Meditations on my mother, failing.

I have just finished a visit with my mother. She lives in an assisted living high rise several hundred miles from here in a pleasant neighborhood of parks, shops, and sufficient traffic and activity to be agreeable without being assaultive or overwhelming. She is 89.

She can no longer walk, cannot see well, and needs assistance for almost all of her daily tasks. The cost of her living situation is astronomical — nearly criminal, one would say — except for the fact that my father’s various pensions from his job and his time in the military allow her to almost break even. The remainder is paid from a small pot of savings that is dwindling by the month. In the harsh world of economic realities, it is a race between her money and her time, both of which are growing short very rapidly.

I, obviously, have never lost a mother. I have lost my father, and it changed my life forever. I do not look forward to the loss of my mother, though I am preparing emotionally and spiritually as best I can. It will be another stage in life’s journey, and another door into a different dimension of understanding.

For now, it is her life that matters. As I watch her struggle with her growing infirmity — and she does not always do so gracefully or gently — I am struck by the strength she displays in the face of the weakness she endures. And though there are many sadnesses that overcome me as I watch the colors of her life fade, the one that hurts me the most is watching her struggle with her feeling of uselessness.

This surprises me. I would have thought that it would be her helplessness that would touch me the most. But that seems so natural and within the course of the human journey. The feeling of uselessness, however, is something that feels culturally created and unnatural, and it seems unfair. She was raised to serve, and, in her own way, she did so wonderfully. She chafed mightily under the cultural limitations of women of her generation, but, after a brief period of personal exploration before the start of World War Two, she settled in to the accepted role of wife, mother, and keeper of the domestic fires.

As these roles were taken from her one by one — by my father’s death, the loss of her house and her ability to perform domestic tasks, and, finally, the need to nurture her children — she lost the handholds she had on her individual importance and significance in the world.

We children do the best we can to assure her that her job in life is no longer to do, but to be. But that is cold comfort to someone who spent her live volunteering and offering assistance to others in one form or another.

Still, it is true. She now represents something, and that is her primary job in life. She represents all of our pasts, she represents the link to a time that we succeeding generations know only by stories and books, she represents the certainty of a mother’s presence and a mother’s love. And these are all real and they are all good. But they are all passive. They are a function of her being, not of her accomplishments or even her personality. It takes a wise person on a good day to be satisfied with simply embodying something for someone else. Most of us would and do find that hard; for her it is supremely difficult. She weighs that almost symbolic value against the very real liability of her physical infirmity and limitation, and the scales do not come out in balance.

What remains for us is to love her, to visit her, to take pleasure in her journeys through the pathways of her memory. It is also a pleasure to see how little it takes to give a small sense of adventure to her life — a trip to the store, a trip around the pond in her wheelchair, a visit to one of my sisters’ homes for a family gathering. If neither she nor we look upon these small moments as revelations of limitation, but instead see them as deeply important moments of human contact and sharing, they fill us with warmth. But when they serve only to underscore her infirmity and our helplessness in its presence, they are hard lessons in the fragile course of life.

As I sit at home now, four hours away, I wish, as I always do, that I could have done more. I wish I could have been more present to her concerns. I wish I could have given her more of my time. Most of all, I wish I could have bartered away five years of my own life to give her one last real journey, or five minutes of walking, or an hour of clear eyesight, or a night with my father. But I could not do that. And my children will not be able to do it for me. All we can do is bear witness to the passing, celebrate the mystery of life, and share such love as we have with those who are most hungry to receive it.

They are small gifts, but they are our gifts. May we all, you and I, have the power to offer them when life calls upon us to do so.

