As the atavistic adage goes: “With age comes wisdom” if you look and listen well. Old age may suck as you watch your parents' friends and family members die and as their own bodies break down if they're lucky enough to reach their Eighties and then Nineties.
I know this firsthand. I have watched my mother hit 80, 85, 90, 95, and soon 97! How remarkable, my friends say. And I know I’m lucky to have her around. However, it's become an increasingly time consuming second job for me to be there emotionally and physically, socially, even if not financially, to help her on her journey.
I took on this responsibility after promising my late father more than 24 years ago that I would always be there for her. As we were standing at the kitchen sink of my parents’ home in suburban New York decades ago, he casually urged me to help take care of my mother after he was gone. Of course, I readily agreed, knowing that I would be the only one to be so available and involved. At age 75, he developed Alzheimer’s, and then died five years later.
On some level, it seemed a natural progression for me to care and include my mother in my life. My parents were good role models. They had long included singles and friends and family of all ages in their home. They never took the "Noah's Ark" view of socializing; you had to have a partner to be included.
After I was divorced, suddenly single, and debating where to live on my own, I moved back East. In large measure, it was to be closer to my mom. At the same time, I got the major benefit of living closer to my grown daughters. Living in upstate New York, I regularly drove the two hours to my mother's apartment in NYC to "fetch" her when she no longer could take the train to me. Going both ways in one day became grueling and tougher as traffic increased. And I was aging, too.
The responsibilities of caring for my mother began to mount like a pile of unpaid bills. I visited her at her home. I also prepared foods she liked as she found it harder to grocery shop and cook, and I wanted to leave her with a full larder when she wasn't staying with me. Yes, she could order food for delivery by phone but she liked my cooking better. I often shopped for clothing for her as she found it harder to stand on her feet and even get on and off a bus. She began to spend all holidays and even weekends with me.
Soon, I made it my business to include her on my social outings when friends invited me and sometimes on a date. I quickly asked them, "My mom's here might she join us?" Almost all said "yes" since they found her engaging, smart and loved hearing the wonderful stories. She shared about growing up in Indianapolis and Columbus, heading East to work as a dietician in a hospital where she met my father, a young doctor in training, sharing about living in the same community for 42 years, and now relishing being a great-grandmother for the first time.
When "Fixup" walked into my life, I put the question to him without hesitating. She was part of the package. The gist of my conversation with Fixup was something to this effect, "She's an integral part of my life and my girls’ lives, visits regularly and if that bothers you, let's not pursue our relationship. I can't abandon her. My girls will help but they've got very busy lives, and she's more my responsibility than theirs." He quickly said it was fine and added that he liked my mother. Phew, I remember thinking.
Fixup has been a trouper; his actions proved better than his word. He accompanied me to her home regularly, went out for lunch and dinner with us, to movies as a threesome, and engaged my mom in conversation since she needed others to talk to beside me, as her own social circle began to diminish. He drives her to my library when I'm busy and where she's a regular searching for new large-print books. He often makes his signature salads when he's visiting and she so enjoys his creative, healthy concoctions. He even helped "diagnose" her lactose-intolerance, a condition he also has. And he performs all the niceties that older folks need--offering a hand to help her walk across a street or down a path where there may be bumps or a change in level. The list goes on and on.
As I continue to receive invitations from friends, if my mom is visiting, I continue to say: "We'd love to come, but is it OK that my mom comes, too?" Almost all still say “yes.” My mother is now included in an annual New Year's Eve weekend 1 1/2 hours away with my long-time friends, including one from second grade. Most find she's smarter than ever and are even more amazed that her memory is so razor sharp. Some even ask if she can be their surrogate Mom.
When Fixup and I are able to steal away alone--since we both still work fulltime and don't plan to retire, we know we can't leave her for more than six days on her own. Our long-hoped for journeys to South Africa, Vietnam, Iceland, Alaska, and Scandinavia are on hold. There's time, we hope.
Yes, it can be trying at times, when I've heard the same story 10, 50, or even, maybe, 100 times. Yes, it can be brutal, too, when her filter fails, as it often does with aging folks. That’s when she says something out loud in public like: "Have you talked to your doctor about those extra pounds?" Or, she's admonished me, "I don't like that salad, please don't make it again." And it can be annoying when she doesn't hear so much of what we say—“What? What did you say?” but won't wear a hearing aid.
Friends remind me--and I know--"You're so lucky to still have her." Yes, I am but....as I read signs for her at art museums, help her so she doesn't miss a step and fall, remind her to take her cane or walker when we go out, or try to find something she can do to help I start to feel exhausted. Yet, I keep trying. Not too long ago I suggested she sit down in a comfortable chair and cut apples for a pie I was making since she likes to feel useful. I also recently took her to a mahjong game to try it since she used to like bridge. She didn't but was glad she went.
I've seen up close that truckloads of empathy and compassion are critical at this stage in life for my mom, but also for my own sense of kindness and caring. It’s also a way to show my two daughters and even young grandson the importance of being there for others, especially when they’re really old.
I hope that as I age Fixup will still be in my life, and that we, a good twosome, can always include someone to be a wonderful threesome.
Even numbers are so overrated.