Growing old? I can handle my getting older. I barely notice the days sneaking past. But then I barely noticed the days creeping past my mother, either — she lives 300 miles away and has always maintained her independence. Then there was a death in the family — a dear aunt who was the same age as my mom — and I made plans to return home for the funeral.
And as I spoke with my mother and made plans, I faced a fact I tried long to ignore. My mother is not growing old. She is old.
This last weekend she admitted as much to me. It’s the first time we’ve ever tiptoed around the BIG question. “What are we going to do, Mom, when you can’t take care of yourself?”
Ouch. My heart started clanging in a rush to get the question out in the open so I could put out the expected fire. Instead, there was no fire.
She looked at me –- hard — then looked at the carpet, then looked out the window, then finally she looked at me again. This time she looked at me without any emotion at all.
I prefer a hard look to an empty look.
She carefully picked her words. “I looked after your grandmother for 13-and-a-half years when she got sick.” That’s a simple statement, too simple, and I wanted a clear understanding of her message. I asked her to finish her thoughts, but she shook her head and refused. Instead she walked over to the sink and washed her hands. And I tried to align my words into a response, and failed.
My mom did look after her own mother. She cared for her 13 long years. She was the only caregiver. My mother allowed no one else to assist her after her sister refused an initial request to help. She tied herself to my grandmother and to their home with a short tether, and fumed and fussed, but she refused to untie the cord.
She missed the births of her three grandchildren. She missed their birthdays. We weren’t able to celebrate many Christmases or Easters or share summer vacations together. Those times together were always denied with tears and pain and her statement, “I can’t leave your grandmother and she’s too ill to travel. And the disturbance would be too much for her, so please don’t bring the children.”
My mom grew weary with the responsibility of caring for her mother 24/7. She knows I know this, but she was afraid of reminding me of it. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted from me. She didn’t want me to take care of her; she didn’t want me not to take care of her.
Well, not quite. I have a chronic illness. We don’t discuss this issue as she prefers “not to know about stuff I don’t understand,” but she does know enough. She knows I do not have the physical ability to care for her. That scares her. And that scares me.
Last weekend we finally began the discussion we should have had ten, maybe twenty years ago. We waited too long and her age has started making its mark in scary ways. And now we have to make decisions quickly. Too quickly.
The attorney has been called and we are awaiting his return call. We’ve taken a trip to my mother’s bank and a trip to her safety deposit box. I’m returning next week and we’re going to the funeral home for information on pre-planning her funeral. She insisted on this part. (“I don’t trust you to do it the way I want it done.”) Once my mother, always my mother, I think in exasperation.
And so I write, searching for answers in my journal. Putting my scattered thoughts into written words settles things in my mind, and I see where the two of us have to go. And I see the need to make difficult choices soon.
But I also see this. Getting old, even though we all know its progression, seems to catch people by surprise. Maybe it’s the ostrich game in a different guise, but I’ve made one decision that I will see through to fruition.
My husband and I don’t feel old at 50 – I certainly hope not – and we probably won’t feel old at 60 or 70 unless we are faced with circumstances of severe disability or illness. But it is likely we will need assistance with living at some time in our lives – those are simply the percentages speaking. I’m thinking (and hoping) maybe 30 or 40 years from now, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not waiting until the last moment. And I’m not putting my children in the position I face now.
I made an appointment with our attorney to do some estate planning. And my husband and I have set aside some time this weekend to talk about all those “what if” questions. Neither of us wants to spend our precious free hours dealing with these issues. But we will.
Then my daughters and son won’t spend silent years of their lives wondering what the answers will be to those “what ifs.” Those questions that always need an answer — someday.
Tree Trunk, photo © 2008 by Bo. All rights reserved.
Bo is a poet and writer, and a self-described “wannabe photographer who can make enough money selling photos to buy better photo equipment.” She lives in Wisconsin and loves to travel the state in search of photo ops and inspiration.
About writing and her writing process, Bo says: I have a very tiny trailer that I park in a campground several times a year — it becomes an instant writer’s retreat, solo and cheap. Often I’ll search ’til I find a tree trunk in the middle of the forest and sit and write there.
I’ve also adapted a home writing routine that works for me. First tea and meditation — the easy kind where I just shut up and try to feel quiet. Then an hour of reading and research to bring in new ideas, and 2 to 4 hours of writing, editing, and attending to the business parts of writing. Plus there are the spontaneous strikes. The writing time adds up quickly.
I also work with a life/creativity coach and mentor, and I find this immensely helpful. She provides just the right amount of nudging to keep me engaged with my work. But it also helps that there is really nothing I would rather do than write and take photos.