PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW

“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a pink and white striped blouse pulled from my mother’s closet.  It has seen better days. The collar is frayed, there is a light stain near a buttonhole and it is at least one size too small for her.

My mother is sitting on her bed watching me like a hawk as I rifle through her closet. She shakes her head and says firmly, “No. I might wear it again someday.” Discouraged but determined not to show it, I put the blouse back in the closet. It’s bulging with trousers, sweaters, blouses and skirts, many of which haven’t seen the light of day in years. Some can go to Goodwill and others should be thrown out, but she refuses to part with anything. I have to tread carefully, though.  I am still learning to navigate this chapter in our lives where I have become the parent and she the child.

While pretending to pick some lint off my sweater, I watch her from beneath my eyelids. The last few years have not been kind to her. (To be fair, she is 93 and did not look her age until recently.) Her face is heavily lined and dotted with age spots. Last year my brother and I insisted she get new dentures because a few of her teeth were broken and wire was poking at her gums. The elderly can be fiercely stubborn, though, when it comes to change. In the end, she caved only because we stayed strong.

She used to faithfully curl and set her hair every day; now it gets a perfunctory brushing in the morning. And the new clothing I buy her stays on hangers while she wears the old favourites I am now trying to weed out. “They’re too nice to wear just around the house,” she says. They’re not. They’re just new.

My brother, who is also active in her care, recently said to her, “What happened to my mother, the one who took pride in her appearance?”

“Ouch,” I said when he told me.

“I know, I shouldn’t have said it and I won’t do it again,” he quickly added.

It’s funny how her pride suddenly re-surfaces when other people are around. She is sitting on her bed now because her legs will no longer support her for very long. Yet when I coax her to leave the apartment to go to the common area of her residence, she refuses to take her walker. The first time, I accepted her decision. But it is a long walk to the area and it was soon clear it would be tough going without the walker. She clung to me and we took slow, small steps; yet to her, this was somehow better than being seen using a walker. I considered putting my foot down and going back for it, but I didn’t want to make her feel diminished.

I was ready for her the next time, though. When she again stated that she didn’t need her walker, I said, “Why don’t you use it? We can both put our purses on it and we won’t have to carry them.”  Because this was no reflection on her physical limitations, she agreed docilely. I learned it pays to be creative instead of insistent.

Now, I make one last attempt. I hold up a gray jacket that has decorative rhinestones and used to be part of a pantsuit. It’s not in terrible shape, but it too has seen better days. “This?” I ask hopefully. There’s a flash of uncertainty in my mother’s eyes. I hold my breath and then she says, “I still like it but if you want it for work, take it.”  I say that I would very much like to have it as I quickly fold it and put it in a bag destined for Goodwill. I get her to agree to part with a few more items in the same way, and we are both happy with the day’s work.

The Night Before

It has been more than three years since my mother moved into a seniors’ home. But time hasn’t made the memory of the eve of her move less heart-wrenching.

THE NIGHT BEFORE (May 2016):

 Tomorrow we are moving my 89-year-old mother to a seniors’ residence.  She has been in transition, living with us for the last 10 months when it became clear she could no longer live alone.  It has not been an unqualified success.  We live in the suburbs and it is lonely and isolated for her, especially since I work full-time.  So, tomorrow, she is moving into a residence closer to her old neighbourhood. The thought of this frightens her in the same way a child’s first day of kindergarten might. “But I won’t know anyone,” she tells me. I try to reassure her that there are activities she can join where she will meet people without even leaving the building. There is a music evening every Wednesday, a movie night, Bingo and much more. I can tell that right now, there is no comfort in this.

We spent the last two weeks shopping for everything she needs for this new chapter of her life:  sheets for a twin bed, a micro-wave oven, even many of the little things we use every day without thinking like scissors and a can opener.  My brother will be here early in the morning with a small truck to load up all her worldly possessions.  We’re all tired and as I head to bed on the last night my mother will spend under my roof, I push open the door to her room to say good night.

Her night table lamp is on but she is asleep in her recliner, jaw slack, breathing deeply. She has had a very sore back for the last two days and I suspect it is because this is the third night in a row she falls asleep in her chair.  “Mom,” I whisper. I say it again, more loudly this time, and her eyes fly open.  Her face is deeply lined and her once luminous hazel eyes are now almost hidden, like dried raisins, beneath drooping eyelids. But there are still traces of the local beauty pageant contestant she had once been. Beneath the aged skin is still a fine bone structure. Her rich auburn hair, now a faded blonde touched up by the hairdresser on a regular basis, is still surprisingly full.

 “We have a big day with an early start tomorrow. You should go to sleep in your bed,” I say. She looks at me and I can tell she’s disoriented, but whether it’s from coming out of a deep sleep or anxiety, I don’t know.  Finally she says, “Tell me again what’s happening tomorrow.”

This is more familiar territory. She knows she’s moving tomorrow and the stress is wreaking havoc on her brain.  The same thing happened a few years earlier when her last remaining sister passed away. It’s the details that keep escaping her:  the schedule, the who is doing what and how. So I patiently tell her again how we are heading to her new home. That my car is already packed with the little things.  That my brother and a friend will be here with a truck to move her dresser, recliner, sewing machine, and other bigger items she is taking.  That I will stay with her for two days in her new apartment and then my brother will stay for another two to help her get oriented.  

I see her processing this information yet again.  Then she looks at me and asks, “But am I coming back here tomorrow night?” And my heart breaks into a million pieces.

A Place at the Table for All

I stopped to watch from across the room as my 92-year-old mother carefully wiped down the silverware. She rubbed a knife gently with the soft cloth clutched in her arthritic fingers, then held it up to the light for inspection. Her shoulders are stooped, her fingers gnarled, and cataracts have formed like invisible spider webs in both eyes, but her expression was one of such intense contentment it almost hurt to see.

I had picked her up from her seniors’ residence for a family lunch at my home. I went to get her early because I know the pleasure she gets in the preparations of a family meal. Her life is slowly winding down, and with it her sense of purpose is dwindling badly. Though simple, the tasks I asked her to help with made her feel needed and useful.

For me, it brought back a memory of a Christmas at my grandparents’ home when I was a child. Dinner was over and my mother and her two sisters were washing and drying dishes. They, along with my grandmother, had worked hard preparing the meal:  peeling, cutting and cooking carrots and potatoes, checking the turkey and setting the table. Close to 30 people including children, husbands and cousins – had sat down to the holiday dinner.  Now, while everyone else relaxed in other parts of the house, the three sisters continued to work.

I had come back into the kitchen and could see them standing at the sink with their backs to me.  High heels had been discarded and they stood in stocking feet. They had tied aprons around their waists to protect their holiday outfits from gravy splatter, carrot stains and other remnants of the meal. The number of special-occasion plates, glasses and silverware they handled was staggering. Yet they talked and giggled like school girls and the sound of their laughter was like tinkling glass – pure, clear and joyous.

Now, all these year later, I observed my mother without her knowledge again. She moved slowly, as if extending the task for as long as possible, carefully laying the silverware at each place setting. The family has shrunk – her husband and parents are gone, and she is the lone surviving sister. As she held the knife up to the light, I think she saw more than a spotless stainless steel blade. I think she saw their faces and the memories of other meals when they had a place at the table.