I spent a summer weekend in my hometown of Cleveland, to mark my mother’s 85th birthday. It was a relief to return home, not for one of my Mom’s increasingly frequent health crises, but for a gathering of my small family, a modest celebration. I arrived first, before my younger brother and his wife. (My older brother was typically AWOL). And so my mother and I spent Friday evening catching up, in the small apartment of the independent living center she now calls home.
The previous week was hectic. I hadn’t been feeling well; my various maladies, including restless sleep, bleeding gums, dry eyes, and a stiff neck, had combined to make me feel old, cranky, and tired. Though I wanted to be present for my mother’s birthday, I knew that three days with Mom would not provide the rest and relaxation my body needed.
Still, I was determined to make the best of it, to be present for my mother, who had come through a series of ‘unfortunate events’ over the past several years, a series that included two falls, multiple fractures, a ruptured appendix, memory loss, and more. Somehow, my 100-pound mother has weathered the storm and come out, if not intact, still functional, still essentially herself. Though she remains frail, a small-boned woman, barely five-feet tall, she has actually gotten stronger in the past year, and is walking better after months of daily exercise fueled by her determination to keep walking on her own two feet.
One of the key factors in Mom’s recovery was her (reluctant) willingness, after several years of discussion, to move into an independent living center near her home. The center is bright, comfortable, and on first glance, looks more like a ski lodge or a country inn than an institution for the elderly. But a closer look reveals the truth; men are few and far between and many of the female residents seem frailer than my mother, navigating the wide hallways with the help of walkers and aides.
My mother was reluctant to leave her single-family home, which was located in an upscale condo complex a stone’s throw from the Center. She’d moved to her new house in 1989, the year after my father died. Seven years later she remarried, and eventually lost her second husband to old age and dementia. After his death, my mother thrived; freed from the responsibility of caretaking, she seemed relieved and liberated. She had daily lunch dates with a range of friends, many of whom she’d known since high school or college; her social calendar was often full.
But then came a medical crisis –- a ruptured appendix –- that led to emergency surgery. Mom spent three weeks in the hospital, ravaged by a serious infection, followed by a stint in rehab. Eventually she did recover, but that recovery took months of physical therapy and determination. Aides stayed with her at her house, 24/7 at first, and then gradually, cutting back their hours until Mom was on her own.
But my mother never fully recovered her memory after that hospitalization. Coming out of surgery, and for days and weeks afterward, Mom’s sense of time was slippery, her memory unreliable. As she got stronger, her mind became clearer, but her short-term memory never returned to normal. Over time, both her friends and family saw evidence of confusion, of a certain mental fuzziness, a souvenir of her hospital visit and the general anesthesia that both saved and reduced the quality of her life.
Now, sitting in the fading light of a summer evening, my mother admitted for the first time that the Center was a better place, that her life was better than it had been during those last months at home. I complimented Mom on how well she looked –- after losing weight steadily over the course of several years from the stress of taking care of her ill husband, and then living alone, and barely eating -- my mother has put on 15 pounds in the past year, weight she desperately needed. And her memory, while still shaky, is better too –- the stimulation of being around others, of going to lectures, classes, and clubs instead of watching TV alone at home –- means that Mom is using the mental capacity she has left.
Sitting with her, I told her that it’s a huge relief for me, knowing that she’s not alone, and that she has friends and things to do in her new home. “They’re not friends, they’re acquaintances,” my Mom said. That makes sense; she’s known these people for six or eight months, while she’s maintained friendships with folks in the “outside world” for six or seven decades. But she agreed that this is the right place for now. “This is much better for me at this stage of my life,” and it struck me that her admission –- one my brother claimed our mother would never make –- is honest, brave, and a bit sad.
“I’m making the best of it,” she said, and I recognize that’s what I also could and should do, in managing my own physical problems, which pale in comparison to my mother’s.
As I drove through heavy rain toward Akron/Canton Airport, I felt buoyed by my mother’s example, by this woman who I’ve finally come to recognize in her 80s –- a small, frail, determined woman who has taught me much of what I know, both good and bad, and who will not ‘go gently into that good night.’
Judah Leblang is a writer, teacher and storyteller based in Boston, and the author of the memoir, “Finding My Place: One Man’s Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond.” To order the book, and for information on his upcoming show at Arlington Street Church, go to judahleblang.com