This essay is a personal account of the sociological, psychological, and spiritual effects of an aging mother on her family and the shifting dynamics that it engenders. It is ultimately about our individual journeys through life, each of which invariably ends in death. “Mother’s Journey” is not the typical narrative about aging and dying; it confronts our cultural denial of death and its implications, as well as the fear of the unknown. Millions of people and families are dealing with elderly parents suffering from deteriorating bodies, impaired cognitive function, and the end of existence. The story of the greatest journey, the one that ends in death, is told through numerous short journeys. It speaks to the question of how we maintain our human dignity, how we make peace with ourselves and our loved ones, and how we let go. These deep issues are explored philosophically and occasionally treated with humor.
On the drive to her house on Wyoming Avenue in Hagerstown, my mother comments on the clouds. She thinks it looks like it might rain. I have noticed that she comments on things that she previously took for granted and never spoke to me about. It is like she is seeing the world for the first time or just realizing how beautiful it is. In summer, she notices how bushy and shapely a neighbor’s sugar maple is. Today, she comments on the shapes of clouds, the height of trees, and remarks on how aggressively everyone—except for me—is driving. She tells me that I am good driver. I respond by reassuring her that I hardly ever wreck. She smiles at me and giggles.
We are returning from a restaurant that features an extensive buffet. We go there because it moderately increases the odds of finding something that will appeal to her, some kind of nutritious food to supplement her usual diet of processed sugar and fat. If it is true that we are what we eat, my mother must bear close resemblance to a chocolate chip cookie, which she swears she does not like.
Getting my mother out of the car must be an odd sight to spectators. It is an exercise in patience for us. Mother complains that she is old and feeble and wishes that she would die. I ask her if it would be okay if we eat first. She chuckles and says “OK.” Then she hears an odd sound and asks: “Did you just fart?” Snickering, I respond: “You know I never do that!” I blame the noise on a car backfiring across the parking lot and point in the opposite direction, but Mother is unconvinced. She says: “You are the fartingest person I have ever known. You take after your Daddy.” I fart because it gets a rise out of her that validates that she is still alive and aware of her surroundings. It is an odd behavior on my part that for some reason reminds her of Dad. Although the minutes are ticking down, she is still in the game.
Mother sits and rocks back and forth, with her shrunken rear on the side of the passenger seat. Eventually, after six or seven attempts, she gains enough momentum to rise onto a spindly pair of unsteady, splayed legs, groaning ominously and teetering precariously. I have noticed that old people often make odd noises without knowing why they are doing it. One of these times she will not be able to get up and we may have to put her in a wheelchair. Mother asks me to get her handbag for her, which she has left on the car seat. I dutifully fetch it and hand it to her. She says: “Thank you, son.” I do not say anything. She carries her cane on her left wrist rather than using it to aid her balance and shuffles across the parking lot as if leaning into a strong headwind, continuing to make weird noises with each agonizing step, while I walk a pace or two in front of her like a carrot dangled before a horse to impel forward motion in the desired direction of travel. Twenty people enter the restaurant before we reach the door, and so we take our place at the rear of the line.
I drove to Hagerstown to watch the Packers-Seahawks football game at my mother’s house. I am a diehard Packer fan. My wife and I have not had a television in our home for seven years. I only miss television during the NFL playoffs—that is, if the Packers are involved in them, which permits me to take my mind off my troubles for a few hours of tortured entertainment and ritualized violence.
When we turned the game on, there was no sound during the commercials, which was fine with me. The game was broadcast in Spanish. Neither my mother nor I speak Spanish; however, Mother did not notice anything unusual. There are two remotes and each is labeled in bold letters so that my mother knows which one to use to turn the television on and which one to use to change channels. I asked her if she had inadvertently changed the language settings with one of the remotes. She assured me that she had not touched either one. I grabbed one of them and found that the language was set for Spanish. I fixed the problem with the touch of a button, and to my relief, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman began to speak English again.
Later in the afternoon, during halftime of the game, Mother asked me if we had eaten lunch. It is evident that her short-term memory is failing. She still has pretty good long-term recall capabilities, probably as good as my own. She seems glad that I am seated in the room with her and that we are watching something on television together.
