This morning I sat outside in the courtyard of Mom’s assisted living home, listening to the sparrows and jays calling to one another. Summer grasshoppers buzzed continuously in the background as the sun rose over the rooftop and woke up the hibiscus. Coffee in hand, it reminded me of another time in my life, years ago, when camping was a part of my life. I am not usually a morning person. But waking up inside a chilly tent, hearing the sound of the zipper opening, and crawling outside into the natural world made that time of day an entirely different reality. Nothing beat campfire coffee, warm light streaming through the trees, and the “good morning” greetings from animal neighbors.
It was the same sort of feeling today, as I sat there thinking a lot about Mom. I had just come from the hospital, where her doctor said it was time to put her on hospice. This wasn’t a shock; in fact, I’d been thinking about this a lot lately and had even talked to a hospice social worker. Still, there was something more definitive about it when it came directly from him. It was more real. I was trying to sort through my feelings and thoughts when I returned from meeting with him–thoughts that bounced from graceful acceptance to profound sadness to certainty that a conspiracy theory existed in the medical community against Mom. I hoped sitting outside might help. But in fact, the peace of the courtyard served to clear my mind of any prospect of concentration or clarity, as though I were on a low-dose morphine drip, and my thoughts drifted off to writing.
As writers, we are taught that the beginning and ending of a story must be both meaningful and memorable, or else the story in between doesn’t matter. Really? Fiction is meant to be reflective of real life, so it can help us better understand real life. But few of us remember our births, and it remains to be seen whether we’ll remember our deaths, so how can that mean that our life stories in between those bookends don’t matter? I don’t know my mother’s beginning, and we have not yet come to her end, but her life matters immensely to me, which is why deciding on hospice for her is one of the most important decisions I’ll ever face.
I once gave her a framed print that said, “A Girl’s Best Friend is Her Mother.” I was somewhere in my adulthood at the time, well past those teen years when my mom and I didn’t see eye to eye, and well into my own years as a parent, but long before she started sliding down life’s steep hill. At that phase in my life, she indeed was my best friend, always happy to hear my voice calling, always willing to listen without doling out advice. She made me feel like a valuable person in a way that others didn’t or couldn’t. And yet, there was always a thin wall between us; we were two very different people, and there was something unnamable that prevented her from really understanding who I was. As time has worn on, that wall has thickened the way arteries build up with plaque, and Loss has already come calling.
In “Escape from Spiderhead,” (Tenth of December, George Saunders) a dying character says that his only regret “was Mom. I hoped someday, in some better place, I’d get a chance to explain it to her, and maybe she’d be proud of me, one last time, after all these years.” In my case, it looks like Mom will be passing on before me (whether or not we decide to go the hospice route), but the chronology of parting ways, or how memorable her ending might be, isn’t what matters. It’s the loss of a relationship–no matter its flaws. The recognition that my chances for getting her to understand me better–to be proud of me–are dissipating. And the fear that the story behind her life will no longer matter to the world.