Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tenacious G and the Cord of Eternity

“Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.”—Edwin Hubbel Chapin

This past Sunday, as with every Sunday, I dropped my mother off at the front door of her assisted living facility following a low-key afternoon together. We have a ritual for parting. First, she complains about how uncomfortable my car is and how difficult it is to get out of it. Then, outside the car, she smiles at me as she pushes the car door shut, dramatizing how heavy it is. She walks slowly to the entrance of the facility, then just before crossing its threshold she turns back, and seeing I’m still there, waves before she goes in. I wave back.

While this is happening, a ghostly memory from days past overlays itself on us both. I return to kindergarten. My mother’s car is big and uncomfortable. It takes some effort to lower myself out. I turn and smile at my mother as I struggle to close the heavy car door. Then, walking slowly to the entrance of the school, I turn to see her still watching me. I wave, she waves back and I go in.

Life has a peculiar way of reversing itself. Perhaps it’s generational karma.

This past December, my mother’s assisted living facility had a holiday program where its elderly residents sang Christmas carols for us. The singers donned Santa caps and rang hand bells at the pre-arranged moments in each song. They all searched the audience for family members as they sang. When they spotted their kin, they beamed with pride. At the end of the program, Santa came around and gave them gifts.

Tenacious G dressed for the Christmas program.
Again, echoes from my childhood stole into the festivities. How many Christmas pageants had I performed in at school? How many times had my eyes combed the audience for my mother, and finally connected with her, filling me with the joy that comes from knowing you're loved? How many times had a cheesy Santa walked around handing out presents to my classmates and me?

The first time I realized that my mother had become the child and I the parent, I felt profoundly sad. How could something so unnatural occur?

My mother was, and continues to be, an extremely intelligent woman. A brain hemorrhage several years ago impaired her ability to speak. Unfortunately, because of her speech challenges, she really needs to be in a protective environment.

Somewhere along the years, her world of politics and art and family gradually shrank until it became no larger than the confines of her assisted living apartment. Her sense of accomplishment now rests within those sheltered walls.

Mom has been at her facility for three years. It has been an adjustment for us both, but I no longer feel sad about it. Her life is relatively independent. Her caretakers are kind. And she has certainly not faded away. A direct descendant of William the Conqueror and the Viking Kings before him, she still asserts her feisty will with definitive judgments on food, people and the world. She lives defiantly within her limits—in the moment—daring to savor her vintage years with dignity and optimism.

Postscript: Today is her birthday. Happy 85th to you, Mom!

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