Till Death Do We Part...


How does it feel when you’re 91 and you know that statistics are not on your side... that in the numbers game, yours is almost up? When do you start putting the reality next to the fantasy about how long you’ll live? What happens when everything’s checked off your bucket list? Do you make a new one? Throw in the towel and say good-night? Eternally?  

I use to think aging and pregnancy were systematic and succinct. Badabing-badaboom... One day you’re 21, and the next you’re 90...One day you’re newly pregnant, and the next, you’ve got a kid. I’m older and wiser now though, and understand that aging and pregnancy are processes that happen in staaaages. We get an opportunity to try each of them on... to take them for a spin... to get use to them.

Due to a fortunate set of unfortunate circumstances (another story for another time), I’ve lived in the house I grew up in for the last eight years, with my mother living next door. She was 83 when my family moved in, and I was... (...doesn’t matter). The point is, Mom was totally self-sufficient, and needed no help from me (“thank-you-very-much,-I-can-do-it-myself!”). We were both just living our self-contained, independent, neighborly lives... like there was an invisible fence between us, and we’d open the virtual gate a couple of times a week and meet in our communal garden.

All the while, (tick, tick, tick) the aging process was quietly taking place. Eight years is a fair amount of process-ing to observe, and I’ve had a front row seat. Physically, Mom’s aging has been, well, boring... like watching paint dry. Ho Hum. No action. The changes are barely noticeable on a day to day basis. But over time, through daily visits and i-phone chronicles, it’s a different story...an increasingly unsteady gait, outstretched hands to catch a fall, rigid fingers, uncooperative eyes, thin skin (literally...), “max” volume on every device. Imperceptible but evidenced.

Ying and Yang, though. Mom’s declining physicality is buoyed by her off-the-charts spiritual and emotional growth. Like a time-lapsed GIF of a bud blooming into a flower. The 91 year old mother I have now, is NOT the mother I had growing up. Her “process” has brought her to an amazingly sunny space, and her proximity provides me with daily opportunities to see things through her eyes... let’s say, more optimistically.

A few happy thoughts I’ve learned from Mom over the past eight years:

-        If you can’t see it, it probably doesn’t exist. This applies to everything from anger (also called “denial”) to dirt and dust. Whether it’s a piece of emotional baggage, or a visual obstruction, most things just don’t seem to matter with age. 

-        Time is only important as it relates to doctor appointments. Mom’s routine for leaving the house can be abysmally slow...turn every light off, get a napkin for her nose, check the contents of her purse (32 times), grab a cough drop (just in case...), get the handicap placard from the drawer, use the bathroom, wash her hands, comb her hair, navigate to the front door, lock the inner door, close the back door, and phew... get in the damn car! And the first thing she’ll do when she gets in the car is ask me what time her appointment is -  the insinuation being that we’re going to be late because of my poor planning. Luckily, I’ve learned to build in a little extra time, or to fib and tell her the appointment is 15 minutes earlier than it actually is (wink, wink).

-        Mother Earth matters. Mom didn’t grow up in the age of recycling, but she does make a very concerted effort to go “green.” More than that, my mother has taught me to (literally) stop and smell the roses... to spend time in our glorious garden... to say hello to our personal animal kingdom back there... to watch (and name...) the birds, the baby owls and the little bunnies... to appreciate nature in ridiculously obvious ways. On any given summer day, Mom can tell me how many butterflies were on the bush today, and what kinds of bees were pollinating. It’s her attention to detail that brings me into nature’s orb. Otherwise, I'd walk on by in a blur.  

-        Contentment is a state of mind. Again, not necessarily the mother I grew up with, but the woman I call “Mom” today practices gratitude with grace. She finds the happy side of everything and doesn’t have a mean or spiteful bone in her body (maybe towards Republican politics...). She is arguably the most sunny person I know. Once annoying, I now appreciate Mom’s brilliant attitude as an outward sign of the inner peace she’s achieved.

These are the kinds of unspoken answers I get when I ask Mom how it feels to be 91. Nothing systematic or succinct, but descriptive anecdotes on how to live life a little more loosely. When asked about dying, her more technical response is that she’s not afraid, because she’s done pretty much everything she ever wanted to do. Her bucket list is checked, and now it’s up to God to make that decision. The truth is, I’m the one who’s not ready for Mom to be “done.” I’m banking that God has got his focus elsewhere, and won’t get to Mom for quite a while.

Emily GaffneyComment