In the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World there is a poignant scene. It occurs when the HMS Surprise is rounding Cape Horn, which is known for its turbulent seas. A mast breaks and falls into the sea. A sailor up in the rigging falls down into the ocean with it. He desperately tries to swim back to the ship. The mast, which is still tethered to the ship, is acting like an anchor that threatens to pull the Surprise down into the ocean. It must be cut in order to keep the Surprise from sinking. But in the process of cutting it the sailor cast overboard has to lose his life. The poignant string music of Ralph Vaughan Williams‘s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis perfectly captures the mixed feelings of the moment. We see shots of the drowning sailor (popular with the crew), sailors crying in the hull and the grim Capt. Jack Aubrey cutting away the last bits of rigging holding the mast to the boat.
I know how that crew felt. I am going through similar feelings now with my mother’s decline. It is increasingly clear that she is in or is reaching her last stages of life. She may surprise us and live for years but her spirit is gone. She is at a point where I think she welcomes death as an escape from her earthly turmoil. She is 84 and a victim of congestive heart failure. She recently returned from a hospital stay not appreciably better than when she entered. My Mom is severely depressed. She spends most of her waking hours in her room watching TV. She tries to sleep but for the most part doesn’t succeed. She is at the point where she can’t do much of anything without assistance. She used to be able to navigate to the bathroom by herself. My Dad is there to assist her for pretty much every activity in her day.
Since her fall last autumn we have been trying to get them out of Michigan. They have a perfectly nice single-family house. But it has stairs. It is not very accessible. My mother’s sister (who is weary of helping out during her emergencies) lives in town. Her closest offspring is 400 miles away. Fortunately my Dad, age 77, is doing quite well and is able to keep up with her. But we know her condition is taking a large physical and psychological toll on him. So they finally sold their house and will be moving on Monday to the Washington area. Their new residence will be a retirement community called Riderwood near Silver Spring, Maryland.
We’ve been planning their move for months. Final preparations right down to the wallpaper for their new apartment kitchen have been haggled over and decided. We even have a wheelchair rental planned for my Mom. If we can get them to Riderwood life should be simpler for them. But it will still not be easy.
If my mother’s recent hospitalization weren’t enough the move alone may kill her. She grew up in a clapboard house in Michigan less than thirty miles from where she is living. The things she cares about most are in Michigan, including what remains of her family. Michigan is comfortable and familiar. It feels like home. Always a deeply shy woman about the only people my mother can related to these days are her increasingly few siblings and her children. Taking her away from her siblings may crush what remains of her spirit. She knows their lives need to be downsized and she knows the burdens on my Dad are hard for him to bear. But she leaves Michigan in a couple days with the crushing knowledge that if she returns it will be as ashes in an urn to be placed next to the graves of her parents.
At Riderwood both my sister and I will be in commuting range. We are hopeful that her new neighbors (including a devout Catholic across the hall) will revive her spirits. Perhaps she will find even at this late stage in life some joy and something to live for. But from reports I am getting she wishes she could just die and be done with life’s burdens.
My aunt thinks she has less than a year to live. She is probably right.
We, her sons and daughters, are bending over backwards to pick up her spirits and to facilitate this move in the best way possible. My parents will be spending Monday with us. My sister Teri will fly with them to help my mother navigate airplanes and restrooms. (A car trip would be too taxing.) Then we have to move them into their apartment in Riderwood, and try to get her established in their new home. But my gut feeling is that my mother will remain miserable. Getting out of her bed and using her walker to get to the bathroom may prove too vexing for her. Her short-term future may be a Washington area nursing home, not Riderwood.
She seems trapped in some sort of inexorable death spiral. We will do our best to change the situation and her spirit. But she doesn’t appear to want to change anything. She feels hopeless. She is withering: losing body weight, losing muscle mass, becoming stooped and increasingly unable to do anything by herself. Yes, I’ve talked to her many times about depression. She has always denied she is depressed and has refused repeated offers to get therapy. However I was successful in getting my parents to get some counseling together. That seemed to have some effect, as they were able to agree they had to sell the house and move on.
Those of us who love her are of course deeply affected by her condition and her attitude. We so desperately want to make things better for our Mom. We want to see her happy and smiling again. My mother’s life is all about giving of herself. But from her perspective there is nothing for her to give anymore. Even cooking, her main joy in life is largely behind her.
I realize I am involved in a grieving process for my mother. She has not died but to some extent she is already dead. All of us want her to be like she was: happy, humming, putting together some tasty creation in the kitchen or tending to her flower garden. But that part of my mother is dead. What remains is a severely depressed woman scared witless by the impending end of her life but unable to stop this train that she is on. We offer words, we offer comfort, we offer food but not much penetrates. Perhaps listening to her will help but I am not sure she has anything she wants to say. She wants to totally withdraw.
I would like to think there is something called “the good death”. But I don’t see it happening for my mother. I suspect it doesn’t happen that way for most people. We can do as much as we possibly can for our mother but I don’t think any of it is going to penetrate. We come into this world alone, but must we elect to leave this world alone too?
We on the periphery of her life bite our nails, grieve and mourn for our mother who is still with us. As we watch her go we feel her terror. We know her issues are issues we will have to grapple with someday. For myself her experience only feeds my own fears about my dying. It seems so unfair for anyone to die. We know death is the price of living yet to watch the process with someone you love just makes me apprehensive and angry with the gods. Death should not have to be so wrenching.
Williams’s Fantasia perfectly describes how I feel: Anxious, poignant, resigned and hopeless. I am mirroring my mother’s own feelings. I try to stay busy and keep with the tasks of the day, but her dying hovers over me constantly. Now that she is moving closer it will become an even closer and more personal experience. I need to go through this experience; it too is a part of living. Yet it leaves an acrid taste in my mouth.
I am left hoping I can find the personal courage to give my mother my best in her last days. She needs to feel the love we always feel for her. Yet I know when her passing comes will be both a traumatic blow and a relief that she (and we) are free at last.