Someone recently sent me this blog entry I had written about 1o years ago. I had forgotten it completely. But as I watch friends struggle with the passing of parents, I thought it might be worth reprinting. May all of you who have gone through a similar experience draw some solace from it.
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.
9 thoughts on “Thoughts worth pondering”
We took care of my mother the last 18 months she was on earth. She was nearly blind and could not remain in her home without 24 hour care. My wife and I could provide that. She eventually chose to go to a nursing home, falling down too much and we visited her nearly every day and took care of her affairs at home. My daughter and I were in the room with her when she walked on. We were blessed even though we were challenged over visiting her everyday. She was 87 when she left. We are very thankful we could be there for her and the many conversations she and I had before she left. Her 87th birthday party was a yard party outside her home with many visitors coming by to see her not knowing it would be the last time. She left December 10th, 2013 and we say again, “Thank you, Mom, for all your love and your dedication to us.
Beautifully written, as always. But particularly meaningful as we are in a similar situation with my dad who has Alzheimer’s. What a horrible disease that has robbed us of the “in charge” father we know. But, painful as it is for us, his children and grand children, it’s almost merciful that he is getting to the point of not even remembering what he has lost. (The lovely part is, his memory of our mother is of her as a young wife, not the memory of those final failing years in which he cared so lovingly for her.) We still have him for now and treasure each day for, when he is gone, we will be orphans and that is just too sad to think about. He says he is ready and I know he is, but am I?
The words of sorrow and insight that you wrote about your mother touched me very personally at this moment. Although hale and hardy at age 76, for various reasons I am leaving my large three-story, five-bedroom home and moving into an apartment of less than 800 square feet in a senior cooperative. In the challenging process of sorting out what to keep and what must be left to herstory, I came across three thank-you notes from my grandsons. The notes acknowledged gifts I’d given, then in three unique modes of expression went on to tell me what a priceless person I am. At first I wallowed in the tributes until I was as satiated as a glutton. Then I sat myself down and explained that this was really not about me: it was about them needing the kind of grandmother each sees reflected in me. Although each did seem to find my meals memorable, their compliments were not about great things I’d accomplished or given; they were about the value of who I am in their life, as each perceived me.
In the course of this major downsizing of residence, I must leave behind most of the props I’ve acquired for accomplishing what I’ve thought made me useful; and my children and grandchildren are moving into life areas now that do not really require my personal usefulness anymore. But those notes made it clear to me that my simple presence is precious, at least to those grandsons. I’ve heard all the words of wisdom about “being” being more important than “doing,” but I think it often takes both — I think it’s more about “season” than “reason.”
Once again, thank you for the generosity of your words and for the openness of your spirit.
If only there was a way to help your dear mother understand that she IS vital and serving those around her. Every time her presence, in this realm, tugs at the heartstrings of her children, she is still making the journey with you, somehow. Especially with you, being a writer — and, may I add, a very good one. I appreciate your feelings of frustration and sorrow, for your mother’s limitations. Sometimes, life doesn’t feel fair. It doesn’t always feel like it’s enough.
Thank you for sharing this heartfelt and beautiful write.
Dear Mr. Nerburn,
I am a member of a senior’s club of Filipino Canadians in Calgary. I ask your permission to publish your poignant essay in our publication. I shall reference the source and your authorship.
Anthony L. Po
You have my permission, sir.
Currently I am in a similar situation. 5 hours from my mother who is 86 and recently had a severe stroke that made her dimentia worse. Dad passed in 1989 and she has spent all these years alone. She is so fragile and I have traveled on 3 occasions now to spend 7 to 10 days with her each time. Just today I was writing about what it is like to have no ability to repair her failing body yet to simply be present with her. To allow things to simply be as they are and share time with one another, cooking for her, sitting outside with the hummingbirds, napping. These are precious moments and to relax into them with her is the most I can do and I see that it makes life pleasant for her. Interesting that your article arrived at this time. Lovely
Your book,Simple Truths has helped me through this journey called life. It is comforting to bear witness with someone who speaks from the heart so eloquently. Thank you for you and your words that touch the heart. My husband and I had our moms with us these last few years with his leaving last summer and mine this summer. Love remains and we keep them close through memories shared with our children and grandchildren. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing this from the heart once again! I very sorry to hear of your mother’s health! Think the many words of your recent little book (Voices in the stone may help here also)! Every journey I have taken, reading your books brings things full circle for me lightens the heart and spirit for sure! I did not think so much wisdom, tradition, foundation for strong life could be said so well as you did in this little gem of a book (188 pages). What a journey Indeed! From across the big pond!
Bless you and all the family! “I have shared this wisdom with others as written making a difference in your words from the heart!”