I cannot fathom what it would be like to lose my short-term memory, what little I have. It appears to me that mother’s personality is gradually fading into the background as mental regression relentlessly gnaws away her gray matter. She repeats things numerous times. Today she says, “Rick used to beat Dawn.” The statement comes out of the blue like a thunderbolt. Dawn is my recently divorced niece and Rick was her husband. Mother’s syntax is simple and child-like. Although I have no way of knowing, I believe that she sometimes feels as vulnerable and helpless as a toddler. It seems inappropriate to ask for confirmation or denial. Mother is no longer able to do even the simplest task by herself. For instance, flipping the plastic cap of a ketchup bottle open. She struggles to put on her coat and to zip it up. Taking it off is a prolonged struggle that occasionally leaves her in a strait jacket, her arms bound behind her back, a situation that mildly amuses both of us. I let Mother struggle for half a minute before offering assistance. Predictably, she says: “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She sounds like Elvis Presley. My mother never used to thank us for anything. When we were young, she barked orders, and we did what we were told or suffered the consequences. But that was long ago. Now her gratitude is expressed effusively. My sisters and I do what we can to help her.
My sister, Judy, who is five years my senior, gets angry when she sees my mother’s deterioration. She has confided to me that she sees herself in that condition twenty years from now, a thought that understandably terrifies her. Perhaps, I secretly harbor the same fear but will not admit it to myself. My two sisters and I wish that our mother had made a greater effort at recovery after the stroke she suffered a few years ago. From our perspective, she appears lazy, but none of us can know how she feels. In such cases, it is best not to judge.
Mother is neither physically active nor mentally acute these days. As a result, both her mind and body have atrophied. We believe that her quality of life could be better if she would get up and move around every few hours. But she won’t. Now, like an old car, she is wearing out. There is too much rust to restore the corroding body, too many miles on the odometer. Mother has had enough and she is waiting to die, a truth that is implicitly understood but no one dares to speak aloud.
Sometimes she laments the loss of my father, who died unexpectedly in November of 1990, at the age of 68, abruptly ending a run of near perfect health. Since Snickers, an elderly black dachshund, died a few years ago, my mother has rapidly gone downhill. Although needing companionship, she is no longer able to care for a dog. She is alone most of the time, biding her time, waiting for the end like she awaits my arrival to take her to lunch today.
From the time she awakens in the morning until she falls asleep at night, Mother spends virtually the entire day lying on her back in bed, getting up only to use the bathroom or to eat a bowl of Special K cereal with red berries. Her nutrition is even more atrocious than my own. She hardly eats anything. I eat too much too often, particularly when I am stressed, which is frequently these days.
I call Mother almost every day to talk, if only for a few minutes and to see if she needs anything. Invariably, the television is blathering in the background, and sometimes she seems distracted by my call. I ask her what she is watching. She responds: “I don’t know. Something on channel nine.” The incessant noise and flickering images are her only companions. I tell her to enjoy her show and hang up. This past year, I have noticed that Mother says “I love you, son” at the conclusion of our conversations. I respond in kind. Although I have always been sure of my mother’s love, my relationship with her has been more adversarial than warm for most of my life. I have always felt that my mother secretly harbored disappointment in me for not having a career and for not accumulating wealth and property, for failing to live a more conventional life, like my sisters. Yet I have also been aware that she has probably felt tacit pride in me for being independent and authentic to a fault. I believe that we have never fully understood one another, until now. I am grateful that our relationship is evolving in another direction. I would not like for things to end the way they were, not that they were ever really that bad. I sense that neither of us wants to have any regrets about how this ends.
It is not pleasant or comforting to witness my mother’s demise. Little by little she is losing her mind, and with that loss her feisty personality is fading into the background. There is nothing golden about old age or the final stages of life. Age is creeping up on all of us, death is lurking in the shadows, and there is nothing that we can do about it. There is an invisible but palpable presence in the room with us, a darker obscurity lurking within the gathering blackness that we try to ignore.
We celebrated my mother’s 86th birthday on December 29th last year. She argued that it was her 87th. Perhaps, like me, Mother feels older than she is. My wife, Alice, and I took her to Famous Dave’s in Frederick, Maryland, because my mother still enjoys the scent and flavor of smoked barbequed pork ribs, St. Louis style. Ribs are one of the few things she can still be induced to eat without great persuasive effort. As expected, when the half rack of steaming ribs dripping in sauce arrived at our table, my mother, despite saying that she was hungry half an hour ago, left most of the meat attached to the bones. Like Mother’s ebbing life force, her appetite has diminished to a fine pinpoint on the horizon. That was less than a month ago. I asked our waitress for a box. I took the bones home to my cats, who stripped the meat from them as cleanly as a school of piranhas.
