This story is winner of the 2016 Audience Prize in Just Buffalo Literary Center’s eighth annual members contest.
Where you are right now is what’s important.
Yoga class mantras see me through visits to my 95-year-old mother in her home, an assisted living facility. She has dementia, which has knocked her short-term memory for a loop, so she doesn’t remember when I’ve been to see her, let alone what we may have just eaten for lunch. What I call the back issues of her mind are a little bit faded, but come into sharp and surprising relief when coaxed by memory-stoking conversation, a spark brought to flame by a few choice words: “Remember the time Aunt Mary got so mad at us for using squirt guns in her living room…” Mom laughs, and I see for that moment she does indeed remember.
She is definitely and absolutely living in the moment, a blessing and a grace note at the end of a long and fruitful life. I am the sixth of nine children, all save one still alive and tending to our mom. I often say that she had so many kids in anticipation of having someone around to care for her in her infirm years. She does not have the blessing of late-life coupledom, which is so lovely when the marriage has been happy as well as enduring. Dad died too young, just shy of his fifty-first birthday, of a cancer highly curable these days when found in early stages.
At the home, an all-female facility located in a gracious old mansion—we eschewed the newer places, nice as they are, for one that exudes coziness and the charm of another more gracious era— Mom is the envy of the other ladies because she seems to have so many visitors. On special occasions, holidays or for her annual birthday celebration, when we all seem to show up at once, hovering and buzzing around like bees at a hive, I tell her she had too many kids. She certainly had too many kids when we sometimes disagree on decisions to be made about her care. On the other hand, she had the perfect number of children when we are busy with our own extended families or work or travel plans—there is always someone to cover, and Mom will not be left alone.
Alone means without a family member nearby, as this facility is well-staffed with competent and caring aides. What is envied by other residents must surely be sometimes an annoyance to the workers, I sometimes think. Mom’s been there for five years, one of the longer-tenured residents. So the staff knows her well, and notice when something is awry. A dietary aide says Mom did not eat much breakfast and wasn’t interested in the noonday meal. Can she make something special for her? They are kind to all the ladies, and I wonder if our near-constant presence seems like a rebuke. A lack of trust? I have asked, and been reassured that they understand. “It’s your mom,” said one aide recently, when we fretted and fussed over her during a summer bout with pneumonia, from which she fully recovered. “I would be the same way with my mom.”
That’s what I want to hear, and that’s what I want to believe. I do believe it, because I am there often enough—we are there often enough, at different times of day—that I think we would know if things were otherwise. Mom’s continuing care, and ensuring, insofar as that can be done, that her remaining years are not just comfortable but fully lived, is the most important goal. But I have another goal in mind, and it’s personal.
I want to learn from these elders how to live. I want to learn how, if given the opportunity someday, to withdraw from this world gently, and to leave behind some goodness. Kind words to a grieving person. Smiles for the sad. An ear that listens, a hand that holds, an arm that braces. The pat on the back. The soft response to a complaint. Standing in support against wrong, from small indignities to greater injustice.
At my mother’s last home I have met many widows, many mothers and grandmothers who live with heartache and loneliness. I have seen unlikely friendships forged. I have seen heartwarming family reunions. I have heard remarkable tales of childhood, from a midwestern cropduster’s daughter who, as a young girl, went up in rickety planes with her father, amazed at the geometry of fields below. I have heard of nights of terror during the London blitz, from a woman who grew up to become a war bride, moving to Buffalo with her American G.I. beau. I have witnessed both railing against the infirmities of advanced age as well as laughter in the face of debilitating illness.
Above all I have seen the most amazing grace, in a place where people truly live in the moment, by necessity and choice. I am reminded, with each visit, that where they are right now is what’s most important.