[Originally posted March 24th, 2017. My mother passed away December of 2019. – Owen]
One of the things I love about abstract classical music is that the listener is free to graft any meaning onto the notes they choose. The last three times I have been out to Arizona to visit my aging mother, I have ended up listening to one piece of music or another that seems to capture what I’m feeling or experiencing. This particular time, it is the following, “joined in progress” as they say:
On Monday of this week, I had the following text conversation with my sister:
I had called my mother and she told me she was tired of living the way she was, and was eating less as a way of gradually “letting go”. After our conversation, I told my wife that I was going to fly out and see her, texted my sister words to that effect, who told me to please keep her posted.
My mother has been, throughout her adult life, a fervent believer in the right-to-die movement, as was my father — one of the few things they agreed on, politically. I was not surprised by her actions as much as intensely saddened to realize how unhappy she was.
To outward appearance, my mother has everything a person could want. She in no way wants for money. She lives in an extremely affluent assisted living facility. She is universally beloved by the other residents and staff. She has a boyfriend she loves who loves her. She is a young looking 85 years old. Even though she has Parkinson’s and other health issues, she had appeared to be handling them all with as much humor as a person could manage.
However, the warning signs were there to see. She told me when I visited here three months ago that she had been struggling with depression. That the sheer number of medications she was on left her befuddled.
When I spoke to her on the phone, she told me that one particular health issue she had was so embarrassing that she’d rather not go on than have to live with it, as it had ruined her life.
As I spoke to my wife about flying out to see her, tears formed in my eyes. My mother was so unhappy she wanted to die: that’s about as unhappy as it gets. Maybe I had been kidding myself about what a great life she had.
I took a sleeping pill that night to get some rest. The next morning, I spoke to my boss about taking the time off, got it, then made plane, hotel and car reservations. I called my mom and told her I was coming for five days, then left my sister a message to that effect.
Before I began availing myself of the wireless access on the plane, I sat thinking: what reasons do you give to someone to go on living when they do not want to? What reasons are there?
My own experience is that we don’t live for “reasons” we live because we feel like living. The desire to live is just that – a desire. You either have it, or you don’t.
My mother had deliberately chosen to live across the country from any of her children so as not to be a burden on any of us. Even though the three of us had each been to see her in the last three months, we all had very short (two day) stays. My feeling was, she missed seeing us, so maybe just going to see her would make her feel better. (The fact that she said “You’re coming for five days? Well, that should cheer me up,” was a pretty good clue.)
Reason is just a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. That’s another quote from a book I read recently, making the point that reason is only there to serve the emotions. My mother’s elephant was getting tired, she wanted to lay down.
All I knew was, I was going, and I was going to stay almost a week. What I’d find I wasn’t sure, but I thought sure it would be bad, whatever it was.
What I Found
What I found, upon arriving, getting my rental (which was torture) and driving down to where she lived was entirely baffling.
She seems fine.
We’ve now eaten four meals together. She has eaten at all of them. Her health does not seem any worse than last December; although her memory is poor, it seems better than most people there.
Her boyfriend, on the other had, who also has Parkinson’s, has degenerated horribly. He is also very temperate and good-natured — a “roll with the punches” kind of guy, as they say. It made me think that maybe part of her depression is realizing she’s liable to lose him, but I don’t know. She has made several oblique or direct references to “what she’s doing” as in, “The staff here don’t approve, of course, of what I’m doing.” – indicating that she is still in that gradually letting go process she described to me over the phone.
Still, we’ve laughed and talked about various things. We looked at pictures of her great-grandchildren, neither of whom she’s ever seen in person. We talked to my brother on the phone. We watched five hours worth of westerns yesterday – she had not been able to watch movies lately, as she cannot remember how to operate her DVD player. I taped instructions to the remote with labels to help, and she practiced several times while I was there. However, I know enough about short-term memory loss to know that this is unlikely to help once I’m gone.
Either her boyfriend or the staff would be happy to help anytime, and the staff is always available. She would have to think to call, though. What she’d been doing was stare helplessly at her DVD player, overwhelmed with the realization that she could not figure out how to operate it.
When I texted my sister again, I said that at the rate she was going, she will have finished herself off (physically) by the year 2043. However, there is more to life than just our physical capability. She’s having a hard time remembering how to do simple things, things she’s done for years. She can’t really go anywhere. Even though she has company, this isn’t the life she wants, as she mentioned last night…
About Last Night…
“Moving from Florida to Arizona, leaving [35 years worth of] friends behind, was one thing. Losing your father [11 years ago], was another. Deciding to move here [into an Independent Living apartment within the retirement community she is part of 10 years ago] was still another. But moving from Independent Living to Assisted Living [14 months ago] was the biggest single change I’ve been through.
It’s now been more than 3 years since I had to stop driving; Ed [her boyfriend] had to stop last year. Do you know what it is like when you can’t drive? Even though they have people here who will take you places, you have to schedule it, and you may have to wait if other people are already using the drivers. Driving gives you so much power, and you don’t realize it until… until you lose it.”
Of everything you’ve lost, personally, I mean, in the way of capability — what do you miss most?
“Singing. I can’t even sing in the shower now. I can barely talk, my voice is so shaky.”
I’ll bet you can still recite hours of poetry, though.
[Ed indicated with vigorous nodding and that indeed she could.]
“Yes, well the number of people who want to hear ‘The Highwayman’ is surprisingly low,” she said, archly.
I looked around the dining room of the Assisted Living facility. The difference in the walker or wheelchair bound residents there versus the hale, healthy, tanned group from the Independent Living facility two blocks away was stark.
My father’s memory had started to go the last year of his life, and my mother always said it was a “blessing” that he didn’t have to live through the complete loss of the mental powers he had always been so proud of. She on the other hand, was living through her loss. Who was I to say she should want to?
On the other hand, who could really tell she was trying to end her life? The process was so subtle and gradual (eating less rather than not eating is what most people call “dieting”), and the only meds she was refusing were those that exacerbated her “embarrassing condition”.
I rose at 4:00 this morning (don’t be alarmed, I always do that) and went for a three mile walk, listening to the Bartok String Quartet referenced at the beginning of this piece. After a period of harmony and disharmony, it ends with two voices together, much like my mother is ending her life.
I wish I understood anything about life. My own emotional elephant feels like its rider is blind, aimlessly trying to pull this way and that, not really knowing where he’s going. I love my mother, yet, throughout much of my life, I resented her for the degree of emotional distance she kept from me, or us. I realized with age that she was the product of a horrendously poor and violent upbringing, and had made the most possible out of it; and that she loved us according to the best she had to offer. Love is all the reasons: all the reasons there are, or could be.
I will be eating with her again, in an hour, and will we tell more stories, and laugh, and, yes, eat.
Because even tired elephants have to eat.