By Lynn M. Gibson
A Web Exclusive
My mother is sleeping tonight in a hospital bed, and I watch as the antibiotic drips slowly into her body through an intravenous tube. It’s 3 a.m. and the on-duty nurse has just checked her vital signs before whisking out of the room to see her next patient. Although the hospital is silent at this moment, I am aware that it really teems with life, with illness, and with death. I try to sleep in the corner chair that is supposed to offer at least physical comfort to those who keep watch over their loved ones. I shift my aching body and the stiff pillow for at least the tenth time. It is not surprising that the chair and pillow offer me no physical comfort, for the painful silence of the hospital offers only the emotional exhaustion that comes from months of worry about my mother.
The only sounds now are the quiet whirring and sucking of the lifesaving medical equipment that helps keep my mother’s roommate alive.
I watch my mother sleeping peacefully, the rise and fall of her deep breathing accentuated by her slim body and tiny face.
For a moment, time stands still.
I am alone in the world with my mother.
And I realize that I’m crying.
Navigating the emotional terrain of my mother passing through the world of “young-old” into that of “old-old” brings with it an aching pain that I am unaccustomed to feeling. I am ill at ease in this hospital world and I want to hide from it tonight. Desperately. But where can I go? This is a place from which I cannot hide. There is nowhere to go because if I flee, I leave my mother behind. I leave myself behind.
I cannot leave her. I cannot leave myself.
My love of our elders stems from long ago. My fondest memories from childhood are of my grandmother, my father’s mother, who lived with us after her first stroke. The day of my First Communion, as my grandmother was getting on the bus to come to Rockford, she was stricken with an aneurism. My life changed from that day on. My grandmother was one of the most wonderful women I had ever known. Her kindness, internal strength, and understanding helped me navigate the sometimes difficult era of my elementary school years. In school, I was a shy, quiet little girl living in a world of loud, boisterous children. I had a few friends who were like me. How we longed to escape the confines of shyness and be like the others.
My grandmother knew this. She watched while I played with my toys in a make-believe world of confidence and self-esteem. She knew. She knew what it was like to be like me – quiet, afraid, lacking confidence. The day she told me that she knew, I stared at her in wide-eyed awe. My grandmother had raised six children alone after my grandfather died. In virtual poverty, she brought up her three girls and three boys to be loving, generous adults. From that day forward, I knew I could gain the confidence to be whom and what I wanted to be. Now years later, I know that my grandmother watches over me and must be smiling (at least most of the time!) at the mother I have become.
I thank God that my mother and father had the sense of spirit and caring to bring my grandmother to a home already filled to the brim with six children. At my mother’s insistence, my grandmother slept in their room for the years she lived with us after her stroke. My parents gave up much of their time and material possessions to have my grandmother with us. But what they gave their children went far beyond material things…something priceless…a sense that our elders have much to teach us, much to give us. That we cannot live without them and the wisdom they have gained through their life experiences. That we are blessed to have them in our lives.
My own children are as fortunate as I was. We live a mile from my parents and are able to visit with them frequently. We travel together. We celebrate birthdays, holidays, and special occasions together. Our children are very close to their grandparents. I hope that someday they will understand the immeasurable value of spending time with their grandparents.
I want it to last forever. I want my parents to live forever.
Tonight I know that they won’t.
My mother has unwillingly entered the landscape of age, the journey into old age. And she is pulling me along with her because I cannot let her go. Although my mother is not near death tonight, she is incredibly fragile. She has crossed the bridge from young-old to old-old where the ability to travel, visit with friends, and cook large dinners for family will never return. She is ill with congestive heart failure that has plagued her family for generations. The doctors tell us that her condition is “livable and treatable.” But someday soon it will take her life. And I will cling to her for as long as I’m allowed. I pray that she is with us for years to come.
Tonight I see ghosts of the anguished faces of my friends and relatives who have traveled to this place before me. I remember their words, their emotions, their pain as they described the difficulty of watching their parents become ill. Of watching them die. The helplessness of it all.
I stand up and pace the floor of the small hospital room. It is 3:30 a.m. now. A cold silence, like the white tiled floor beneath my feet, greets my anguish at the inability to help my mother get well. To help her become young-old again. To alleviate her pain.
All my life I have been a “solutions-oriented” person. Let’s fix it. Just do it.
In this place, “just do it” doesn’t exist. Just do it is for the young. For the middle aged. Perhaps even for the young-old. There is no capacity for “just do it” in this troubled passage, this turning of life’s tide, this changing of the guard where the children become the parents and the parents become the children.
