If there is one truth that all parents must embrace sooner or later, it is that no matter how much they love their children they must learn to let them go. Eventually, children must learn the same thing. When a parent dies, children do not say goodbye as much as they release them.
On February 18th, we released our mother in the early morning, as the deep indigo sky released itself to rising dawn, and soft pink and yellow light streamed through half open blinds into her hospice room, across the blanket that covered her, and quietly bathed her still face with a diffused glow.
We released her from our continuing need for her love and confirmation. We released her from our ambivalence — of her successes and failures as a parent — and of knowing that the perfect parent could not exist, for no child could stand them nor get free from them. All parents hurt their children. We vow to not make the same mistakes with our children. But we do, or we make different ones. And hope they have the capacity to forgive us. The miracle is that, somewhere in the process of releasing our mother, forgiveness became reflexive; there was only love.
Her death was not easy. She suffered hallucinations, physical and psychic pain. It was nightmarish. Yet, there were quiet moments in which she knew we were loved ones, even if she may or may not have known we were her daughters. I think there was comfort in that.
Here’s the thing: the mother of whom you can say loved you unconditionally; gave you a sense of purpose and possibility in life; and showed you what it means to live faithfully, to age courageously, and to die at peace with herself, is all the mother any child could hope for.
This wasn’t what my mother had in mind for her dog when she had a mind.
In the same way we believe that nothing bad will ever happen to us when we are 18 and immortal, when Mom adopted Ruby, she never anticipated she would get Alzheimer’s. Mom never thinks she’s old, either, but that has more to do with vanity than the deterioration of her cognitive and motor skills. Mom was about 79 when she adopted Ruby, who was two. In fairness to my mother, none of us argued with her desire to have this little dog. We all thought it was a great fit. In that moment. And so it was for several years.
But no one asked what might happen to the dog as my mother aged. No one thought to make a plan for Ruby in the event Mom died. Or worse. And worse happened.
If you read my post from September about Mom and Ruby you will think that my mother’s sad story had a happy ending for Ruby. My nephew wanted to take her into his family. On paper, great. In the real world, not so much. Ruby doesn’t do well with 4 year-old boys whose love is expressed in an exuberant, physical way. She snapped at the boy, the boy’s mother (rightfully) nixed the deal, and Ruby came back to my sister’s house. With her two Yorkie Poos. And Ruby doesn’t really love other dogs. She snaps at them, too.
She wants what she was accustomed to — her human, her home. What she has is confusion and a lot of time in a crate right now. She has my stressed out sister who has a hellish schedule. What she must be thinking.
When my mother lived near me, both she and Ruby spent a lot of time at my farm. After my mom fell ill, I took Ruby for extended periods. She did just okay with my dogs (BP — Before Puppy). She has an autoimmune medical condition that requires daily meds for the rest of her life, and she is not a spring chicken herself. Flying her back here is not an option any more.
The upshot of this is that Ruby is going to an Italian Greyhound Rescue Organization foster home, maybe for the rest of her life. I am as horrified and heartbroken and guilt-ridden as I am grateful and relieved that these fine people are so dedicated to their volunteer mission that they are doing for Ruby what we cannot. I have never surrendered an animal in my life. If my mother knew the truth and understood it, she would be shattered. My sister and I decided it was best to lie to her and tell her that Ruby was going back to California to live with the cousin that gave her to Mom in the first place.
I know a little about where she is headed, having checked out the organization and spoken to the foster family, a retired couple who have been in rescue over 20 years. I tell myself to have faith that Ruby will find happiness and love there. And permanency. Faith is something that doesn’t come very easily to me. Lose your husband, your best friend, your father, your health, a few dozen friends to the scourge of AIDS in the space of a decade, and you begin to understand the point of view of the Pharoah a little bit when all the plagues were raining down in Egypt. Still, when all the other options are spent, faith is what is left.
When I had a health scare years ago, I made a will and a trust. I put all of my animals in as property in my trust as well as a fund for them. At the time, I had horses, so it was more elaborate than it is now. Like kids, each of my dogs has a guardian who has agreed to take them for the rest of their lives. It’s unlikely that I will bring any more animals into my home (or at least I won’t go out searching for any). Willow (if she lives as long as Martha has) and I will be old ladies together (I’m still on the fence about her chances of staying out of that much trouble but with age, hopefully, comes wisdom). Going through this with Mom and with Ruby has taught me that a part of our responsibility to our pets is also knowing when not to have them.
