Sun­days with Mom: The re­ced­ing past, the loom­ing fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY STEPHEN J. LYONS

Iknow how this story will end. Any day now a cer­ti­fied nurse’s as­sis­tant on her morn­ing rounds will find Mom de­ceased in her bed. Chances are no one will have been there when she passed. Like many oth­ers, she will have died alone.

As pre­pared as I am, I have no idea how deep my grief will be.

On my lat­est visit to her nurs­ing home, I find Mom slumped in her wheelchair in the din­ing room in front of her Easter din­ner of ham, mashed pota­toes and Brus­sels sprouts. The ham has been cut into bite-sized pieces. Mom hasn’t touched any of it. Her eyes are closed, and she is hum­ming an old show tune.

Across from Mom a woman glares sourly at me as if she is judg­ing my fil­ial com­mit­ment. I want to tell her I al­ready have plenty of guilt. The woman next to her is about to let her head fall into a bowl of melted ice cream. On this Easter, there are no signs of res­ur­rec­tion.

For one cow­ardly mo­ment, I con­sider turn­ing around and get­ting out of there as quickly as pos­si­ble — like wet soap out of a hand, as I once heard es­cape de­scribed. The devil on one shoul­der whis­pers, You don’t need this sad­ness in your life, while the an­gel on my other shoul­der says in a louder voice, This is your life, buddy.

So I gen­tly take Mom’s hand and give her a kiss. She opens her beau­ti­ful blue eyes and says, with­out emo­tion, “Oh, hi, Ste­vie,” as if I’d been sit­ting there all along.

In­creas­ing de­men­tia has nar­rowed her world to what is im­me­di­ately in front of her. At this mo­ment, her youngest son has ma­te­ri­al­ized like an ap­pari­tion. When I leave in a few hours, she will not re­mem­ber my visit.

I urge Mom to eat. She re­fuses. Rail thin, she still stub­bornly “watches her carbs.” The re­cent falls and hospi­tal stays, med­i­cal pro­ce­dures, anes­the­sia and pain meds have taken their toll and am­pli­fied her con­fu­sion. In this age of in­creased longevity, Mom is what I would call an old 86-year-old.

I push her wheelchair back to her small room and pull a stack of decades-old pho­tos from an en­ve­lope. Mom stud­ies each pic­ture as if it had only re­cently been taken.

Prob­a­bly for my own ben­e­fit, I want these im­ages to help her re­mem­ber — if only for a tran­si­tory mo­ment — the full spec­trum of her life: Mom with her se­cond hus­band (“Was I re­ally mar­ried three times?” she asks. “Was I that stupid?”); Mom with her two sis­ters sur­round­ing their fa­ther (“That’s Daddy!”); the house in east­ern Iowa where she grew up (“I wish we’d never sold it.”) and her 70th birthday party (“When was that?”).

Mom is soon dis­tracted, so I sug­gest a trip around the floor.

On this Easter Sun­day, the cor­ri­dors are crowded with other anx­ious sons and daugh­ters also du­ti­fully wheel­ing their mothers and fa­thers, some­times with their grown kids trail­ing along. We nod at each other, ac­knowl­edg­ing our tribe of im­pend­ing or­phans. Are they think­ing, as I of­ten do, We’re next in line?

Mom is singing now, as she loves to do, loudly, with dra­matic fa­cial ex­pres­sions and wild ges­tures. This draws at­ten­tion, and I say to one rather star­tled fam­ily, “I just can’t take her any­where.” Mom laughs, then con­tin­ues to sing, now at a higher vol­ume. The fam­ily smiles war­ily and hus­tles away.

Sud­denly I have the urge to chase them down and tell them, Wait! This woman is not the de­mented per­son you see in this wheelchair. This woman who can no longer walk or read a book over­came the stigma of epilepsy in the 1940s and, later, a bad di­vorce to raise me as a sin­gle par­ent. I want to tell them that my mother never did a dis­hon­est thing in her life. That she taught me to never give in to prej­u­dice, hate or fear, to fol­low my dreams and be in­de­pen­dent. That this woman, my mother for­ever, still has value and worth.

As I leave the nurs­ing home, I re­mem­ber one of her rare vis­its to east­ern Wash­ing­ton state, where I once lived. At church on Sun­day, her op­er­atic singing of the hymns echoed through the sanc­tu­ary.

That morn­ing I stood in front of the con­gre­ga­tion and told them how thank­ful I was for the lessons Mom taught me and how grate­ful I was for every­thing she did on my be­half. My telling this was long over­due.

Mom does not re­mem­ber it, but I will al­ways re­call the morn­ing when I found the right words to honor her. And I will never for­get how she sang so strong and true. Stephen J. Lyons is the au­thor of “Go­ing Drift­less: Life Lessons From the Heart­land for Un­rav­el­ing Times.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.