Today, I said goodbye to my 81-year-old mother. As we drove her home from lunch, she asked us where we were going when we turned onto her street, if there was a place for her to stay at her home and finally, she asked me nervously why she is confused most of the time. I know the answers, but could never tell her. She knows who I am and still knows who her grandchildren are, but has forgotten where I live or how old I am. She is alive, but like her mother before her, her spirit is leaving.
For the past 18 months since my father, her husband of more than 60 years, passed away, she has been in an almost reverential fog, unable to comprehend that he died before her. Even my father knew his death would take his feisty and stubborn wife by surprise when he asked my sister in his last week to take care of her. She has never really recovered though, and dementia and the soberness of his death have recently advanced her decline.
Over the past three-and-a-half weeks, my family rented a home in nearby Napa Valley close to her home, specifically so we could spend time with her and so I could share with my family everything I love about where I grew up. Living three thousand miles away from an aging parent is an almost insurmountable obstacle, and I know this luxury time with her will not happen again.
During our short visit with her, my three young sons (9,10 and 12) have encouraged her to eat, held the door open for her, played cards and quizzed her about her life. They have flattered her and hugged her. Like little puppies with endless energy, she has basked in their attention and I’ve been able to witness the gentle young men my boys will one day become. These three boys who are usually bumping into each other like bulls in a china shop sit with her patiently and teach her the rules to tic tac toe. We have come here to make her comfortable, to try and lessen her grief, but she has given us a window to our own future. Like us, she is far away and years away from where she grew up in Chicago and yet, her youth is one of the few things she can recall fondly.
My boys have honored my father’s wishes, made her smile and they have made me proud. When I see her, I am often polluted by my own feelings of missed opportunities between mother and daughter, but my children see none of that, they feel only love. If history is to be repeated and one day I am confused and lose my bearings, I am forewarned. I know that I need to make the most of the here and now. To celebrate the moments of now, to hug my family closely and love deeply, to cherish tradition and pass along every story, recipe and struggle.
This weekend I will fly home from California to Connecticut with my family, not knowing how she will be when I return in five weeks for a quick visit to attend my high school reunion. When I left, she made me promise i will come back. My oldest son hugs her tightly and is afraid to let go. She tells him that hug is worth a million dollars and her caregiver looks as if she will cry. Just last year when we came to visit, my charismatic father died four short weeks later and my sons know this when we leave. We are grateful we left her smiling.