My mother’s gray-haired diminutive form is bent like a bow. Today, the day I am taking her out to eat, a date she somehow invariably remembers, she is neatly dressed in clean, creased slacks, a brightly colored blouse, and her cranberry winter coat. She is wearing makeup. My sisters do her laundry. Fully dressed, she has been anticipating my arrival. Her handbag and cane are perched on the round kitchen table. But just when we are ready to go out the door, Mother announces that she has to pee. Her coat is laboriously unzipped, and I help her to get it off. Leaving her cane on the table, she trundles down the hall to the bathroom. Five minutes later, she emerges and asks for the fourth time where are we going to eat. Her shoestring comes undone, and I have to bend down and tie it for her. She used to do this for me when I was four years old and that memory has enabled me to return the favor now. I realize that this is the highlight of her week, and I recognize how precious and transient these moments are. It only gradually occurs to me that this is also the highlight of my week, as demoralizing as it sometimes can be.
Inside, I find a table at a location that will facilitate sitting my mother down and getting her up again with the least amount of difficulty. I help her get into the chair. She leaves her coat on because she is always cold. I remove the paper wrapper from the straw so that she can sip her coke while I get a plate and silverware and bring her lunch. I put a couple small pieces of chopped cantaloupe on her plate, a spoonful of fried rice, a few lima beans, a scoop of sweet potato casserole—her favorite fare on the menu—a few strands of noodles, two bones of pork ribs, and I bring her a small cup of banana pudding for desert. The portions I load onto her plate are minuscule. Mother hardly eats anything other than her sweet potato casserole. Sometimes she will request a second scoop, but today she does not.
Carrying an aluminum cane in her arm rather than using it to maintain her balance, Mother takes my arm and we shuffle to my car at the far end of the parking lot. I could have parked nearer the door, but I realize that this will probably be the extent of her physical exercise for the week. Mother audibly groans every time she moves. I am not even sure that she is aware of the peculiar sounds she makes. These began about a year ago. She smiles pleasantly at the onlookers and makes over the bundled up infant she encounters in the parking lot. Her demeanor suggests happiness. We are together, and she just had lunch with her only son.
With great labor, I help Mother bend and fit into my 2005 Scion, which is not the easiest vehicle for an elderly woman to fall into or climb out of. I go to the other side, enter the car, and discover that my mother is sitting on her handbag. I pull it out from under her, fasten the seat harness, and she says: “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She invariably says these words with the sweetness and sincerity of a young child. I secretly wish that she would not feel obligated to thank me for doing what she used to do for me so long ago. I wonder if I ever thanked her when I was four. Probably not.
In his final days of life, a friend asked Henry David Thoreau how his prospects appeared to him as his death drew near. He responded: “Death is as near to you as it is to me.” Thoreau’s aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God. He said: “I am not aware that we had ever quarreled.” Although she is aware of her impending demise, I do not know what, if anything, my mother is thinking about the close proximity of death, presumably hers, not my own. Does she still possess that capability? How do we wrap our brain around the idea of non-existence? Exhaustion has supplanted fear. What does the world look like through those old brown eyes? How does a fading mind interpret the world? The lights are going down.
My mother’s house, which used to be so immaculate that we often referred to it as the “furniture museum,” is now a chaotic mess. Cleanliness and good housekeeping was a source of pride for Mother, a trait that was handed down to her from her mother, Edith McKenzie. Now, she either no longer cares or she is incapable of maintaining the house to her old standards of perfection, which none of her offspring—especially me—have even come close to approximating. Only a team of diligent museum curators could have matched Mother in her heyday. The deterioration of her mental capacities is reflected in the condition of the house. The sink is piled up with dirty dishes. The kitchen table and chairs are littered with newspapers. Bags of stinking garbage are sitting on the kitchen floor. I haul them to the curb for collection and separate the recyclables. Even the house appears to be giving up the ghost. I imagine it sagging under a ponderous weight.