I found this piece the other day in some old papers. It was written four years ago, before Mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. As I re-read it, I realized how much our mothers’ memories of us continue to remind us not only of who we are but that we are. For better or worse, mothers are the spoke of the wheel of our lives.
Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly. ~Ambrose Bierce
My mother last saw her “real” father in 1931. She was five and just starting kindergarten. He was about 30 and on his way to jail.
I don’t know what you understand at five, although I suspect what she did understand about her father disappearing, the shame she, her brother and their mother felt, and the fact of growing up fatherless in the Depression became the weakened taproot from which her emotional life grew. Or perhaps failed to fully thrive.
My grandmother went to work to support my mother and her older brother. My uncle got a paper route at seven to contribute to the household. When they lost the house, they moved from Louisville into my great-grandfather’s big house in Indianapolis, where my grandmother’s younger sisters lived until each of them married and moved away. Sometimes, my mother was sent down to an aunt in Evansville for a summer or part of a school year.
The 1930s were tough enough for most people, but how a divorcee with two children managed to sustain a delicate balancing act between homelessness and getting by in an era when women of my grandmother’s social class didn’t work — outside or inside the home — is beyond my comprehension. What I do understand, however, is that something had to give, and what gave was the luxury of time: time for my grandmother to nurture her children and time for her children to be children. My mother tells me that my grandmother was very critical and exacting. She couldn’t afford to run anything but a tight ship because there was no margin for error.
They moved around from relative to relative, from town to town, meaning that my mother was the new girl in class at the beginning of every school year, never acquiring the knack of the outgoing newcomer. When my mother was 14, my grandmother married my grandfather, Lou, an industrial psychologist, always in search of a tenured position at a scattershot of universities. More moving, until they finally settled in Chicago where my mother became part of the sophomore class at Sullivan High.
Lou was teaching at a local university, and, although my grandmother (whom we called “Honey” because that’s what we’d heard Lou call her) had “retired”, the past had already cemented how Mother and her brother related to life: Mom always waited for the other shoe to drop; her brother was always going to be one step ahead of any falling shoe.
She finally had three years in the same place, in the same class of students (among which was my dad, although Mother didn’t like him much then). She went on to the Art Institute of Chicago Design School, graduated, and went to work for a children’s clothing manufacturer as a designer. For a year.
After the war, when my dad got out of the Air Force, they met again at a dance. My mother was engaged to orthopaedic surgeon, several years her senior and several inches shorter. Dad and Mom met again at the dance, and, while I think my dad was pretty smitten with her, she fully intended on marrying Dr. Harry. At least up until Honey had a heart attack and had to stay in the hospital.
Dr. Harry was a busy surgeon who often ended dates with Mom by giving her cab fare to get home as he rode off in another taxi to the hospital on an emergency. My dad, on the other hand, wooed Mom by going to the hospital to visit with my grandmother every day. It struck Mother one day that life with Dr. Harry would mean interrupted meals and lonely taxi rides while life with Dad would mean kindness, stability and devotion.
Life with Dad would also mean a first apartment with a Murphy bed and a first child (my sister). A first house in the suburbs and a second child (me). A second house in which we would grow to be a family, fight tooth and nail, cry our eyes out, laugh even in the worst times, have a basement that flooded with every rainstorm, and eventually grow away from.
Every time I focus on all the ways that my mother has driven and still drives me crazy, I remember her story of continual survival. There was “The Accident”, the time a drunk driver hit my parents’ car head on when I was in fifth grade. Mother went back and forth through the windshield enough times to change her face forever, had broken more bones than I thought anyone had in their body, and awoke in the hospital with a priest giving her the last rites. With all that, she still summoned the courage to have my sister and me visit her in the hospital when she knew she was unrecognizable to us. Although she came home after four months in the hospital to reclaim her role as our mother, the many surgeries it took in the ensuing years to give her back a nose, lips, teeth, and a forehead were something she seemed to take in stride. Or maybe it just seemed that way to us because children are both self-centered and lack the ability to see their parents as anything other than, well, parents.
Now, as she is morphing into an old widow who can no longer balance a checkbook or hear the “ping” of the toaster or the whistle of the kettle, relying on me to do things for her I thought she could do for herself, I remind myself that it was Mom who took on running Dad’s restaurant when he had his first heart attack and by-pass surgery even though she didn’t know how to write a check. It was Mom who balanced that with visiting my sister in another hospital across the city. At that time in our life as a family, we were contentious and divided, and I found it easy to decline her request to come home from my tiny cabin in the Rockies to help because I’d grown tired of coping with “their” dysfunction.
