The arc of mortality

I spent the opening hours of this day watching the memorial for 41st U.S. president George H.W. Bush. I saw a nation celebrate a former leader but also aging children (of my generation) seeing off an elderly parent.

This is a common experience for those of us whose parents live long: we share their passage through decline to death even as we glimpse or enter our own “later years.” We begin to look back and it tangles with some new and perhaps urgent need to “come to terms with” these parents — who they were, who they’re becoming. (Or un-becoming.)

download (4)Just last night I finished one such story, wonderfully told by Elizabeth Hay in her award-winning All Things Consoled. I heard Hay at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival this fall and knew her book, whose “arc,” she said, “is mortality,” would resonate. The details, the personalities, are hers specifically and yet, reading it, so much belonged also to me, an oldest daughter who was nearest, thus point person and witness to the parents’ increasing frailty and dementia. Yes, and yes, to the sense of responsibility, longing, ambivalence, sweet moments, humour, and toll of a lengthy leaving that she describes.

The arc of mortality implicates not only parent and child but every relationship in the family. I chatted with Hay after her talk and since she’d mentioned siblings, related that my two sisters, knowing we yearned to live closer to our children after my husband retired but wouldn’t leave Winnipeg while Mom was alive, told me it was their turn now. I said that we relocated Mom to a nursing home in Saskatchewan, the sisters took the role of Nearest-to, we moved to B.C. ScanI was touched, then, at Hay’s inscription in my copy of her book: For Dora, who is lucky in her sisters…. Yes I am.

And I heartily recommend the book!

What should I do with my life?

“What should I do with my life?” Mom, who’s 96 and frail, who has significant cognitive loss, asked this question of my brother Al three times when he recently visited her at her Saskatchewan nursing home.

I had to smile. How often I heard similar questions when we lived near one another in Winnipeg. “What do I do now? I need to plan for my future.” This at 92. I would smile then too and say something about not needing to do anything, you can rest now, you’ve done enough. In other words, I dismissed what she was asking instead of taking it seriously.

AGE_0848

Tina Doerksen, photo by Al Doerksen

I was gently corrected about all this, however, that same year, by Gerhard Friesen, who’d worked for many years as a chaplain to seniors and was thus a good interpreter of them. Older people, he told me, often have unfinished business. Many women, he went on, have felt unfinished in their development or giftedness and when the mind gets weaker, this comes to the fore. It emerges as “what should I do?”

This surely fits my mother’s generation of women, but I submit that perhaps it’s true for all of us as we age. I often ask myself versions of it. I think it’s our sense while alive that we’re never quite finished. Simply being human involves poking about and moving forward from “what should I do with my life?” As Victor Frankl put it, it’s not life that answers to us but we who answer to life.

My brother’s response when Mom asked? “Say something nice to someone each day!” I think that’s as good as it gets. And, if you’re interested in how GF worked at this with Mom, please see the Addendum below. (Because I’m at my self-imposed limit of 300 words per post!)

 

ADDENDUM:

The following is taken from my 2014 journal, set down as closely as I could recall afterwards. The story begins with Mom telling me that she’d talked with Victor Adrian (a Mennonite educator), though I knew she meant Gerhard Friesen, who led a weekly Bible study with some nursing home residents, and when I supplied his name, it was, oh yes, yes. I gathered they’d talked about her “purpose” and something about reading. She pointed at one of her theological books, a kind of overview of the Bible or doctrine by R.A. Torrey, I think it was. Later GF and I had a phone conversation about this and he filled in the gaps. She’d been pressing him with questions similar to the ones she’d been asking me: what to do now, what about her future? When he came to her room in response to her repeated entreaties, she immediately said, “I’d like to know where I am in my studies.” He had to think on his feet, he said, but this was a clue to ask about her education. High school: had she finished? Yes. College? Yes, she’d done some studies at Bible college and also graduated from teacher’s college. An “info chart” about her life on the wall of her room verified this information. He noticed she had books in the room. Or maybe she pointed them out, the culled favourites of those collected earlier. She loved to read. So GF encouraged — no, I would say, he blessed and instructed — her to read in her theological books. Torrey seems completely “old-fashioned” by now, at least to me, but he was an important figure in the education of my parents, and Gerhard knew that so he encouraged her to re-read it and see if it brought back what she learned at college. It would “refresh” her. The advice and interaction seemed to satisfy her.

GF and I talked about Mom having been a minister’s wife, beside but also behind him, as it were. He wondered if maybe she felt her gifts hadn’t been used enough. I can recall that we children sometimes remarked, in reference to some little “talk” Mom had given somewhere, that she was a better preacher than our father.

I’m still moved by the insight GF gave me that day, to affirm my mother’s gifts, to recognize the key “bent” of her being, her deep love of reading (yes, how proud she has always been that she’s a reader!), no matter the limitations of her latter years. I’m moved that he urged her to fill it up, even in her 90s. I hope, if it comes so far, someone does the same for me.

