It’s Hard to Feel so Powerless

when our mothers are dying

One morning last summer, when my brother and I were taking care of our mom, we were all in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. I started whistling. My brother was sitting at the kitchen table with Mom while I emptied the dishwasher and puttered around the kitchen.

He asked, “How can you be so cheerful?”

I didn’t really think before answering (a chronic problem for another time):

It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, we’re together, the coffee’s almost done, and we have half-n-half!

He wasn’t feeling cheerful. I was filling the room with my feelings and they didn’t coincide with his. In that moment, I was happy and didn’t want to pretend not to be.

We had to negotiate many situations like this over the summer. We’re all independent (that pioneer DNA again), are used to taking care of ourselves and anything that comes up, have lived alone for long periods of time, and we each think our way of doing things is the best. Suddenly we’re all living together again — in a two bedroom apartment — after over 40 years apart. A lot of instant togetherness while under significant pressure. It was probably more difficult for Mom because she had lived alone, with everything exactly the way she wanted it in her house, for 30–35 years. And, she was the one facing the unknown process of dying.

Mom said she was happiest when we were all together.

1960 in Great Bend (my dad built that TV from a Heathkit and installed it in the wall); 1999 — New York City; 2013 — Hutchinson (when Bill was back before Mom got sick)

Feeling powerless isn’t comfortable for anyone — and especially not for me, my brother, or our mom. Some of our family attributes (learned or passed down in the DNA?) are taking care of others, fixing problems, and making things run smoothly. Recognizing powerlessness can lead to frustration, often expressed as irritation or depression, or in our family — excessive cooking. We managed to muddle through together, comforting and supporting each other on the journey.

Death isn’t something you can fix, or make happen smoothly. Death has it’s own timing and process. I’ve come to believe that death is a solitary experience for the person making the passage. The rest of us are pretty much helpless to do anything except be present with the person as they make their transition.

Accepting powerlessness. Knowing what is coming cannot be stopped. Figuring out how to stay present and calm in the face of the unknown. Finding joy in small moments.
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