It’s been two years since I packed my elderly CRV with my cat and a suitcase four days after my 60th birthday and took off from North Carolina—my home for 24 years—to meet up with the rest of my belongs in Washington. I had left my Pacific Northwest home as America celebrated her bi-centennial, for what was expected to be a two-year adventure in Virginia before returning to my real life on the left coast. Thirty-six years later, I finally made good on that promise to return home.
My intended “gap year,” with my mother in my childhood home, has hit the two year mark, with no end in sight. This time is part of the journey now, not a gap in the trail. I’ve stopped making plans; I’m taking life as it comes.
In my two years here, as she celebrates her 98th birthday, Mama’s world is closing in around her. Her vision has continued to decline: she can’t see what’s on her plate, increasingly has trouble making her own breakfast, and has stopped trying to read. It is harder than ever to have a conversation with her as her hearing and cognition worsen; she listens less and less to her recorded books. After her accident a month ago, I silently began signing the checks I was already writing and she doesn’t ask about them, giving up that tiny bit of control—but not much other—without a struggle. She is more forgetful, more frequently confused, and more often irrational in her reasoning. She clings to her memory of the truth she makes up about how things happened, forgetting the reality we keep reminding her of. She uses her cane outside the house all the time now, but still not inside; she is talking about a walker so she can continue to walk up the driveway without help. She no longer says she will be fine overnight by herself, but still is content alone during the day. She finally gave in to a regular helper 12 hours a week, making life easier for all of us. Her caregiver gets her out of the house; helps her make soup, muffins, and cookies; and is far more patient with her than I am. But Mama continues to talk of letting her go because it’s expensive and she “doesn’t really need her.”
As for me, I am holding on to as much independence as I can muster. I have traveled the back roads of my new old state from northern border to southern and from the Pacific coast to the Cascade mountain passes. My CuRVy is feeling her age, but, as resilient as Mama, is still exploring the roads with me. I’ve attended two week-long writing retreats, taken two summer camping trips and three mid-winter personal retreats; and made one trip back to North Carolina to see my family. I read voraciously, particularly the stories of others who have traveled this caregiving road, and I explore the path through my own writing. Self-care is the only way to survive this life that feels, in many ways, as restrictive and diminishing as Mama’s.
My third grandson was born in Seattle in February and I provide some child care, staying over one night, every week or two. Elliot is the sun to Mama’s rain. I built my garden in the meadow: phase one of a vision for the future. I’m not calling it a plan. Mama no longer talks about selling the house, or about moving to assisted living. Maybe as the garden puts down roots, she finally understands that I am rooted here, too. Or maybe she finally understands that cleaning out the house with her in it is not going to happen, and therefore she must stay, too. One last dream—to stay rooted—is a gift I can give her, and myself.
I yearn to clean out the house, though. I daydream what it could look like freed of the superfluous stuff of a long life well-lived that fills the drawers and closets and corners. Once in a while I try to clean out some small area where I think she won’t notice; but she always does and is not happy with me. I dream of rooms furnished with my things. I dream of a new refrigerator. I dream of branches cut from trees so I can see the sky. I dream. I dream. I dream. And I wait; sometimes patiently, sometimes not. I make no plans, but I hope to never stop dreaming.
Mama’s friends, all younger than she, are leaving this world. When will it be her turn? The answer suddenly comes to me one recent evening as I enjoy a few moments in the sun on the deck before starting the dinner that may or may not be satisfactory to Mama. It comes in a barrage of words flying across time and space and blasting into my psyche. “Her time will come when you have learned what you need to learn. It will come when you learn to love and accept your mother for who she has been—in all her imperfection—and for who she is now—still imperfect. Then, only then, will you be able to be at peace with her and with yourself when she is gone.”
I want her to be different, to stop telling me how things are done, as a parent to her child, and accept my contribution as an equal member of the household. But she can’t, she never could. I’ve learned a lot in two years, but this final lesson of acceptance—the most important one—is slippery. It’s an acceptance in constant need of vigilance and repair; not a place at which to arrive and relax into. I long to be able to carry this responsibility with grace and ease and compassion, but perhaps that’s not to be either. Maybe that is the second most important lesson: to accept myself for who I am, too.
And so I continue to seek understanding, grateful for the points of light as I stumble in the dark along this path toward whatever may come, in timing that is not my own.
“The path to enlightenment is not an illumined one. There are guide posts and small guiding lights along the way – but ultimately, you must step off into your own darkness…your own unknown, to discover your own light. If the pathway were clear, it would eliminate the need to seek. And it is through the act of seeking that the answers and the path are revealed.
They are rarely given unsought.” (Yoga Magazine)