I have an elderly mother who I am very close to. She has outlived her first husband my father, of 58 married years, and also outlived her second husband of four years; he was eighty when they married. She has outlived two sons and a daughter-in-law. My mom is ninety-three, she suffers from dementia and lives in a full care facility not far from me.
I spend many days a week with her, helping her to eat her lunch because she can no longer manage cutlery on her own, and stroll her in her wheelchair around the hallways because she can no longer work her chair on her own. I listen and nod as she talks, although the words and sentences no longer make sense. But she is looking at me and smiling while she talks, seeming to understand what she is wanting to share. That’s enough.
Care facilities are, by another name, a place of endings. A constant reminder that nothing is going to get better. Any changes my mom experiences are going to be for the worse. Her new milestones are reached but not celebrated, only solemnly acknowledged because they aren’t the milestones of progress as when we would watch, for example, our children reach theirs; first tooth, crawl, steps, school.
The milestones of my mom are milestones of Lasts. I was trying to remember the last time my mom was able to get into my car and go out for a drive to the beach she loved, where we used to go frequently; sometimes picking up some burgers and park the car facing out to the water, eating and talking, watching people walk their dogs. Then, when was the last time she walked, the last time she fed herself, the last time she knew my name.
In the past six months her Last’s have increased exponentially, and each last brings her closer. And I know it’s coming, the day, and it will break my heart in a million pieces when it does. But I know that my heart can remain full in knowing I gave her as much as I could, did what I could. I was there, as I am now, to comfort her from the fear and confusion that stole her peace of mind; like a parent reassuring a small child that all is well there is no monster under the bed, I am here.
I take comfort in that she had a long life. Has. And I do focus on the positives she can experience in her days; when she does engage in conversation, when her never failing humour will slip in when least expected and we can laugh together, and her never ending gratitude extended to everyone with ‘Bless your heart’.
I also ask myself how could I come to mourn someone gifted with living well into their nineties when my two nieces lost a father, and another two nieces and a nephew lost both parents when they all were young? I can’t. But I will. Regardless how long or short a time we have them with us.
Yet living to such an advanced age is what we all desire- we couldn’t do more, and if you have your adult children around to look after your care and quality of life, that is the best of what we could hope for in life. How can we be sad when they pass? Of course we are still sad. Losing a parent at any age will carry its weight of grief.
It is all still hard, because- she’s my mom, and I’m bracing for The Day, as I braced for the day when my father, and then my brothers each passed from cancer. With my mother’s dementia it is a long and lingering goodby as, piece by piece, parts of who she is take leave, what remains is a shadow of who she was.
My part is to be her touchstone, that maybe deep within her memory she knows she’s not alone, that she knows she has her family near to keep the night-light on in her dark room.