My mother isn’t easy. Being around her, then and now, is often like being nibbled to death by ducks. She is sometimes insatiably needy and not terribly reflective. She was and is as critical and judgmental as she claims her mother was, but she doesn’t see it. She still asks me “Do you have something on your head?” when I go out the door in the cold weather, and “Who are you going out with and what time will you be home?” on the rare (and getting more rare) occasion that I make social plans.
I react reflexively to her smothering; I don’t understand why she doesn’t get that I’m a middle-aged woman now. When I take a breath and think, I realize that this is the way she shows her love. I wish sometimes she showed her love for me in the way she showers affection on her little dog with the dragon breath that has more clothes than I do. But then, I don’t sit in her lap and kiss her with my tongue, nor have I ever been a big fan of PDA with my parents. Perhaps it’s simply that she loves me in the way I allow her to. And each day, I try to show my love for her in the ways I am able. It’s like she’s a PC and I’m a Mac.
She shows her love for me every day. It’s in the phone call that comes at 7 p.m. every night — “what’s new?” she’ll ask, and then tell me, as she does each night, that she took her dog for a walk, what the dog’s poop looks like, and what old movie she’s watching on TMC. She will buy me something I don’t need, and then give me the bill for it. But, at 84, she slept on a mattress on my living room floor (the guest room was being renovated) when I was so ill with pneumonia. I couldn’t move.
She chose me, for reasons I do and don’t understand, to live near as her life winds down, and I’m privileged to share that with her on the days I’m not overwhelmed by it.
Every time I want to pluck out my eyes in frustration when she argues with me about what day it is, I try to imagine what it’s like being her: nearing the end of life, losing your hearing and eyesight and connection with the world, not knowing the things you once knew so well, the misplaced memories of things and people who made up your life. She trusts me to be there for her now. She’s not embarrassed that I know most of her most intimate health issues. She knows it’s okay with me that she’s changing with age, so she doesn’t have to work so hard with me the way she does with others to appear to be her former self.
I contemplate a life in the near future without my mother in it, and I know it will be lonelier, even as I grow weary of elder care. It will be, as a friend once said when his band broke up, “a horrible relief.”
I wonder, how will I feel when it’s past 7 p.m. and the phone no longer rings?
My elderly mother adopted an Italian Greyhound named Ruby eight years ago.
Ruby brought out a maternal devotion in my mother that made my sister and me more than a bit resentful. Ruby has more clothes than we did as kids, and, more to the point, had to jump through none of the hoops we did to earn her love. Ah, but then dogs are less complicated than people, making the give and take of love fluid and easy. Ruby makes my mom happy; she’s a good companion and a social bridge to people. She gives mom a reason to get up in the morning, take walks and keep going.
When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, she was in the early middle stages. Confused at times, unable to manage her finances, hold anything in her short term memory. But Ruby’s routine — her feeding schedule, her medications, her walk times — were firmly embedded in the part of mom’s brain that wasn’t dying. Ruby even moved with mom from her house to a facility that provided a bit more care when that time came.
Alzheimer’s is much like any other progressive disease in that it teaches you, among so many other things, to live in each moment. You can never get time back once it is spent, and you can’t plan very far ahead. Like on a map: You. Are. Here. Here is vast and very fleeting. Here is full and even if you are attending to it closely, you miss so much.
Mom’s decline has been very swift. Her brain is dying. She can’t tell night from day. Phone numbers do not make sense to her. She is repetitive and often abusive with the staff. She swears like a longshoreman. She needs a walker but uses a cane and the wall. And Ruby is with her like Velcro. Although scared of the changes in mom’s behavior, her devotion will not allow her to abandon mom. I know Ruby recognizes the essence of mom is unchanged.
The dilemma is that Ruby’s routine is slowly vanishing from mom’s memory as mom becomes more of a ghost of herself. She cannot remember whether she has given Ruby her medications or if she has just taken her out. To balance what is best for mom and what is best for Ruby breaks hearts all around. In a quiet moment a week ago, she asked my grown nephew Ben if he would take Ruby, even though she is not quite ready to let her go. She needed the assurance that her dog would be looked after. And Ruby will.
In that moment, a moment unintentionally overheard by me, I realized that my mother is still teaching me. Her journey through Alzheimer’s may be a path on which our individual paths intersect but ultimately we each walk alone. As my mother’s corporeal light dims, I am reminded again that the things we accumulate in life are shed as we approach death. They are unnecessary, and my mother’s disease prevents her from clinging to them. At some vanishing point, she will be free of everything. And illuminated.