By the end of nine days visiting with my 88-year-old mother, I was gasping for a sense of self, for ease and patience, for perspective and any other form of self-protection that I could find. It was a sense of humor that I most needed to regain and to revive, the surest strategy for being able to present to my brothers and to other members of my family a real me when they asked about my mother and the visit.
Near the end of that summer week in 2002 I realized that basically I was just tired – tired of adjusting to another household, another schedule, another horizon of expectations and topics and entertainments and foods. I missed my cats and their neighborly accommodations to a human companion and provider. I had brought with me a remnant of the shower gel that I used at home, providing a sensory reminder every morning of the kinds of things I ordinarily like and do when the choice is mine, a reminder of the me that I tend to cultivate in my adult life at home. I ordinarily seek a certain amount of solitude even in a committed relationship with all its rhythms and pleasures and compromises and plans; the solitude available in my parents’ home in New Orleans that summer – grabbed and protected by silences and creative privacies – was a hard-won thing. The renewal of gratitude and generosity that daily prayer could sometimes afford at home seemed limited in this particular family setting.
I wished during that week five years ago – a week in what would be my mother’s last summer – that I had understood more clearly the kind of companionship that she needed. Maybe I used to make that companionship sound more difficult than it was because I was so sure of being unable to provide it. A better son or daughter would have eased those days with a mother nearing ninety, would have lavished attention and patient understanding and somehow would have helped awaken gratitude and generosity to make those days and weeks for her a welcome time of summing up.
But even then I suspected the oversimplification that was turning my thoughts askew. I was forgetting what must be the hard work of nearing ninety, of adjusting to a vastly different horizon of expectations and entertainments and even foods. No one is automatically good at the work of approaching the final years of one’s life. Serenity may come but it may not. The struggle it is may be clear to others but it may not. Even the best intentions of sons and daughters may not prepare them to let be what they see of a parent’s accommodation of the latest changes in a long life.
And no one has to be good at that accommodation. Being good at it is not a requirement or a moral imperative.
Just as no one has to be good at being a companion to an aging parent. It may happen. But it may be somewhat out of our control. It can be a goal, a hope, a prayer, but being a good companion to anyone is so much a grace.
As the month of my mother’s birthday approaches, I am reading the first chapters of Patricia Hampl’s recently published memoir of her mother, The Florist’s Daughter. What I was not there in New Orleans to do for my own mother on her last day, I am able to imagine as the author describes sitting by the side of her mother’s hospital bed, holding her mother’s hand in one of hers, and writing with the other about the woman whose imminent departure would leave Ms. Hampl “nobody’s daughter.”
When really do we become “nobody’s daughter,” though, or “nobody’s son”?
It hasn’t happened to me yet.
Nor is it likely to happen as long as November comes along each year.