scarlet and ochre flurries —
into her autumn
my mother’s mind disperses
My mother is 91 years old. She lives out her days now in a tiny village nursing home about 5 kms from our farm. We brought her there three years ago after as many years living day-to-day with the choking fear of what might happen as her mind slowly unravelled. I noticed the unravelling at my father’s funeral as she chuckled at and commented loudly about irrelevant things from the church pew. I noticed the spinning out over months as she became fearful at dusk and the time came for our fortnightly visits to end. “Why can’t you stay the night?” she would plead. We had excuses always at the ready, blocking the fear in her voice from penetrating our hearts and opening our eyes. It wouldn’t have mattered even if we had seen clearly and deeply into the cause of her mind’s descent to that dark world of dementia. She was just lucid enough, just articulate enough, just charming enough when the neighbours came by or the church ladies visited with communion. Even her cardiologist dismissed my fears as those of an over-zealous psychologist who certainly didn’t understand the real workings of the human mind.
Eventually circumstances colluded and we brought her to this home. She arrived thinking my brother and I had bought her a mansion: a three-storey building with a circular driveway. She was thrilled. I will never forget the look of terror and betrayal when we left her in her semi-private room. The nursing staff said it was for the best that we leave quickly and not return for a week or so. “She needs to learn to adjust.” We lost her that day, my brother and I, standing in that parking lot each one convincing the other this was the best thing we could do for her.
The time between her last hospital admission three years ago and the laughter-filled family lunches these days has been a cobbled path of long brutal exchanges no child should ever experience and no parent should ever require. The practice of equanimity failed me over and over as I watched the steadiness I gained on the cushion fracture and words snarl out fueled by long-buried childhood wounds. Every encounter left me raw and bleeding, angered by the weakness of my practice and determined that there was some space to be inserted between the pain her words re-ignited and the protective rage that flashed. I told a friend one day, “I can last about 3 hours, then I lose it! And I hate myself for days after.” Three hours. She was flabbergasted. “Three hours? You need to lose sooner than three hours.”
I needed to let go of the fear of losing. Not outlasting her felt like losing – the game, the contest, the race to the finish of the Good Child Marathon. I wanted to be the noble daughter who had emerged from the chaotic, mind-bending mother-daughter relationship as Avalokitashvara, the goddess of compassion. I wanted to hear her pain and be able to say, “Whatever may have been, I can be here with your suffering.” I had this fantasy that I truly understood her actions had been the result of her own suffering. These, I had to let go. I had to be willing to lose these battles between my practice and this shrieking being who lived in a hell I could not imagine.
I also had to see that even when I descended into that hell with her, we were not demons nor did I have to be Jizo, the god who entered the hell realms to bring out the suffering beings in his sleeves. It was enough to be the one who visited, brought her flowers, took her for her hair appointments, and who waited for the disease to take enough of her mind that she would let go of me as her daughter and her Jizo.
Last year, I came across Ruth Ozeki’s article in Shambhala Sun: The Art of Losing: On writing, dying, and mom. Elizabeth Bishop‘s poem The Art, reproduced in full in the article, brought me home.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Filled with intent to be lost… parent-child, mother-daughter, father-son… the protective hierarchy is always lost, the intention of relationship is to lose what we hold onto. And to lose effectively, we must, eventually and with intention, let go.
Thank you for practising,
Haiku published in South by Southeast: Haiku & Haiku Arts, vol 14 no 1, eds. Stephen Addiss et al., Richmond Haiku Workshop
Most of us will go through this, on one side or the other. But . . . oh.
one side and the other – simultaneously
it will be a fun week of losing and letting go, I think…
humm… in all of that family history, there was not one reference to Love.
You did mention Avalokitesvara, the god (not goddess) of compassion, who loves enough to understand all human failings. But that was just a passing reference.
But what I felt most strongly from you is a sense of guilt for the course of action you have chosen.
There are no right or wrong choices. Personally, I feel if a person is unable to care for themselves, then it is good to put them in a home where they can be cared for. You, then, can be free to live your life, and after all, it is your life to lead. So, there is nothing wrong with that choice. As long as you agree whole-heartedly. If not, you have a problem.
The other choice is to do the harder thing. Understand that there is still a person inside of that shell, a person that can feel lonely or betrayed.
You can love that person, take them into your home, pay for someone to watch them while you are away, and allow them the most joy possible while they are here.
You might bring inexpressible joy to one who can do nothing for themselves. Or, they might be so lost in dementia, that they won’t really notice the difference. It doesn’t really matter.
The choice that you make is not really for them. It is for you. It is a choice you make for how you want to experience your life. If you want to enjoy your own life, unencumbered, then you should do so.
If you want to bring joy to others, or if you just want to feel good about yourself and hope that you are helping others, then having your family home with you is a good choice.
There is no right or wrong choice, there is only what you choose for yourself. What you choose will either elevate your spirit, or it won’t. It will either empty your bank account or it won’t. It will either challenge you mentally and emotionally, or it won’t. Only you can decide what combination of the above is acceptable to you. And, whatever you decide is right, for you!
Whatever you choose, I hope you choose it with conviction! And, cut yourself a little slack (we’re all just working hard at this life thing after all!), and Avalokitesvara has our back.
Thank you, Urbansannyasin. Interesting comments. Thank you for your concern about what I may be feeling. Guilt, love, joy, sadness are all part of the package when I am in relationship. There is neither preference for them to arrive or leave. They are simply guides. Some more skillful than others in leading me along the path – but all are always available for hire. 😉
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