Gazing into the Face of Death

Michael - Columbia, Missouri
Entered on May 8, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe in taking care of our elderly when they can no longer look after themselves.

Easy to say, but I’m not talking about one among a hundred “should do’s,” like telling your children you love them, or being kind to a homeless person. Taking care of an older person shows us not only how to live, I truly believe it is life.

My mom is 92. She’s been suffering from dementia for some time, and when the symptoms began to show, I had no idea. I had heard about Alzheimer’s and old folks who wondered out of their homes in danger. No, that’s not my mom. When my dad died in 1969 she created her micro-world, coping with loneliness, thinking about her two boys with lives of their own and when they would be visiting. And gradually the confusion set in, and she began to lose touch. I thought she was the problem: she didn’t exercise her brain, she didn’t want to see meet other older folks at the senior center. As I look back at those years, my cajoling and her passive-aggressive agreement with everything I said, I marvel at how little I understood my own mother. I didn’t realize then how complicated and fascinating she was. It’s like that old Mark Twain joke about the young man who thought his father had no clue until he went away for a year, and when he returned he was startled at how much the old man had learned.

My mother moved close by eight years ago; a wrenching displacement, one of several in her life including a departure from Spain. But after she settled in to her new place, things were fine: she was in good health, could manage with my help, and although her confusion was at times worse than annoying, I often delighted in her sense of absurdity. She could make me laugh until it hurt: her malapropisms, combinations of un-assimilated English and aphasia, like when she answered a call from a phone-solicitor, by screaming, “Thees ees a crank,” when I think she meant crock; I later learned that the guy was trying to sell her a crock pot. It made no sense and lots of sense; possibly a “crank phone call” about a crock pot. Or when she confused the word “ain’t” with the number eight, it made my daughter and me double over. Although my mother has no more than a secondary education, she is a poet.

My mom is in a nursing home now, she has lost control of bodily functions, she can barely communicate. She is confused, depressed, and sometimes terrified. But caring for my mom is confronting life in all its splendor, pain, complication, absurdity, tragedy, and yes, pleasure. This, I believe, is what life is. It’s gazing into the face of death every day. Mark Twain was right, it’s remarkable all a person can learn in a short time.