“Did you have any fun this week?”
She looked back at me, pausing. I’m never certain whether the momentary spaces in the course of these conversations are thoughtful and reflective, or if she just didn’t hear me. Seated five feet away, it’s increasingly her inability to hear what I’ve said that results in these lapses.
I waited a moment more, trying to decide if I needed to restate the question, this time with more volume, as though I was projecting my speech to someone in the next room, which is often needed. I’m learning, first hand, how the effect upon conversation and, in a larger sense, how the ability to remain present in each others life becomes diminished by hearing loss on the part of one of the conversationalists. It’s slowly becoming clear to me how much of her life is becoming closed off by this and other impediments.
My mother and I have always talked. Even when I was doing my teenaged best to differentiate, to pull away from my parents, she found ways to keep me engaged, to keep me talking, to use conversation to sustain the bond, to know my mind, to stay in her sons life at a time when he was feeling his way into a larger world. Our conversations are becoming more difficult though. The hearing barrier is like encountering potholes on a familiar roadway, resulting in much bumping, much changing of course, and not a small amount of frustration.
This time, though, the question was heard but puzzling to her so, to help, I offered examples; had she met with friends where she lives to play cards or dominos? Had she been to the restaurant in the building for lunches or dinners? These clarifying questions worked; she replied with modest detail about the people she’d seen and spent time with throughout the week, showed me the book she’s reading and explained how its compactness made it a good thing to take along, in case she did not happen upon anyone to sit with at dinner, which almost never happens; she’d had plenty of company in the dining room this week.
In the end, the question was enough to propel the conversation forward again for a few minutes. Even with the stops and jerks of our dialogue, I tried, as I do each week, to use the conversation to understand not only the state of her circumstances, but of her state of mind and of her physical condition.
Our roles have reversed; it’s now me who uses conversation to sustain the bond, to know her mind, to stay in his mothers life at a time when she was feeling her way ever further into the unknown.
It is her condition that I hear about most readily, her hurts, her pains, infirmities which have no causation apart from the reality of her 96 years. We’ve made repeated attempts to mitigate those that seem to be treatable. Some have responded to the medical arts, others are beyond the various attentions of her physicians. The number of her “why?” questions about how she feels are increasingly unanswerable.
There was one such conversation in which she related the experience of leaving her apartment to play cards but finding herself unable to walk back to her apartment following the game. In the end, she tells me, she sat on the seat of her wheeled walker, while a couple of her friends rolled her to the elevator and finally back into her fourth floor apartment. The image is at once comic and troubling. It gave rise to a renewed discussion of the potential need to move to assisted living, one we’ve had on several occasions, all without resolution.
Not that she’s able to live without assistance now. For that she has my sisters and me. We took over most of the tasks of day-to-day living some time ago; house cleaning was first, followed over time by laundry, changing of bedding, grocery shopping, retrieval of her prescription meds, clothes shopping, mail collection, transportation to her doctor appointments, transportation to visit with friends.
She would prefer to stay in her comfortable surroundings, even though, over fourteen years, many of the people she knew when she gave up her house and moved here have either died or moved. Other people have taken their place in Mom’s life. Her best friend is there. Mom and Dad met Dorothy and her late husband when they were all retired snowbirds in Southern California years ago. She and Dorothy are all that are left of that California group, and now they live in the same building. It is an important bond.
Mom has managed in these adjusted circumstances for several years now. She is able to read her books, visit her friends, watch football or golf on TV on the weekends. But she becomes frustrated easily, over her lost ability, over the irresolvable pains, over the sheer amount of time she spends in her recliner. In her mind, she can still visualize going down to the garage, starting the car, going to the mall, to the drugstore, to the grocery store, to lunch with friends, friends she used to chauffer them because they had given up driving. It was a big part of her psychological independence and a point of pride. Last summer, with as much conviction as I have observed thus far, she opened one of our conversations with a direct question about how she should dispose of her car.
Incredible. And another difficult milestone.
As my sisters and I do more and more of the daily stuff of living for her, I am also aware of that which I can do nothing to make better. I can still talk her into better spirits, as I have since the death of my father, but it’s never a sure thing anymore. Mechanically, the conversation is increasingly difficult, but when my words get through, occasionally they don’t reach the same place in her as they once did.
Still, every week, we talk. We talk about her hurts. We talk about what she thinks about. I ask the same two questions; Do you still feel comfortable, still living here in your apartment? Do you feel safe?
And she wonders what’s ahead.
For now, I’m willing to give her some latitude about where and how she lives. There’s a lot that has already slipped away from her; I’m willing to help her sustain control over the parts of her life over which she has some small amount of control.
I’ve resigned myself to waiting this out. Unless there’s another accident in the apartment or she tells us she can’t get about well enough, I’m willing to defer to her, to grant to her her last little bit of self-determination. I don’t know how much further she can go, getting on in her own apartment, with the help of her children.
She is more needful than she ever has been, at an age her cardiologist never expected her to see. But as long as her mind is sound, and as long as she’s willing to talk things over with me each week, I’m willing to hang back and defer to her wishes for a while longer. It’s all I can do and I owe it to her.