Saturday, January 5, 2008

In her own way

She sits on a chair, her arthritic, crippled hands folded in her lap. Like an airplane docked at the jetway, waiting for clearance to push-back and take-off, her black, sturdy walker is situated beside her for easy access should she decide to flee this place she does not want to be.

She is tiny. Birdlike. Her hair frames the delicate features of her face, a smooth helmet of white. At 85 she is still a very beautiful woman. Deep, dark eyes. Smooth forehead. Full lips. Her name evokes spring flowers posing in the sun, but to me she will always be known as, mum. I want to tell her the beauty I see in her, but somehow the words don't come out. I listen silently to her lament.

"I don't like it here," she says in a querulous voice, her trademark stubbornness, weaker, but still running freely beneath her words. Stubbornness runs in our family like an underground spring, breaking free whenever someone tries to force it back underground.

"No one likes it here," my sister replies gently.

"I don't want to be here" she asserts, her tiny chin jutting out from the collar of her floral blouse. I think of a robin nipping at its chicks, coaxing them to take flight. That leading chin. Right now, with her black eye and scraped face, she looks like it lead her into a fight. I see its quick uplift and quickly tuck mine in. Like my mother, my chin always leads.

"No one wants to be here," I chime in. "But it's a good place for you to be right now. This is where you can get the help you need."

"I don't need help," she replies. "I need to go home and sleep in my own bed. I don't sleep here." The sound of tears building momentum percolates through her words. "I can't sleep here. I move one way and the blankets are too heavy. I move another and my back hurts. One of the nurses told me I have the oldest bed in the place. It doesn't work right. The room's too cold. I get up seven times during the night to use the washroom and when I come back to bed I'm shivering so hard my whole body hurts..."

She doesn't have room to catch her breath. The tears push forward. She pushes back. Her fear mounts clogging the exits, forcing her tears underground.

Life is changing. My mother has had a lifetime of change and no matter how hard she is fighting it, she knows this hospital stay possibly marks the final note in her independent living. She can feel the closing of doors, the giving away of her things, the tearing apart of her life, the seeping away of her independence. The future looms. A custody battle between her right to live her life as she sees fit and the need for her to be cared for by others. The need for her to be safe.

She hasn't had it long. Independence that is. Married to my father for 52 years, she was never independent. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship. Fraught with tears and anger, pleas for understanding, yelling to be heard, constant jockeying of responsibilities and bills to be paid and children to be fed, their marriage was a constant struggle of two people coping with a life they never dreamt of having.

"Marriage was very different than what I imagined it to be when I was young," she told me the other day. "The first few years were okay. And then the last five were wonderful. But there were all those years in between." She sighs and looks at me. I can see the memory of my father flicker across her face on a blanket of sadness and regret. "I only wish the last five could have lasted longer."

"Five wonderful years are better than none," I remind her.

Another sigh. "Yes. I suppose you're right. I should be happy for what I had."

But she's not happy right now. She's in a place where people tell her what to do, when to do it, where to do it. She's in a place where she's denied the very things she has used throughout her life to cope with a world she's never had the ability to understand. The very things that have put her in this place in the first place; the self-prescribed cocktails that have helped her cope with her physical and emotional pain.

They've taken away her pain-killers. "I can live without those," she whispers. "But I can't live with this bone-chilling cold."

I wonder if she's speaking of her fear. I wonder if what is so hard to live with is the future where she no longer works herself to bone-tiredness in the kitchen because, "I love to bake," she says. "It's what I do." I wonder if she is afraid of losing that which gives her life meaning -- doing for others to the point of where she undoes herself with the pain of her fragile bones, swollen and distorted from arthritis, hammering a painful tattoo from the inside out, struggling for release from the skin that keeps the pain locked in and keeps her body here on earth.


I understand her fear. I understand her need to keep things the same, to not let go, to not give into other people telling her what is best for her.

"I know what's best for me," she asserts. "I'll be okay when I go home," she says.

My sister and I share a look above her head. What can we say?

She is scared.

"Don't get old," she whispers. "It's no fun."

In a life where memories of moments of fun were few and far between, getting old has become the greatest betrayal of all.

I have no words to take away her fear. No magic wand to wave. No spell to cast. I have only my love. And the ability to speak to her of her beauty.

What will be will be. Last night, she agreed that perhaps a lodge of some sort would be best. It is a start. It is a beginning, a light on the path of well-being that she can tread gently as she eases herself into the waters of change that are swirling around her. Within those waters there is a pool of calm, of wellness, of peacefulness. She will find it as she always has in her own way, chin leading.

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