7 comments

  1. Will stop and see your mom again this week. It’s been a while.

  2. harold rite says:

    would like to share with all an idea that didn’t work out for us. perhaps i didn’t make her understand how important it was or she just chose not to doesn’t matter now. awhile before she passed on a number of years ago, i asked Mom to write down in a notebook anything she could recall of her own or family history so when she was gone not all her memories would be lost. hope you all have better luck than i did.
    regards – 96arold

  3. Angels says:

    I knew a mother. For her “to be” was “to do”, because she reached hapiness when hapiness was around, and she felt uselessness also during the last part of her life. I think that this kind of people have trouble to accept it the uselessness feeling. She was not my mother but I learned from her that love is never passive. There are many ways of loving, but all of them are dinamic. Teaching the little things of live or sharing a good or bad moment whith your kids, is not passive, sure is not spectacular but maybe if she had been or acting in a different way her kids would not be the wonderful adults their are. When they went to see their mother they whish also she could have a different life, but maybe she did not want to, and they did thank their mother with love, because love was the only thing she needed and the only thing she could miss.

  4. Claudia says:

    Many thoughts run through my mind as I read your reflection this morning. I’ve “been there – done that” and can understand the rush of thoughts that come as you live through the experience of a loved ones’ sunset.

    You wish you could give some of your own years – that is true compassion, taught well by your precious mother. You witness her struggle, as she lives the struggle, and you see the circle of life almost back to infant stage BUT – with a treasure chest of life experience within that body now. To give up what we were has to be so hard for our elders, the best we can do is create and cherish special moments NOW, and remind them evey day how important and vital to our lives they are.

    My heart is with you at this time, and I know there is a wealth of life that is being passed along in these days. Ask her more questions – record her philosophy together with her. She is a source of wisdom as you well know. I dont know if this makes a lot of sense in how I have written it but I SO know what you are feeling in these days.

    You are blessed to have one another! May this time carry special grace, and may it’s significance be a lasting legacy to be passed along through generations to come.

  5. Leigh Austin says:

    Oh Kent, I feel your heart. Would that we were not separated by time and space, and that I could offer you such consolation as I have. I would kiss your fingers and embrace you with my own Mother’s hug. For even though we haven’t met, I know you. But I don’t have that luxury. I can only offer words, intentions and prayers, such as they are. And so I would offer you what small amount of light I do have, and pray that it is enough.
    Your mother’s life, reflected through your eyes, can be done no finer justice. The life she gave you and helped you shape and weave into the beautiful man you are is a living testament to her life lived. I hear you already pushing back at me that you are no one special, merely a quiet and solitary man who drinks too much coffee and pokes away his thoughts into words. But you know better. You know more. Your reflections on life, your small actions and gestures have touched many, so deeply that their lives have been altered forever because of it.
    “..We are not the way, the truth and the light, and we are not asked to be. We are but a brief candle that must not be kept under a bushel. Our task is simply to offer such illumination as we can in the darkness that surrounds us.”
    Perhaps engaging her in the projects above would help her feel a renewed sense of usefulness. A family interview, to record the journey of your legacy, through her eyes?
    I don’t know your mother, but I love her. And I am grateful for her life, because through you, she has touched my life in the most profound measure of illumination.
    You are welcome to tell her so, if you wish.
    Blessings and peace,
    Leigh

  6. Chloe Barker says:

    I don’t really KNOW what you are going through right now, but I can certainly imagine that it’s both hard for you and your mother to deal with. I’d imagine in that situation, you both would feel useless. Neither of you are.
    Your mother has lived a wonderful and long life. I love her as if she was my own grandmother and I feel bad for saying that because I haven’t seen her since Mary and Ambra moved away from us. (Although I did talk to her a few months ago)
    She had such an impact in my life even though it was many many years ago and for too brief of a time. She has one of those beautiful souls that reaches out to people. She took in Ambra who wasn’t related by blood or marriage, and loved her completely. I feel so bad that Ambra never came to her senses and realized that she had people that loved her as their daughter and their grand-daughter.

    Your mother may be older and physically unable to do much anymore, she’s still got the same soul. God wants her soon because he’s missing his angel and I honestly believe that even though she passes from this physical realm, she’ll still be shining bright.

  7. Biometric says:

    would like to share with all an idea that didn’t work out for us.

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