I took my mother to a memorial service last weekend. We had visited Lois several times at the assisted living place where Mama would have been living if I hadn’t come; where she would have gone had I not extended my one year commitment. Lois is the only friend she has regularly visited in the nearly four years I’ve been here. She always acted like she was doing it for Lois, not for herself, because that’s how she is. She doesn’t ask to visit people if she thinks they have better things to do than visit with her. But I know she enjoyed it too.
Mama always told me before we got to Lois’s room to come back in 20 minutes. “I don’t want to wear her out,” she said. But it was never long enough for Lois. Really, it’s Mama whom visiting exhausts. I rarely stayed in the room with them, because Lois tended to talk to me instead of to Mama—as do most people who visit with her if I’m there—but I was always struck by two things about her: her wit and her acceptance of the way things are. Very different from my mother, and that is all I will say about that. After every visit, she told me with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes, “I love your mama!”
At our early visits, Lois would shuffle to the door with her walker and greet us, then sit in her recliner to visit. Later visits, she would call to us from her wheel chair to come in. The last visit, needing more care, she had moved to an adult family care home and asked when we arrived if we had come for the Jewish wedding.
Mama almost decided at the last minute not to go to the service. “If there are lots of cars in the parking lot, no one will miss me,” she said. “It’s not about being seen,” I said; “it’s about saying goodbye to your friend. We’re going. You will be glad.” We have this conversation before every memorial service.
As we sat in the pew, waiting for the service to begin, I looked at the photo of Lois on the screen at the front of the sanctuary: “In Loving Memory…April 15, 1925-March 16, 2016.” It wasn’t an old photo, she looked just like she did when we visited. Tears leaked from my eyes, rolled down my cheeks. Other services I’ve taken my mother to—this was the fifth in three years—were for people I haven’t seen in 40 years; this felt different. I didn’t know her when she was younger—or when I was. Even Mama has only known her for a decade. I’m sad for Mama; I’m sad for me.
A friend asked me last week if I would be relieved when my mother dies. She said she will be relieved when hers dies; theirs is a strained relationship. The first thing that zipped through me was “God yes.” But then I realized there is a lot more to it than that.
I have thought many times about what it might be like to live in this house without my mother (and wrote about it in Past, Present, Future last month); but what will it be like to experience her death? It’s hard, living with her. Will I grieve? I think I have been grieving for a long time. When I came, I thought maybe we could finally have the relationship I’ve longed for with her. I’m still staying, but I realize now we will never have that relationship. We are too different. There is too much luggage. So what will be left to grieve?
As I said that to my friend, I knew, suddenly, I will grieve the foreverness of giving up on my longing to have a champion, to have a mother who could express head-over-heels pride in her daughter, to have a mother I wanted to share everything with, to know my mother as a best friend. I know, now, that won’t ever be—and I’m sure I’m not the daughter she wishes she had, either—but I can still keep striving, in spite of too many failures, to be the best I can be, as long as she is living.
May Sarton wrote in Journal of a Solitude (one of the books that changed my life many years ago):
“We have to live as close as possible to all that leaves the door open to the ‘holy.’ The problem is not to sink into apathy.”
When she’s gone, any miracle transformation goes too. So I will grieve. And then I will feel released, because hoping and trying and not giving up is exhausting. Maybe I can’t let her be who she is until she is gone. Maybe it’s only then I can forgive her for not being that mother—and myself for not being that daughter.
Each person who spoke at Lois’s service said she was very opinionated, and drove her children bat-shit crazy. Well, they didn’t say that exactly, but I know that’s what they meant. I was surprised, and pleased, at their honesty. Her son spoke of a difficult relationship between the two of them. Still, he had to stop speaking several times to get his voice under control. I knew I was right, then. When the door closes on what will, finally, never be, we do grieve. Even if we have always known it will never be. “Hope dies last,” May Sarton said.
And so I keep living as close as possible to the open door, even while waiting for it to close.
When we got home from Lois’s service, I told Mama what the speakers said from the notes I took for her. “I’m glad I went,” she said, teary for the first time.