I was planning to write today about my changing identity as caregiver since Ralph’s MCI diagnosis but plans go awry…
My mother passed away this weekend.
I always thought that “passed away” was a euphemism to avoid because saying a person died was more honest and direct. But “passed away” is exactly what my mother did. Her breathing and heartbeat slowed; her expression cleared from pain. She suddenly looked much younger, her face holding all the ages of her life—the baby she’d once been, the young woman, the matron, as well as her current 96-year-old self. Her lives/life seemed to pass through her and drift away.
We did not get along when I was growing up or when I was young or even youngish adult. Ours was a competitive relationship filled with criticisms,resentments, recriminations. But we made a kind of wary peace and began to get along much better in the years after my father’s death in 1990. She divided her year between Florida and Pennsylvania by then but liked visiting en route and arranged to have her hip replaced in Atlanta so I could be the one to care for her during her convalescence. When her health gave out ten years ago, she ended up in my house. Partly it was practical—I had a mother-in-law suite—and partly it was emotional. She told me that she knew she could maintain a certain semblance of independence with me and implied that our cooler relationship meant her life would be calmer than it might be with her other kids with whom she was closer.
Care-giving does not come naturally to me and my old grievances against my mother did not make it any easier, but for the most part our arrangement worked surprisingly well. She had a paid caregiver. I visited her downstairs daily. In the early days she came upstairs to our space regularly as well, although with time that became harder and then impossible. She was relatively independent for probably the first five years. Then, as her health deteriorated further, I had to become more involved. And these last two or three years, first at home and then most recently in the nursing home where she moved last year, her needs and my responsibilities became increasingly intense.
I am not going to pretend I am in a state of high grief. Being with her so much for so long during this long process, I know she was ready; frankly I was ready too. For a long time I had stopped thinking of her as “mother.” She had become the helpless elderly woman I cared for almost impersonally. As the old grudges evaporated, so had much of the mother-daughter/love-hate angst that bound us.
But we had our moment of closure. My mother cared a great deal about appearance and was perpetually critical of how I looked. On the Thursday before her death, in the last moments she was even partially cognizant, she looked at me suddenly and said words I had never heard from her before. “Your hair looks nice today.”