My mother wanted to leave the house on the hill and move to a retirement community in Olympia long ago, before my father had even thought about dying and leaving her alone. I guess she knew he would, though; she had the self-awareness to know she would have an easier time adjusting to a new community with him at her side. “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box,” was all I knew he said about it. And that is what happened.
Mama will be 99 soon, a few days before the 20th anniversary of my father’s sudden death. After 51 years of marriage, she has been alone almost half that long. And she is still in the house on the hill. Was it where she wanted to be when she looked ahead? Wanted to be, not imagined she would be. I have no idea, but I think she is grateful—and amazed—that she is still waking up on this beloved piece of earth.
Several months ago I threw out the glossy Panorama City folder. She won’t be going there now. And I spoke briefly with the administrator at the assisted living residence center in town where her name has long been on the list for when she is “ready.” It is questionable that she can still qualify to be there, given her lack of vision. Which leaves the nursing home or a family care home. Or her own home.
It was my parents’ intention that “at some point” the property would be sold and the proceeds used either for their care or divided among my sisters and me. I’m wondering now, had they moved to Panorama City, how would it have changed all of our lives? The house most certainly would have been sold. Sad as that would have been, none of us had any intention of living in the small conservative town in which we had grown up, and neither my sister nor I would be here now.
I’m reading my mother the letters my father wrote to her over the four years he was away during War II. Last week, after the home health occupational therapist had been at the house and expressed his astonishment (and concern) that she was not only going up and down 16 stairs every day, but sometimes carrying laundry in her free hand, I told her she really is amazing. She got uncharacteristically teary, and said, “This life is amazing. Hearing the letters,” she said, “makes me realize how much more amazing it would be if George had been here with me all these years.”
I think he would not have coped as well with aging as she has. She is frustrated and depressed by what she can’t do, though her losses have been recent and he was already needing to cut back activity 20 years ago. But she is not angry and resentful as I believe he would have been, though he would have hidden it well. And that begs the question of when do we make a decision about where we live out our end years?
If my mother had moved at 75, she would have missed the life-giving joy she has experienced on the hill. She probably should have moved ten years ago, but who could know the future and made what would have been a wrenching decision? Why didn’t her daughters step in and help her make a decision? We didn’t want to think about it. We didn’t want to think about how her future would impact ours. How do you plan for this? Is living life as it comes a piss poor plan? Or is it the only viable plan?
I read an article in Yes! Magazine this week about passing the family farm to the next generation. The author writes:
“My parents have put their lives and souls into our family farm. And now, to segue in a new generation and safeguard all that they’ve done, we make plans for their deaths. Then we piss on their agrarian remains to claim them as ours. It all seems so unfair to them. And as for me, it seems equally unfair. For 41 years, I’ve been the farmer’s daughter… They are the leaders… I am only their support. But now, we must make a shift, whether we want to or not, if we intend to keep taking care of the land. We must confront our communication barriers, our emotional hot buttons….”
I’m also reading Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. The transition in this story was made without the parents’ input, without any plan. One of the children and his family just move in and take over. I moved in with my mother with her agreement, but I have not taken over by any stretch of the imagination. I am only support. My mother does not want to let go, and doesn’t trust my ability to make good decisions.
The author of the article and her mother took a farm transition class. The word “transition” caught my attention. Planning for transition. What a concept. And involving the children in the plan: that is something my parents didn’t do.
I have no answers to the conundrum, but I like the idea of a transition plan for my own life, made with my children. I have no idea how to do it. I need a class.
I think how much better life now would be—at least for me—if when I moved in with my mother, we had transitioned at least some authority over the property to me. It would have been a hard conversation, and represented loss for her; but in the end, I think it would have been good for her too. But then I didn’t know I was staying. The plan was to spend a year transitioning her to assisted living. It has not occurred to any of us to transition her life in her own home.
I am staying on the farm; at least for now. Maybe it’s not too late for a changing of the guard plan.