A number of people have suggested we include in the newsletter a copy of this recent article I wrote for the Valley news on caring for my mother. I’ll lead into it below with a section that was cut from the published version.
Peace and best wishes to you all,
Change is what we can know in life. The brilliant fall colors are fading again in the Upper Valley. We suspect what will come. We have already been hearing whispers of the great change: the cooler nights: the darker afternoons: the lower cut of light which highlights odd parts of objects and certain individual moments. When does the change which takes us by surprise and knocks us off our feet begin? Can we be here for the process as it unfolds before our eyes, not really knowing what the outcome will be?
Seasonal change has a certain predictablity, though the recent summer has awakened us to the fact that there is also an uncertainty to even the most easily expected and desired aspects of life. Living with my elderly mother has lifted me undeniably into the lap of uncertainty…
MY MOTHER, MYSELF: TOGETHER TO THE END
It was Labor Day evening and just getting dark. We’d been out for our last serving of the year at Dairy Twirl — our neighborhood soft-serve ice cream spot — on its closing night. I was helping my 92-year-old mother up the three steps to our back door when she began to teeter. With one of my hands in one of hers and the other on her back, I steadied her. We laughed and teased about the neighbors seeing us coming in “drunk again.” She stumbled a second time. The third time we lost her ongoing contest with gravity, and both went down. She landed softly in my arms.
This is what I am doing these days, easing my mom’s fall: through aging, illness and, eventually, her death. She came to live with me last summer after three weeks in a hospital near her home in New Jersey, where she had lived in senior housing for many years. She had sepsis, a full body infection of undetermined origin. After several near-death episodes, she recovered enough to be transferred to a nursing home rehab center. There she began the arduous work of regaining the basic functions of mobility and self-care. She had reluctance at first, saying that death would be easier; wondering, with some fear, why she had survived.
On Aug. 2, 2008, my mother moved in with me in Lebanon, leaving her familiar Jersey home behind. I marveled at her courage as we drove north. I marvel still.
Living with my elderly mother has lifted me undeniably into the lap of uncertainty. What seems for a moment like a slow, steady strengthening becomes, quite quickly, a trip to the emergency room due to dehydration and kidney problems. Laughter and brightness become nausea. Languishing in bed is followed by a return to doing dishes and folding the laundry. Through it all, I feel honored to be getting to know this woman, with her strong, steady sense of humor, in a new, grown-up way. There is a growing sense of solidarity as we walk the path together.
I find refuge in my practice and study of Buddhism; and I am increasingly grateful for these words from the monk Analayo: “Keep calmly knowing change.” The phrase has become a steady refrain in my day-to-day survival. To keep the words alive, I have been reflecting on and practicing with what is meant by “knowing”. The knowing that is most helpful for me includes the qualities of interest and effort, spaciousness and steadiness, compassion and kindness, relaxation, generosity and gratitude. This kind of knowing supports gentleness and awe. It supports relationship — connection and reconnection. This is so important as I balance my mother’s care with wise choices and respect for her autonomy. It helps me to live the answer to the question posed in the following reflection from classical Buddhist texts: “Only death is certain and the time of death is uncertain. What shall I do?”
I have found support in this call towards wise and compassionate action outside the Buddhist tradition as well. When my mother reached the Merry Heart Nursing Home Rehab Center, I had a chance to read Upper Valley author Dennis McCullough’s book MY MOTHER/YOUR MOTHER. The book was helpful. The information in it aided us in making thoughtful decisions about her care, and the stories began to settle me emotionally into the journey. Dennis’s strong suggestions about creating a “circle of caring” have guided me.
Sitting at the foot of the steps with my mother in my lap on that recent Labor Day night, I saw that our upstairs neighbors were home; and after easing my mom to the ground, I called to them. It is our good fortune that they are both intensive care nurses. They came down, lifted her easily, helped us to the kitchen, and checked to see that we were both okay. Miraculously, we were, having suffered none of the bruises or hairline fractures which had followed other falls.
My mother and I could not be traveling this path this alone. I know it takes a community to soften a mother’s fall. This article could be a simple listing of all you in the Upper Valley and beyond who support us. All the allotted words could be taken by naming you: NJ brother and sister-in-law, our loyal helper from the Senior Center, family far and wide, friends, neighbors, doctors, nurses, aides, physical therapists, professional and non-professional caregivers; the personnel of agencies and institutions, as well as the shopkeepers and ice cream servers, acquaintances and kind strangers. Neither my mother nor I could do this without you, and we both offer you now a deep bow of gratitude.
As you who have cared for a sick or aging loved know first-hand, it is very difficult work – physically and emotionally. I saw a film this past year in a wonderful caregivers’ support group series offered by the DHMC Department of Aging and the Grafton County Senior Center. It graphically portrayed the deterioration of a woman as she cared for her husband who had dementia. The film suggested ways for caregivers to, not only survive in tact, but also to thrive.
Often my mom and I are thriving, but not always. Sometimes I wonder if I am breaking her fall, or instead being brought down along with her. That, I know, is somewhat up to me, but not exclusively. There is an element of risk: to me, it is worth taking. Caring for my mother is not just one of the most important things I have ever done; surprisingly, I can also say this is one of the happiest times of my life.