Mother’s house—once and always our home—has a peculiar odor from the combination of fermenting garbage, dried human feces, urine, and general lack of regular sanitation. If the truth be told, my mother should not be living here alone. But no one wants to put her in a nursing home—to be warehoused until she dies, probably among strangers. She deserves better than that. We remember the day Mom put her mother in a nursing home and the guilt she felt afterward. My mother’s body, like so many old people, partakes of the sickening pungency of a nursing home. She cannot help it. My sisters put her in the bathtub once a week and bathe her. In summer, I good naturedly threaten to take Mother outside and hose her down, an image that brings laughter to both of us.
I think Mother’s greatest, perhaps her sole remaining joy in life, is to see her children and grandchildren, none of whom, according to her, comes around very often. During the spring semester at Shepherd University, I have to be in Shepherdstown five days a week, so I usually get to visit no more than once a week. My mother does not remember if either of my sisters has visited her this week. I can see from the uneaten food left in the refrigerator that my sister, Vickie, brought her a ham sandwich that appears to be two or three days old. It is uneaten, not a bite missing. There are other remnants of organic matter in the refrigerator, but what they were no one knows. Concealed within teal-colored fuzz flecked with yellow and white speckles, that quavering substance on a saucer could be piece of steak or it might be a slice of pie. It could be a clod of decomposing caterpillars.
Mother rarely knows what day of the week it is anymore or the time of day. The means by which my sisters and I regulate our lives are no longer relevant to her. She is slipping into a realm of timelessness, where there is neither day nor night, warmth or cold, loneliness or company. She laments that her grandchildren rarely ever come to see her or call on the telephone. It is depressing to see someone you love becoming so enfeebled. Perhaps that is why the grandchildren do not come around. You have to have a strong stomach, fortitude, and mental toughness to handle this kind of reality. I suspect that old people are generally better at it than the young.
There is nothing uplifting or joyous about what is happening to Mother or to us. Witnessing her decrepit condition, and by averting our vision, as if straining to see a faint star on the periphery of vision, we catch a momentary glimpse of what could be a reflection of our future self and quickly recoil from the specter that is staring back at us with eyes that never blink, as if repressing a bad memory of childhood trauma. Subtly aware that all of us are waiting for the end, we occupy our minds so we do not have to think about it. For Mother, we hope that it comes quietly in the night and that she slips away in her sleep without a whimper, but that is probably not how it will happen. It does not concern the people living down the street what happens to my mother or to my sisters and me. Our individual struggles are more personal than public. Locked into a wire cage, we are engaged in a life-and- death struggle, a contest that we will ultimately lose. You try to go as far as you can and not to be a burden to other people for as long as possible.
As we helplessly watch my Mother slipping away from us, we are simultaneously remembering the past, lamenting how things used to be, and peering into a chasm of uncertainty that is defined by feebleness, and doomed to end in further deterioration of mind and body—and finally, in death.
That is ultimately the fate that awaits each of us, as we move inexorably and rudderless, toward that ignominious fate on a current of time that flows swiftly forward, toward that inglorious and often undignified ending over which we ultimately have no control. It is like glissading over an enormous waterfall into the abyss of nothingness from which there is no return. My mother, who no longer struggles against the current and its powerful undertow, is heading toward the brink, and all we can do is watch breathlessly as she disappears. Holding Mother’s frail, wrinkled arm, we can only accompany her to the threshold of the chasm. The final stage of the journey must be undertaken alone, and that is the most frightening part—entry into the great unknowable mystery, like the last vestige of light swirling around a black hole before winking out of existence… and then an eternity of nothingness.
Amidst the oppressive weight of human consciousness, we realize that all of us are embarked on that same journey. Our own turn to cross the Rubicon is probably nearer than we think. Perhaps, entering eternity is analogous to moving through a birth canal—leading into God knows what, where, or when? We do not like to think about it, but like a bulging disk impinging upon a nerve, the thought is always there, lodged deep in our minds, pressing uncomfortably against our consciousness, and causing us to swallow like there is a lump in our throat the size and hardness of a fist. There is no swimming ashore. No shore to swim to, only torrent, swirling eddies, whirlpools, and turbulence. Thoreau once remarked: “Life is short at the longest.” He only got forty-four years.
Mother still gets her hair done every Friday morning. One of my sisters takes her each week and they have lunch afterward. When that routine ends we will know that death is very near. It is always near, and we should prepare for it. I fervently hope that Mother holds on until the end of the semester. I hope that my two sisters and I hold on, too. It is going to be a rough ride. The boiling thunder of the falls is deafening. The frosty spray is bitter upon our cheeks. You know what Nietzsche said about the abyss.