It's late on Christmas Eve. The fire in my mother's living room is my only company, that and objects that make this Orchard Park, NY, house a hall of company… and reflection. Familiar furniture and paintings, pictures of relatives, some who even visited here... They bring a lot back to me when I visit, particularly on nights like these. But they can’t hold my mother's faculties, even the strongest of which have left her. Like lords deserting a weakening king, they took hosts of lesser associations with them. Hosts of them come back to me now.
It's my mother’s last Christmas, surely if the decline of the last three months continues.
I curse that subtle thief of wits – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, senility, simple dementia, whatever - they aren’t sure what it is, this disease no one can name, sneaking like an assassin of nerves, brain cells, talents, abilities, of all that made someone able to show who they were, all from within.
I know I’m lucky to have had so much of my family intact for so much of my life. One of my best friends lost both his parents before he was 25. Another’s father and mother passed at 61 at 64. He was in his 30s. Other people grew up in broken homes, maybe with only a single parent they even know. But knowing that doesn’t sweeten the pill, to watch my mother so completely fade from a productive human being into this sort of living twilight.
Its first signs were five years back. One afternoon my mother called, saying she’d fallen and couldn't get up. In twenty minutes I was there and found her moving inexpertly on the floor of the hallway behind the front door. She wasn't hurt, just... couldn’t get up. And was lucky to be near a phone. She’d never been an athlete, certainly no tumbler, and I thought it might help to show her the old ski technique for standing up in case it happened again. With her usual patience for instruction, especially mine, she kept trying it her way. I picked her up and set her on a chair. She rested, had a cup of tea, seemed fine. I left thinking this was odd.
The falls started. And broken bones. Like a drunk who can’t stop drinking and yet makes deadly decisions drunk… Nothing seemed to help. Couldn’t figure out what was wrecking her balance, couldn’t get her to be careful, stocked the house with aides, watched her crack herself up piece by piece. For two years. A wrist. A forearm. Twice. An upper arm. A cheekbone. Twice. To see her in the ER, blood clotted on her teeth, was... unspeakable. At least that stage is over.
The hip was the worst. That trip over a hidden half-step in a South Carolina restaurant sent her into a whirl of ambulance rides, operations, hospital stays, and rehab facilities, each stroke of it taking a heavier toll of reason. She didn’t see her house or any familiar surroundings for three months. That really did seem the final push.
She hasn’t been able to talk or walk for a long time, and the aides tell me they look around sometimes and find tears streaming down her cheeks. I tell them to call me whenever this happens. I pray it’s some effect of the eyedrops, of tear ducts, of tired eightysomething eyes. But if she’s crying, what’s it for? For my dad, for her parents? For the old days, for friends and family on the other side? For South Carolina? She'll never see Spartanburg again, either. For her own flickering life? This, for me, is the worst.
Whenever I get a call about the crying I go over, no matter what I’m doing. I try to be happy. I make jokes and silly-talk. Old neighborhood stories, recollections of family pets, anything to get that delightful little chuckle, as long as it takes. I hold her hand and talk about anything to remind her that life also holds brightness, love and laughter. It’s harder each time, and in recent weeks it’s just a raise of the eye-corners that suggests a smile. But I don’t leave until I get a couple.
How much of this started earlier, when maybe even she didn’t know? I remember a night at the kitchen table, when she still spoke perfectly. She was trying to help me pay her bills, mixing up my piles of checks, invoices, stamps, and envelopes. I was in a hurry to get someplace, and asked her just let me do it. That’s one I wish I had back.
I guess I could forgive myself. She’d always been a little disorganized, and it seems - how clear in retrospect - that the vulnerabilities people had at their best are the first to be exaggerated in the decline. Once I got it, I’ve been all right. From what I hear, I’m even getting the reputation of “the good son.” I can’t sugarcoat it. Like many American kids, I battled with my parents, and there probably are still a few issues. Were, I mean. Once I got it, how disabled she had become, it’s all been in the past. Now I see that it was all garbage from the beginning.
“These anxieties build up in families,” said my doctor once, and it made so much sense. That’s exactly what it was, whatever got between us, what, I presume, gets between people in other families. Human stuff we should all forgive, in ourselves, in others. We get lost in who said what, and never realize that it was said in a moment, and that it’s all how we take it in our one moment. We don’t notice the countless good things. Even people who love us are human. They do the best they can do, or know how to do.
