I point out to Mama that her “good warm sweater,” the wool one with the Icelandic pattern that she has worn nearly every day more or less forever has a hole in the elbow. “Oh, no!” she exclaims. I know she is thinking that she can’t see to repair it, and therefore all is lost. I tell her I will fix it.
I know what to do with needle and thread––or bodkin and yarn; I know my way around a sewing machine; I even know how to knit. But I have no clue how to darn, and no inclination to look it up online and learn how. Baby Boomers are not the Fix-it Generation. (Thank you to my sister Rebecca for that bit of enlightenment; yet one more gap between my mother and me.) We are the consumable generation. The one that brought plastic into our homes in large quantities. (Remember the glass shampoo bottles in ceramic bath tubs of our youth? My children have never heard of such.) We throw away electronics at an alarming rate, they no longer have parts that can be fixed (think radio tubes). Most clothes are not made well enough to warrant a patch; and we have so many we get rid of them before they wear out anyway. We don’t repair and keep using much of anything. But Mama did. It’s what one did poor in Tennessee. It’s what my father’s family did on the farm in Michigan. It’s what everyone did during the Depression. They mended clothes, darned socks, patched quilts, reused canning jars, jury-rigged this and that, and repaired tractors. I close the hole in Mama’s sweater as best I can, and she is grateful.
We went to the glaucoma specialist this week for Mama’s quarterly check up. I wondered afterward what the point was exactly. Vision is checked: no change, she still can’t confidently distinguish between one finger and two held at arm’s length from her right eye, and she can still almost see the fifth line on the eye chart with her left; pressure unchanged from the last visit, which was a little better than the one before that. Mama is about to outlast her second beloved glaucoma doctor. And still she has vision. Nothing can be done for what has been lost. She wants to know how to cope with a blind future (not Dr. M.’s to help her with and not really what she wants anyway). He tells her, “You aren’t blind and you aren’t going to be.” A variation on what another doctor told her about her physical condition: “You are remarkable for your age.” She doesn’t want to be remarkable for her age. She doesn’t want to be happy she has a little vision. She wants her body to be 70 again. Or 80. And then she wanted it to be 50 or 60.
Rebecca wonders if Mama is looking for body repair; she is, after all, of Gen Fix-it. We Baby Boomers, though we no longer know how to darn socks, are all about learning how to repair body parts. But there comes a time (and surely 96 is that time) when nothing more can be done. And Mama knows that; but still she wants a fix for her eyes, for her back, for her stomach. She doesn’t like medication, and focuses more on their side effects than on what good they might be doing––but she still wants to go the doctor. She wanted physical therapy for her back and then for her neck––but the exercises didn’t make her magically better so she stopped doing them and cancelled her appointments. She goes to specialists with one malady after another, hoping for someone to wave a magic wand and fix something, anything.
As we leave the clinic, Dr. M. tells Mama he won’t be at her next appointment in June. She will need to see his junior partner. He reveals that he has had chronic leukemia for years and every once in a while he has to get a round of chemo to knock it back, and that is what he will be doing in June. She is horrified and sad for him. She says she didn’t know he was sick, and she is so sorry. He shrugs and says, “Well, it’s just how it is.”
I’m sad for her, and I have an ever-growing understanding of how frightening it must be to be old-old. I want her to be 20 years younger, too. I want to hike Mt. LeConte with her again. But at what point do we all have to say, “Well, it’s just how it is,” and move on?