something important. I’m not sure if we can find our way back home again. But the way is not likely screaming towards the promise of a bigger, more powerful, and bullish exponential future. I’ll have to try to figure out what it was she was thinking about, searching for, that last day. There is a photo of my mother.