April 3, 2018, Tuesday
As I was driving home from visiting Mom (it’s a two hour drive if I don’t stop for a bathroom break and there’s no traffic!) it occurred to me that the end of life mirrors the beginning of life.
Life is a parabola. We start out as helpless babies, growing, learning, doing, becoming. We crest – our career, our marriage, our family – whatever the high-points are for us individually. Then we begin the decline towards retirement, relaxation, when we’re no longer striving but being.
I remember my dad telling me about his school reunions. “In the beginning,” he said, “everyone talks about their careers, how successful they are. As the years go by, talk is less about what you’ve accomplished and more about family, memories.”
And after that. The inevitable decline towards end of life.
Babies sleep a lot. In fact, that’s mostly what they do for the first few months. Now, my mother sleeps most of the day. She is no longer interested in participating in life. The place where she is most content is in her bed.
At the beginning of life we nurse our babies or feed them with a bottle. I hold the straw while my mom sips from her cup. She tries to hold it, hands shaking. Tries to find her mouth with the straw, sometimes misses while I gently guide it to her mouth.
We feed our children with a spoon until they are able to feed themselves. The caregivers feed my mother a few spoonfuls of applesauce in the morning; it’s all she’ll eat.
Babies grow new teeth. Old people lose them. When my grandmother was in a nursing home, my dad brought biscotti to her. He would dip the biscuit in hot tea so it would be soft enough for her to eat without her teeth.
We feed our babies to help them grow strong, introducing new foods to their palate. We lose our taste buds as we get older, then lose our desire to eat. Mom is not interested in food. Her body is shutting down.
Babies learn to walk, unsteady at first, wobbly, holding on. Older people unlearn how to walk, holding on to the nearest object – a chair, a table, a railing. Today, my mother leaned on my arm for support as she got up from the bed to make her way to the bathroom.
Children need help going to the bathroom. Parents need to help children take their pants down and pull them up. Today after using the potty my mother said, “I need help.” She couldn’t get her undergarments and pants up without help.
As parents, we teach our children hygiene. My mom taught me to wash my hands after using the bathroom. Now, I have to remind her, help her wash her hands. I have the towel waiting for her to dry her hands.
In the cycle of life we have babies and we care for those babies. And someday those babies will grow up and care for us as we lose the skills we learned as children and we taught our children. Brush your teeth. Mom no longer does this. Wash your face. She has to be reminded. Take a shower. It’s too cold; she doesn’t want to.
We bundle our kids up to keep them warm. At the other end of life, we bundle our parents with blankets to keep them warm. Their bones frail, so little fat to keep them warm. The temperature regulators have stopped regulating.
We put slippers with grips on our babies as they begin to walk so they don’t slip and fall. We put sneakers on with grips so Mom doesn’t slip and fall.
She shuffles now. No longer the strong purposeful walk, heading out the door to work or the mall. She is hunched over. It’s the first time I’ve noticed this. As if her head is now too heavy for her shoulders.
As my friend, Doreena, who recently lost her mom, so eloquently put it, “Slowly moving backwards, lights turning off, as she forgot how to do ordinary routines, one thing at at time. Unlearning what it took her a lifetime (to learn) one by one. Innocence returning.”
As my mother held me when I was a baby, today I held my mother as she hugged me. She used to tuck me in bed. Today I tucked her in, lifted her feet up onto the bed. Covered her with a comforter. And kissed her before I left, her head on the pillow, her eyes closing, drifting off to sleep.