If she were still living, last Monday would have been my mother’s 98th birthday. Although it’s been more than 22 years since she left us, the day still registers with a tinge of sadness and regret. I was at her side when she died, but there was so much left unsaid between us.
I understand that taking care of an elderly parent can be exhausting and exasperating. It can strain family relationships in every direction and force difficult, even heartbreaking choices. It can cause financial hardship and ethical conundrums. But I don’t know any of this first-hand, since it has never fallen to me to be a long-term caregiver.
My father died suddenly at 40, when I was just a child. My mother was 75 when she died in the hospital after a brief illness, in accordance with her advance directive. And my dear stepfather lived independently until he was 100, when he moved in with my step-sister Margaret, who looked after him with humor, dignity and patience until he died at 103.
I am in some ways grateful that I haven’t had to deal with the particular challenges of caring for an aging parent. But a part of me is wistful for the opportunity, especially when I think about my mother. I wish I could step back into her life as a more patient, adult daughter, to enjoy the warmth of her lively, intelligent spirit, to practice letting go of old tensions and to show her every day that she is loved and worthy.
I know I am romanticizing a relationship that would likely test, sorely, every assumption I just made. And yet, sometimes, that is what I wish for — the opportunity to undertake the intentional act of loving my mother as a kind of daily devotional.
My mom was a fine but complicated woman. I’m a bit of a tangle myself, I’ve been told. My relationship with her when I was growing up was often stormy, and it remained unpredictable and volatile after I married and had children of my own. We lived far apart and I saw her only occasionally. Phone calls were often touchy. We were both sad about this situation, so we hung in there together. I figured things would get better over time; I hope she did, too.
In late November of 1993, when she was 75 and I was 39, my mother was hospitalized for minor surgery. But what should have been a simple, routine procedure under light anesthesia took a bad turn due to her underlying health problems. She wound up on a ventilator, heavily sedated and physically restrained to keep her from pulling out the breathing tube.
After more than a week of trying to wake her up and get her breathing effectively on her own, her doctors told us she would never again live independently and without the ventilator. Since she had a ‘living will’ that clearly stated she never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means, there was little to discuss. We asked the nurses to disconnect the ventilator while she slept peacefully. My brother and I stayed with her as her breathing grew more shallow and her heartbeat slowed and stopped. She never woke, and she never showed any sign of discomfort or anxiety.
I don’t really have any regrets over that decision. But I do miss my mom, more and more as the years go past. I am grateful to have several other headstrong, mid-90’s women in my extended family these days, including my mother’s younger sister; not just one but two delightful mothers-in-law; and, somewhat improbably, the mother of my brother’s former wife. But though each of these ladies is dear to me in a special way, they fill a different place in my heart than the tender spot my eccentric mother left empty when she died.
“Time is a healing medium,” says my aunt, her sister, and I know she is right. My love for my mother is easier to tap into now than is the difficult memory of our last few contentious years. I often wish I could ask her advice or opinion about some aspect of my work or my life. She would be so proud of my two sons, grown now into fine-minded young men. She would have been distraught at my divorce, but she would adore my new husband, Douglas. She would wring her hands over the troubled state of our country and the world, and she would have insightful, provocative, irreverent things to say about it all.
Mostly, I regret not having made the time or the space in my heart to build a more loving, accepting, supportive relationship with her. I thought I would have that chance later. I assumed, although we never talked about it, that some day she would live with me, or close by. I would visit often and take her to her appointments and read her the paper and bring her tea with her lunch. We would look at photographs, drive through familiar landscapes, talk about our lives and get to know each other, and love each other, better.
There would be time ahead for all that. But, suddenly, there wasn’t.