“The world changes. The ground shifts. We still make plans. We still find gifts.”
~ Lin-Manuel Miranda
My sister was Daughter on Duty Monday evening, accompanying Mama home from dinner, when they came across her neighbor wandering the halls. Neva was trying to find a phone so she could call her long-dead husband.
“I just don’t know where he is,” she told them tearily. “I don’t know why I can’t go home.”
With one hand still grasping firmly to her walker, Mama put an arm around her.
“My husband died more than 20 years ago,” she told Neva, “and I still miss him. But he’d want me to carry on and your husband would too. Think of your happiest moments when you are going to sleep.”
“Oh dear father,” Neva moaned over and over, “why is this happening?”
Rebecca took her back to her room and reluctantly left her there.
“I have children,” she told Rebecca, “they could take me home.”
Rebecca noted that there was a phone in the room, but that it couldn’t call out. Perhaps her children would have no rest, or the long-distance bill to heaven is out of reach of their ability to pay. This is the heart-breaking reality of so many of the old-olds.
My mother has always put others before herself. In “younger days” (like in her 80s), she even volunteered at the senior center. In times past she would have found ample opportunity at the Manor to use her gifts of extravagant caring for those “less well off.” Losing her sight has taken her vision for how to be a giver, but her heart is still beating and she gave it to Neva.
“We can all be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” ~Maya Angelo
Mama hasn’t felt well this week and Rebecca and I have had to practice being rainbows. We’ve both had late evenings sitting in the recliner in her room, accompanied by our favorite night shift hospice nurse the first night. The nurse returned this morning, bringing Mama a lavender-infused rice bag. Small kindnesses.
Yesterday I sat with her at lunch that she didn’t eat, shocked by how listless she was, holding her spoon in her hand and not eating, like she didn’t know it was there or what she was supposed to do with it. I checked in on my phone with our regular hospice nurse who had just seen her. She said she had found her dull and flat too. The night staff had given her a tiny dose of morphine from the the hospice kit after Rebecca left Tuesday evening to help her sleep. “She’s not used to it,” the nurse told me, “the effects are taking longer to wear off. Morphine has gotten a bum rap, but it’s actually a very good tool.”
Then she wrote, “And, my dear friend, at some point your Mama is going to change.”
I know that, but don’t know that. I want her to go quietly into that good night someday soon, or maybe I should say without warning; but it really hurt my heart to watch this tiny bit of drug-induced evidence of what the children of so many residents here have been living with for so long. Maybe that’s why Rebecca and I seem to be the only children who spend time at the Manor. It’s really hard to watch.
One of the less old, more abled residents has been missing for many days. Tuesday I asked the man who has obviously been her good friend for the past months since they arrived what had happened to her. “Her family moved her closer to them,” he told me. “You must miss her,” I said. “I really do,” he replied sadly. I put my arm around his shoulders and told him I was sorry. (She’s the one in the photo here.)
I’m writing at home this morning, instead of at my cafe table in Olympia, in case I’m needed after Rebecca dashes out there before her meeting to see how things are. I’m missing my weekly bagel and the familiars at the other tables. I treated myself to one of my Airbnb muffins.
On the other hand, I get to watch the sun slowly break through the fog. While others in the country have had snow, the Pacific Northwest has been in an endless April showers deluge. This looks to be the second sunny day in a row with more to come. I hope they don’t have to be spent watching Mama’s fog in her hot room at the Manor with the blinds closed, but hers do. And this is a journey of accompaniment. I dream about a different life in the future; but for now I can’t imagine not being here with her as she takes these last steps, still finding ways to reach out to others.
A few weeks ago, I asked Mama some questions on behalf of a friend writing a book about the stages of women’s lives:
“How are you preparing to let go of your life and face death?”
“I keep reminding myself that I’ve had a good and long life. I’ve faced pain and discouragement and I can still welcome each day.”
It’s a cheerful outlook that belies what I observe, but perhaps her soul knows something I don’t see. What I do see is that life for many of those in the Manor is a sad waiting game. Perhaps small kindnesses in these foggy days make a tiny difference.
“Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”
That’s what I’m going to try to remember when I visit Mama and all the residents of the Manor. For some reason, Mama is the hardest.
Quotes courtesy of Heather Lende’s blog and Dove chocolates.