A bit of our clash could actually have been cultural. My mother’s Southern gentility used to frustrate me and other members of my Northern family. A lady can’t do this or that… Now that she can’t walk or talk I realize how proud of her I always was. She was brought up in this world to be a lady, for whatever that’s worth, and she’s going out of it as one.
My family has a pattern of late-in-life marriages and only children, as well as too-independent-for-their-own-good bachelors. What people forget is that when they put a generation or two of “onlies” into the future, someday somebody wakes up without relatives. Being an only is weird. You get a little more than you want as a kid, and you get a lot more than you want as an adult. In many senses.
When the time nears you’d like everyone to feel a sense of support behind him or her and some continuity beyond the physical life. It’s hard for a single person to provide that to another. And it isn’t easy for me, personally. I’d rather be off doing something than going through these... emotional situations. But I know how lucky I've been, and how lucky I am.
We get different things from different parents. Both of mine were straight-up and straight-arrow. The bad traits I got were quirks, or my own improvisations; the good were qualities, ones I didn't always appreciate. I thank my mother for so much. For teaching me to speak properly, to try to think logically, to hate suffering, to love animals, to value integrity, to make independent judgments, to believe in truth, to be willing to go against the crowd to stick up for it. They didn’t seem like warrior-virtues when I was a boy, but they may have given me at least the chance to reach my goals.
In the last couple weeks of my outwardly healthy grandmother’s life, a number of friends, some of them long-lost, called and visited spontaneously, as if they sensed something. That’s started to happen with my mother, too, this December. She can listen to them and give signs of understanding. I know she appreciates the calls.
Even six months ago - when she could still talk - my mother was visited by unearthly guests: her parents, aunts, uncles, many of whom I knew. Even my father paid her a private visit, one no one else saw, but one so real to her that she insisted we wait for him on our way out to that Sunday dinner. Even they’ve stopped their visits, it seems, as far as I can judge. It would be an anticlimax, anyway. All of them are on the other side, just waiting for her transition. She’s half over already.
Last week I found one of her aides crying. She had stopped wanting to eat, to move, to stand... I guess it’s too tiring to live. I guess I’m ready to let go if she is. But I still hope for that next spring. Just a bit more sun. Crocuses. The sense of the world regenerating to hope, the spring and flowers she loved so much, the imagery I always associated with her. Just so she can have it, the natural glory of the world, one more time. Then we can both let go.
It’s hard to anticipate the effect of the loss of a mother. That’s the only person in the world who will ever love you unconditionally. You get the feeling that Hitler’s mother, looking down (or up), from wherever would need pressure to concede that her Adolph had done it all wrong. “He was a good boy,” she might have said, and, after a pause, “He made some bad decisions.”
Losing my dad filled me with compassion for all life, with determination to be as true as I could be to the world, and with fire to accomplish something in my own life on my own terms. My mother could have been the emotional launching-pad, whether or not I knew it, the baseline by which any success could be measured, after the loss of which nothing seems relevant. Lose your dad and there’s no one to show. Lose your mom and there’s no one to tell.
We have to remember that it’s not an option for earthly life to be permanent or perfect. We focus so much on loss when a long life ends. After all, it might never have been lived. It could have been short, like so many, or a long misery of pain or neglect. It could have been bitter, frustrated, unfulfilled, or marred all through with failure, frustration, or turmoil. My mother's life was none of these. If a Southern seer had looked into the fates for this girl born during the rage of the First World War, this Frances Elizabeth Ward, and told truly, the forecast would have been praised by all who now wait for her on the other side.
The holiday season is a conflicted time of year. The natural world is gloomy, but the human one is packed with all the celebrations it can muster. It’s often tense for families, and the hardest time to deal with losses. If I could summon words of cheer for others facing their own loss, I'd say simply to keep believing. Don’t lose faith in the good there can be in the world and in so many of our fellow beings. Believe in the beauty of life, in light, in the natural world, and in every next day to come. Give thanks for what was, the fine life lived. And give back to those around you as much as you can of its joy, its wisdom, its teaching, its good, so the gifts it gave you won’t be lost from the world.
[Frances Elizabeth Ward Winfield passed into Spirit on January 15, 2003.]