Today, I am sad about my mom. I am missing her, even though she is there, just over the bridge – in her apartment, wishing I would visit.
To be honest, I’ve been avoiding visiting – I’d promised to come every Wednesday and Sunday – and I did so, for several weeks, after my sister could no longer work that shift. But it broke my weeks up in a difficult way. Each visit took all day – when I’d meant it to be a few hours of coffee cake conversation. Each visit took too much out of me as I reached for my mother, again and again, and caught hold of her, momentarily, before she slipped away.
It’s not that she’s losing herself – there’s no dementia. It’s just that it feels as if the person that I know as Mom is being chipped away – one illness, one crisis, at a time.
Last year, two days after Christmas, my mom had open heart surgery and the combination of that assault on her body and the havoc the anesthesia wreaked on her psyche, took my gentle, lively elf-like mother on a journey from which she has not yet returned. She’s weak – and vulnerable to every virus that sweeps into the room. EColi, Kidney Infection, Candida, Thrush. In the past few weeks, she’s grown increasingly depressed as,. just as she overcomes one obstacle, the next presents itself.
Right now, it’s all about sleep – she can’t get enough, up all night, nodding off all day.
It sucks to watch her suffer.
This week, at a memorial service for those lost in Tucson, President Obama reminded us of the hidden gifts of our losses. Tragedies like the one that unfolded this Monday make us take stock of our own lives – our own priorities. We find ourselves wondering, he said, “Did we spend enough time with an aging parent” … ” Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices that they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while but every single day?”
I’ve been haunted by that question all year. You can see it where I’ve taped the word NOTICE in bold letters, between two photographs of my beautiful mother the way she used to be – engaged, giggly, delighted by some small wonder: A shell, a joke, a drawing presented by one of her grandchildren.
And yet, I’ve been too busy being busy - with books to finish and travel plans to make – to visit.
But this morning, as I awoke from a troubling dream, I realized that the thing I’ve been most busy at has been keeping myself distracted from the sorrow that sneaks up on me now, in the middle of the night, when I realize: My parents are dying.
It’s not that I don’t know this – or that I am unaware that EVERYONE dies.
This is primal, childlike, reflexive – the way that a toddler will put her hands over her eyes and truly believe that if she can’t see you, you can’t see her.
I’ve been playing peek-a-boo with mortality.
Last night, I dreamt that the ceiling in the attic of the home where I grew up was flooding. Everyone had an idea to stop the flood:
- Stuff it with newspaper (fail).
- Place a bucket beneath each drip. (impossible, endless – an infinite sea of buckets, soon overflowing.)
- Stretch plastic tarps over the entire ceiling, siphoning the collected water out the window with plastic tubing.
As we ran about, I heard the party guests arriving downstairs. I know, inconvenient, right?
For the next segment, I was everywhere, all things to all people. I pulled puff pastry from the oven and laid it in neat rows on silver platters. I kissed guests hello and goodbye. I helped people off with their coats – and on with their coats, packing up doggie bags as they left. Then, I cleared tables, scrubbed floors and counters.
I was just gathering my keys when I realized I hadn’t said goodbye to my mom. I found her in the attic, sitting at a beautiful carved desk, writing on cream-colored stationary, her back turned to the chaos of the flood behind her.
Back there, water poured into the room through a million tiny holes. It streamed along the floor, cascading toward the stairs. At the top of the stairs, my father, played by a thin Indian man in a diaper (think Gandhi), crouched placidly, catching the streaming water in plastic jugs. A child splashed nearby.
They’ll never be able to bail all this water! I knew. Where was everyone? Why wasn’t anyone sealing up the leaks? Why was my mother just sitting there?
Suddenly, my mother began to cry. “Please don’t yell at me,” she begged. “I am doing the best I can.”
I woke up.
My mother is dying. That was my first thought. Maybe not today, maybe not this year. But one day, I am going to get a phone call. My father is dying, too.
I began to cry – finally. I haven’t cried about this in months. I haven’t felt anything. But this morning – and now, writing this – my heart is flooding with sorrow.
This is a good thing. It will get me out of this strange cocoon of numb busyness, onto the highway and over the bridge. I will bring my mother some books on tape because it’s hard for her to read now. I will visit my father at the nursing home, and bring him a six pack of V8 because they don’t serve real vegetables – only canned, overcooked ones – and though he craves salad, he has no teeth.
In this way, I will step into the flood – I will stand as it builds, circling my ankles and I will hold on to my parents hands as long as they need me to do so. I will connect and show up and connect some more. I will flood their last days with love.