We call her a “freak of nature.” Not to her face, mind you. At ninety-five, my mother is in less control of her emotions, and what we might think is gentle teasing hurts her. She doesn’t enjoy the “compliments” to her long, disease-free life. Not when she has lost older and younger siblings to heart disease, colon cancer, emphysema, and (of all things unimaginable) a freak train accident.
She was born into a farming family, one of twelve children. Older than five and younger than six of her siblings, I suspect she never had an easy time in the middle that she shared with a sister. Everyone looks up to the oldest, everyone dotes on the youngest, and the middle children fend for themselves.
Now she is the oldest of her remaining siblings, and I don’t think she cares for the status much.
We live several states apart and I rely on her to update me on the activities of my many cousins.
“Everyone is falling apart,” she said after giving me a long list of the various illnesses, deterioration, and hospitalizations in my immediate and extended family. This after I told her that I have arthritis in both knees and have been using a cane to lighten the burden on my knees.
I wasn’t complaining since my case is mild, and I have some control over whether my knees will get worse. Still I did say I hoped to stop using the cane. Her response: “If it helps, what’s the problem?”
That’s a version of one of my mother’s mottoes: “If it will help, then do it.” She has little patience with people who refuse to use assistive devices because of vanity or simple stubbornness. She who recently discovered airport assistive transport for seniors, which enables her to still travel when she might otherwise have stopped. If it helps, use it.
I already knew that my arthritic knees were a mild impairment relative to the pain and discomfort that plague many people I know. But my mother went on with the litany of family ailments:
- Two relatives with multiple sclerosis (MS), one now in a wheelchair, the other being hospitalized for uncontrollable pain.
- Another relative hospitalized because she suddenly couldn’t breathe and had to call 911.
- A family member struggles with Parkinson’s Disease.
- The mother of a relative might have dementia.
- Another relative is having difficulty walking, something might be wrong with her legs.
- A toddler might have Lyme Disease.
In reality, the list is much longer as you would expect in a large extended family. My mother lives in the thick of it, and yet is approaching her ninety-sixth birthday unscathed. Aside from one car accident nearly fifty years ago, the worst health event of her life has been a bad case of the common cold.
I imagine her sitting and watching as her remaining siblings and my generation crumble before her eyes.
“Everyone is falling apart.” She said this several times during our forty-minute phone call. She feels helpless, she says. She can’t stop time. She can’t stop us from yielding to our morbidities and mortality while she watches, helpless to help us.
I imagine her sitting at her window, watching the birds,
seeing each Cardinal, Robin, and Grosbeak
as representing a member of her shrinking family,
seeing the birds fly away, and pleading quietly so no one hears:
“Please, wait for me.”