I can’t prove it, but I know it.
I’ve thought long of late on the lack of interest in old people in our society, how deep it goes. When does it begin? What makes it so easy for children or relatives to drift off?
I began thinking of old people last summer, when I effectively stripped myself of friends and family to take care of grandchildren. Everyone had a solution, but five different solutions weren’t the fix to one problem.
Another sort of loneliness opened to me about the same time. Jean, who wintered in Florida, and summered here in town, was someone’s mother. My friend would roll her eyes and tell stories of getting mom to and from Florida; the routes they must take, the fruit stands they must frequent, and the cross road stores. My friend relished the half of the journey she could speed on the interstate, hair flying, music blaring. She covered the big chunk of her heart consumed by the mother she did not have.
My mother was our family. We visited relatives when I was a child; the many on my father’s side of the family, the few on hers. As their husbands died, mom folded her sisters-in-law into her plans. But, not her mother. Jan and I included our mother in our day trips, but I saw to our grandmother, for as long as she lived alone.
Last summer my path crossed Jean’s, again. My friend told me, in a choked voice, she’d brought her mother from Florida and admitted her to Regina, in the locked ward. I went to see Jean. I think it was Labor Day weekend, and I had nowhere to go, in any event.
Regina emanates the grace of an old Catholic establishment. It is the peace that surrounded my Aunt Ruth, an IMH Sister. Jean and I visited for more than an hour. A sister invited me to stay to supper with Jean. Jean was the same old Jean, but who could not remember if she had been there an hour or a month, and knew her daughter had brought her. The longer I stayed the more often Jean told me she was no longer angry with her daughter.
I stopped in the lobby and texted my friend her mother was open to a visit. I know my friend visited, and I’m sure Jean made no effort to be on her best behavior.
It was easy for me to see Jean. Every other weekend Laura was with her mother, and I’d been invited nowhere, so I went to talk to Jean. My visits with Jean grew shorter; the strain of remembering who I’d said I was became apparent.
There was a three month break in visiting when I was hospitalized. Then it was Father’s Day. I took Laura, for what became a longer visit. Jean had a firm grip on the activities of childhood and asked about them. When we left, Laura took Jean’s hand and said she was pleased to have met her. I think that was the best part of Jean’s memory.
My biggest memory, then and every time, was all the old women, lining the walls, watching for a word, reaching out to touch first. I cried all the way home, every Sunday except Father’s Day when Laura was in the car. I cried for all the old women, and for my friend’s mother, who could not forgive her trip to Regina.
I don’t understand this behavior. My friend thinks because her mother was raised by a cold, cold stepmother, she had no relationship with family and with empathy, no experience in family bonds and exchange of civility.
What of children raised to know, who are within easy distance. How do they become so involved with friends, children, other family to forget a parent?
Jean died last month. My friend told me Jean had been moved to hospice. I got her room number and went to sit with her, at the end of her life. She was arranged uncomfortably in the bed. I found a nurse’s aide to make her more comfortable and easier breathing. Then I held her hand and thoroughly examined the peace of the room and the day outside the window. I did stare down a young nun who came to help Jean find the peace of some such thing, but who left to find something else to do.
I wondered about Jean’s spirit. We knew each other, but weren’t close acquaintances. I am her daughter’s friend, though Jean and I are of the next generation. Well, I’m not ninety, but we are of the generation of parents to our daughters. What is the disconnect, parent to child? Both sides, one side, some of each, both of each, none of each?
I was thinking of the room, the meadow, the blue sky, the shallow breathing, what bit of Jean’s spirit would linger for a time in the room, before drifting out to the blue sky? I didn’t know. When the young nun returned, a little more anxious and less discreet about wanting the side of the bed, I squeezed Jean’s hand, wished her God speed, and left.
Her daughter texted later that evening that Jean had passed. She’d finished drifting on. Jean told me once that the river was the biggest attraction she and her husband had to this valley. Perhaps she drifted south first.