Small Repairs

Once again I have said goodbye to my mother. She lives in New Mexico and each November I travel from California to visit her. Last year she broke her hip, and so I was there twice.

Each time I visit my mother someone accompanies me, a sister or my partner, though once I did go alone and it wasn’t easy driving across the desert wondering what might happen to me if the car broke down. About forty-five minutes from my destination I had to take a comfort break, and reluctantly I pulled into the only rest area on that desolate route. I had not seen another soul for many miles, and you can imagine my unease when another car pulled up right behind me—a man of course. Men can relieve themselves pretty much anywhere, so naturally I was suspicious. I deliberated behind the wheel a moment but my need was too urgent, and as I hurried into the building I imagined him right behind me. My last five minutes on earth, that’s what I was thinking. No one would ever know what had happened to me. I’d wind up in his trunk, or out there somewhere, my lifeless body withering behind a clump of sagebrush. False alarm. I passed him on the way back to my car and he didn’t even look at me.

Getting to Carlsbad is never easy, requiring two plane trips and a long drive. Other than the famous caverns, this hot dusty place has little to recommend it. Still, my mother likes the town, and my sisters and I no longer encourage her to move to a more accessible area; I wouldn’t want to be pestered either. And I understand the comfort she must feel living in a town she knows and trusts. Our senses dim as we age, and this inability to perceive things as clearly as we used to can make the world a threatening place.  Familiarity is invaluable.

Much is accomplished on these yearly visits. One of us takes my mother’s car in for servicing and stocks up on supplies, while another tackles the household chores and yardwork. My mother has limited mobility and can no longer manage tasks that involve strength or dexterity. She should not in fact be living alone, which is something we don’t discuss because we all know the difficulties involved in a transition. For one thing, she is not wealthy; the sort of the retirement home she could afford is the sort we wouldn’t want to see her in. Nor does she wish to live among others. She is a lone wolf and has managed so long on her own that cohabitation would likely finish her off.

So we do with her what we can. We buy easy-reach tools, install grab bars, replace the nonskid stickers in her shower. We change the ink in her printer and order foam mattress pads to ease her aching shoulders. We clean her bathroom floors, hem her pants, bandage whatever wounds she’s acquired. And we try to do these things tactfully, to make light of them. To spare her.

At the end of each day we watch some TV, play card games, share stories (carefully avoiding politics and social issues; a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, my mother can’t fathom our liberal views.) Struggling for common ground, we retrieve mismatched memories and laugh over many of them before falling into silence. Time is running low and we can’t think what to say. If our feelings are hurt by some offhand remark, we don’t let on. Intent on minimizing damage, we skirt any trouble and keep an eye on the clock.

At the front door we say goodbye and this is the moment when my mother seems to shrink. I look back and see a tiny bent-over woman gripping the doorknob, lifting the other hand to wave. She is scared and relieved at once, sad that we are leaving and eager to reclaim her solitude. And so are we. Flying home, we will think of questions we meant to ask, things we should have done. There is more to do here, there is always more to do, but for now she is okay. We will also wonder if we have just seen her for the last time, but this thought is too painful and we push it away. As many times as it returns, we push it away.

My mother can be harsh, no question about that. I am a dutiful daughter, I’ve been told, for making this trip each year. I don’t see it that way. I feel no moral obligation to visit my mother. I go there because she is a frail woman whose life has not been easy and it makes me feel better to help her. She should be living in more sensible housing, with a walk-in tub and nonslip floors and no stairs, but she is not. She is where she wants to be. What is there to do but pick up our tools and make the best of it? Ongoing, seemingly futile, what matters more than these small repairs?

Timely Gifts

A friend of mine is turning sixty, and she is not having an easy time of it. I want to give her a birthday card that will lift her spirits, remind her of the blessings that come with age. Looks like I’ll have to create one myself.

If I were searching for something crass and mocking, I’d have no trouble at all. There is a plethora of cards that poke fun at getting older, most of them illustrated with repulsive photos or cartoons. Somehow it’s easier for us to laugh at old age than to say anything nice about it. I do have a sense of humor, and there is no denying that laughter is good medicine. I just wonder why the difficult and tender process of growing older has become a joke.

“I hope I become a sweet old lady,” I once told a friend, “and not a cranky one.” He looked at me and shrugged. “You’ll just become more of what you are.” I’ve thought often about that remark and I believe he is right. How we grow is up to us. We bestow on ourselves our own largess or meanness, and we are all, every moment, setting an example.

There are elderly people who routinely disparage their lot, reminding anyone who will listen that being old is a cruel affliction filled with pain and devoid of pleasure. Is there anyone at any age who wants or needs this message? Isn’t the expression of these thoughts a cruelty in itself? If we can’t serve as inspirations, might we at least offer comfort?

“Dirty Harry” was once a favorite movie of mine. Now it is far too brutal. My friends tell me that they have become similarly sensitive. As our actual skin thins, so does our emotional armor. This keen awareness of the suffering of others strikes me as something of value.

It’s not so easy, in our days of youth and vigor, to experience this sort of empathy. Compassion seems to require a certain number of years. From it flows kindness, another gift of age. With these two qualities, the world around us expands, becomes suffused with a sudden heart-breaking beauty for which we are inexpressibly grateful. Compassion. Kindness. Gratitude. For some people, these hard-won talents are all the compensation they need.

A woman in her eighties gave me the best lesson in aging I ever received. Every time I see her she is wearing a gentle smile. I praised her for it one day, and she touched my arm and said, with perfect seriousness, “Oh honey, you have to smile—it makes you feel better.”