Fear like a curtain

This post scrapes close to the bone. It’s about something that shifted inside me a couple of weeks ago, the short version of something I related at church (my faith tradition is Mennonite) when asked to participate in a sermon on “work” through various seasons of life.

After reflecting on that, I segued to the Sunday before, when a phrase in a text I’ve heard many times — I urge you, in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies… — flashed as if neon. I’d just visited Mom, 95, just witnessed the state of her body and mind, which also reminded me of Dad’s decline via Alzheimer’s. I realized that, on account of those years and experiences, our shared genes, and my wish to stay in control and not be a burden, I was carrying a perhaps unreasonable but nevertheless heavy dread of — and resistance to — aging the way my parents had.

Now here it was: offer your body. This brain, heart, lungs, all of it, into what the inevitability of aging might entail.

     I carried a dread of aging the way my parents had.

I tussled with it all that day. I knew it wouldn’t make an iota of difference to the unstoppable march of time and what was in store for me whether I trusted or not (as if prayer is manipulation!), but I wanted to say Yes, to let go as it were; I sensed Spirit pressing exactly that point.

And finally I could.

What I hadn’t anticipated, and didn’t tell the folks at church (insufficient time had passed to observe it) was the effect of Yes. It’s like fear was a curtain. When flung apart, I could see the sun was up, the landscape a-light with possibility. It energized me for today.

—-

Friends: Someone alerted me to some rather jarring ads after this — and other posts — (which I don’t see). WordPress makes money off these for (free) use of their program (which I like working with, I have to say); yes, I can pay a fee for no-ads, which I already pay on my other site; was hoping to avoid, as it gets expensive, but they seem to corner a person this way. 🙂 Please ignore or forgive these ads while I consider what to do. Gratefully, Dora

 

Gifts in the fog

I found myself watching the staff while visiting Mom at the nursing home last week. I was impressed. I saw the animated raised-voice cheeriness one associates with care for the very young or very elderly (where simplified games of bowling or keeping a balloon ball aloft or folding things are hurrahed as amazing fun), but it was more than that. A spirit of genuine kindness seemed the ethos of the Home itself.

My sister, food services supervisor there, told me that the staff like Mom.

That felt good. Whether entrusting our kid to teachers or parent to carers, we want, more than anything else, I think, those people to understand — “get” — our loved one’s  personality and needs and “like” them anyway. (Even more than we do some days.)

The activity director stopped by as Mom and I coloured together. She said Mom was a “gift.” Mom lifted her head. The director elaborated: her contentment, wisdom. Somehow she’d glimpsed the latter through my mother’s fog.

I asked the woman if she was scared to get old. She said No, because of her experiences working in the Home.

     “There’s no judgment from these residents.”

Another staff person, who came by to toilet Mom, told me she loves working with seniors. Because of their stories, she said.

“But you’re not getting many stories on this side, are you?” (Mom’s in the dementia and Alzheimer’s wing).

“I feel like a different person here,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can really be myself. There’s no judgment from these residents.”

Wow, to both these women. Maybe kindness grows from looking for and receiving gifts, whichever way they come.

 

P.S. I was doubly grateful for Mom’s carers when I saw news reports that evening on rising senior abuse in Canada.

 

Mom’s advice

I’m in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, visiting Mom in the Mennonite Nursing Home.

My mother is 95, eight years a widow. She’s frail and in a wheelchair. Her memory and cognitive skills are greatly diminished. Conversation with her is difficult.

I brought along letters she and Dad wrote us in the early 1990s from Vienna, Austria, while they served informally in a Viennese church, thinking my reading them aloud would be a good thing for us to do together today. She listened intently, almost too intently; she was straining over them. Nothing in them connected. Even the fact that she authored most of the letters eluded her.

Tomorrow we’ll try something else, I think, maybe colouring together, or playing some simple Scrabble.

My experiences with my parents’ aging (and Dad’s death) add an emotional layer of complexity to the business of aging for me. I have much to say about that. But for now I’m in Rosthern with my mother and today in the dining room she took my hand and announced to her table mates, “This is my daughter,” reminding me that when I’m with her, I’m daughter-young. And then I feel my competence and my large stockpile of memory.

                    “You feel lonely,” she said.

But I had a good laugh with her when she asked me,  “When should I put you to bed?” I suspect she was wondering when staff would come assist for her nap, but in the moment of her “word salad” sentence, I was her little girl, her little Dorchen, as she called me in the days of putting me to bed.

I told her I was writing about aging and wondered if she had some advice. What would she say, I coaxed, about being old. That earnest, baffled expression in response, then, “You feel lonely,” she said. “You miss the parties [people] that are gone.”