Word problem: How long does it take to move 125 pounds of 83 year-old, moving at approximately .0018 miles per hour, with an opposing wind speed of 10 knots, across a polished wood surface?
If you’re in your mid-to-late 40s, or (ahem) 50, this is a question to ponder.
Mom and I spend a lot of time staring into each others’ eyes: She clenches my shoulders in a vice-grip, concentrating on lifting a foot. I say, “shift your weight.” Her brow creases as she comes up on tiptoe. I sway her back to regain center, then tilt side-to-side, mimicking a walking gait, and she moves toward me. I’ve learned that for the best support, I place hands on my shoulders and rest my own hands along her bra line.
When it comes to sitting though, her grip often shifts upward.
“Mom, you’re hurting me,” I tell her as her hands slip up to my neck.
The trick is not to rush, which is the challenge. Mom and I move through the world at a different speed now. The past four years have taught me that much.
Two years ago we graduated from walker to wheelchair. It was not graceful or painless. Mom’s spine twists a bit more every year and walking unassisted is no longer possible for her.
We make many clumsy public appearances. Before I expose my ignorance, you must understand the steep learning curve daughters and mothers endure at this juncture in life. Learning to navigate the unfamiliar climate changes of an aging parent is metaphorically speaking, the Himalaya of life lessons: wrought with crevasses, frostbite and an oxygen-depleted atmosphere caused not by altitude, but from holding one’s breath in frustration.
On this day four years ago, my sister Sue, mom and I were in front of Bread and Deli in Kukui Grove Shopping Center, with mom at her walker. Sue was behind, (cattle prodding) and I was in front saying, “here girl!” For a moment Sue and I both were distracted and mom slid forward with the walker but without moving her feet. Suddenly she was a plank at 30 degrees, white knuckling the handles with her toes nailed to the concrete. I panicked and pushed the walker toward her to catch the fall. Her eyes were wide, her mouth a tight seam of irritation.
Sue and I stared at each other a moment, then broke into fits of laughter at how close we came to face-planting our mother on cement.
“You two are idiots,” Mom growled. And rightly so.
Of course this scene could not go unwitnessed. In the window seat of the deli sat a young couple and their baby looking wide-eyed with horror.
Sue and I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the hysteria of those who’ve dealt with a lot of stress and finally a pressure valve had blown.
For those who’ve not lived with an aging parent this may sound like elder abuse. Until you’ve looked under your mother’s hood (and by hood I mean Depends) to change the oil (and by oil I mean, well, you know what I mean), then please suspend judgment.
My dad flew off the planet fast; one week he was peddling his bike to church, the next he was dying in a hospital with a brain tumor. Mom on the other hand, is taking her time. It’s hard and funny; traumatic and utterly intimate. She is falling to pieces with her mind in tact and we are all doing our best to bring compassion to the fore.
With compassion comes the rigorous care required when dealing with a body shutting down.
In March mom moved in with my husband and I. She’ll be here for four months, then cycle back to the Mainland to live with another daughter. Sitting at the foot of her bed one morning in April as she slowly woke, she looked down the length of the bed at me and said, “I wonder how I could have done this differently.”
I asked, “What?”
“This,” she said. “So I’m not such a burden to you kids.”
I reminded her of all the healing that had occurred in her relationship with one of my sisters.
“And it’s because of taking care of you mom,” I said. “Healing is not all “Kumbaya” and let’s hug it out. Sometimes it’s messy. We wouldn’t be where we are today if you’d done it differently. Thank you.”
My sisters and I are enrolled in life’s oldest assignment; one with no course description or syllabus and no instructors. This homework is unique to every individual. We all arrive on Earth through the same channel, but in death there are many exit strategies. I only hope to meet it with a measure of courage and grace.
Meanwhile, there is work to be done.