My hurried pace slows until I’m standing at my mother’s bedside. Her face is radiant and she is as beautiful as ever. Her soft, grey hair curls gently around her thin face. She is sleeping peacefully. Quietly, I kneel on the floor next to her and gently hold her hand. Her fingers are long and elegant. Piano fingers, I used to think while growing up. How I wished for those fingers as I looked at my stubby little ones as a young child. I remember the day when I realized that my hands were near replicas of my mother’s. The day someone who didn’t know me knew who I was because I bear a remarkable resemblance to her. My smile must have lasted for weeks.
Her hands are warm on my skin and I rest my head next to her tiny, fragile body. Tears run down my cheeks and I begin sobbing like the young child I once was. I am that child again and I want my mother to take away the hurt. To kiss the pain away. To tell me that everything will be all right. To hold me close to her when I’m afraid. And I’m afraid tonight.
I think of my father. He will be here in a few hours to spend time with my mother, his wife of 53 years and the mother of his six children. Yesterday before he left, he held my mother’s hand and said, “You can’t leave me now. We’ve been together forever.” What does one do when the partner of a lifetime is facing massive changes in lifestyle? Changes that only the elderly or very ill face. Changes that take away the freedom and pleasure of just being alive. And that eventually take away life.
My mother stirs and opens her eyes. Those sky blue eyes that as a child at once fascinated me, disciplined me with one look, and gazed at me lovingly as I grew up and became a mother. I can see that she is initially confused by her surroundings. She looks at me and then recognition dawns in her eyes that she is in the hospital. The smile she gives me is meant to reassure me that everything will be okay. The same smile she used to give me when I had to give a speech in front of the class or when I skinned my knees. The smile that mothers give their children to let them know how much they are loved and wanted, that they will always be there for them, that everything will work out for the best.
“It will be all right, Lynn. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” she whispers softly with a confidence neither she nor I feel.
At this moment, I realize that my mother has spent her lifetime kissing away my pain and teaching me to handle, and even embrace, life’s challenges. Her kisses still hold magic; and with the exception of my father, no one else in my life has been able to offer that kind of kiss. Only parents can do it for their children. It’s a one-of-a-kind kiss.
With a flash of understanding so profound that it leaves me breathless, I can feel the incredible depth of the mother/child bond, a new comprehension of this “circle of life.” That no matter how much we, at times, run from its very existence, we will always circle back to the woman who gave birth to us. To the parents who raised us. To the very beginning of our existence.
I know now that what is happening tonight is meant to be, is supposed to occur. It is as natural as a child at play, as a marriage between two people who love each other, as the crashing of the waves upon the shore.
By caring for and loving our parents, we hold the key to this recurring, innate circle of life. We teach our own children to care for us, to care for their elders by modeling kindness, acceptance, and by just being there when we’re needed. We teach our children, and remind ourselves, to age with courage, dignity, and grace. We teach them that growing old is mostly a state of mind but sometimes a state of body. They learn the importance of listening closely to their elders, the value of intertwining the generations to carry on tradition in order to create their own traditions.
My mother is sleeping again. Tomorrow will bring new challenges to her body, her soul, and her spirit. Challenges she has never faced before. Challenges her family will face with her but that she must ultimately face alone.
I pray that my children will have years to spend with their grandmother. Tonight I know they won’t.
Time stands still once again and we are alone in the world.
Mother and child holding hands. The generations united and bonded in a relationship so profound and significant that it nearly denies explanation and can only be felt with the heart.
I know that someday I will have to let go of my mother and learn to live without her. I am my own person, different from her in many ways. But tonight I know that, in many ways, I am my mother. I have her strength of character, her looks, her blue eyes, her hands, even her stubborn nature. The connection between us has been a lifetime in the making. And when she is gone from me someday, she will live in my heart and in the hearts of my children.
The circle of life continues as it should with all of its incredible glory and challenging times. My mother is again, tonight, teaching me the precious lessons of our elders. To live with passion. To grow old with grace. To die with acceptance.
Let me learn from her ways and teach my children the same so that generations to come will be blessed with her wisdom…the wisdom of our elders. My mother, myself. The circle of life continues as it is meant to unfold.
Lynn Gibson, from Rockford, Illinois, is a freelance writer and the mother of five children. She has a master’s degree in Educational Administration and writes grants nationally for school districts.