I’ve come to the inauspicious conclusion in life that old age doesn’t kill us – loneliness does. On a recent trip home this fall to visit my family members and friends in the heart of the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, I had the unmistakable experience of seeing firsthand what isolation does to people when they’ve been indiscriminately placed in elder care and then unintentionally ignored over a period of time.
I went home to see my mom and help out with some day to day activities of shopping, cleaning and cooking to lighten her workload and visit with her while we did our routine activities every day. What greeted me upon my arrival was something totally and completely unexpected: my uncle (her youngest brother) was hospitalized and subsequently placed in a nursing home, and my mom was depressed and not eating or socializing.
When I travel back to my childhood home, I expect to be emotional about seeing people and places that I haven’t seen in a long time – it’s part of what makes me, me. What I don’t expect, though, is to be so completely and totally inundated with feelings of powerlessness in situations that I have no control over – I don’t expect to be so thoroughly overwhelmed when I looked at faces long lost to any semblance of hope or redemption.
Every day I taxied my mom to and from the nursing home to see her baby brother. Every day my uncle’s strength improved, my mom’s resilience did, too. Where I once saw helplessness and desperation in mom’s eyes, eventually I noticed a life-force slowly coloring her cheeks and soon after an appetite for food and activity.
In November 2015, I read an article in the New York magazine that described a study on relationships called, “The Widowhood Effect,” and how when one spouse dies, the likelihood of their partner dying increased significantly. My mother and uncle aren’t “partners,” as such, but have had a close relationship since their youth, and I seriously began to wonder if my mom’s passing would mirror this study. She certainly was not doing well when I first landed, and I began to wonder if instead of a visit with friends and loved ones, I’d be attending a funeral for a favorite uncle and soon after a wake for my mom.
Allowing myself a brief time to deal with the emotions of the situation, one day a flicker of life suddenly appeared in my mom’s sweet eyes; and I decided that this little, gray-haired Italian passerotta (term of endearment for sparrow) still had some hell-raising left to do, and so I set out to make changes as needed.
Operation passerotta started and soon after success came as gradual and beautiful as the leaves changing colors on the hills of the surrounding Adirondack mountains.
She sat in silence. I sat quietly nearby.
I cooked and ate. She eventually started cooking and eating.
And very soon after, I became my funny, wise-cracking self, and she became her feisty rompicoglioni (pain in the butt) self.
Her brother’s physical therapy started working, and soon we started doing other things besides trips to the nursing home. Shopping at the dollar store, picking up a few things at the local grocery store – all things she routinely did before her brother’s ill health – slowly began to be part of her daily agenda; slowly began to blossom.
What amazed me each day, though; what never seemed to be missing with mom was her unconditional kindness and unwavering love for others.
Every day she dressed and put-on a little makeup. Then she walked down her apartment’s long hallway, deliberately grasping the handrails to guide herself toward the apartment steps that she took one at a time; careful not to fall or trip on her way out to her rusted, but reliable Flintstone car. And off we’d slowly drive over familiar roadways, past familiar homes.
“Take a left here,” she reminded me. “Go straight over the Meco Flats,” she continued.
“Make sure you watch for that pot hole on Easterly. I think it’s right there. Stop at the stop light and drive slowly. We don’t want to miss the turn-off,” she gently guided me as if carefully reminding herself.
“Why are you smiling?” she’d ask and continued before I responded. “Wait ‘till you get old. You’ll soon be doing the same.”
I sighed and kept smiling and went on with the drive until we reached the nursing home. Every day she walked into the place, she left a little love: a little kindness.
“I see you.” She said to the wheel-chair-bound woman sitting in the entrance hallway. “I see you,” she continued as she bent closer to her face and gently cupped her cheeks between her hands. “And I love you,” she whispered into her ear, as she smiled and kissed her cheek.
“And God bless you, too. Have a nice day.”
And down the hall she’d shuffle, taking a moment or two to acknowledge most everyone she’d pass.
Every day, we’d do the same thing. And every day she’d acknowledge the living and honor their spirit, and on the last trip to the nursing home – the last trip to my uncle’s temporary abode – we rounded the hallway’s corner to walk down one last time to sign him out and escort him home, and life hit us head-on.
I know my mother saw it. There was no mistaking it. What once was a life force, a life fully lived; was a being no more, was a soul for the heavens. A person of substance, now an inanimate lump. What once was a human, was vaguely hidden from view, by a flimsy, gray sheet on a one-way-wheeled stretcher; a stretcher of eternal rest.
We continued our walk until we reached my uncle’s room. It was time to go home and he was eagerly waiting. It was time to live life and continue what God planned.
Papers were signed, brief wishes exchanged and out the door we headed; out the door he was wheeled. Conversations were limited and emotions were raw; one last look at the stretcher-one last look at life stilled.
I looked for the wheel-chair lady. I know my mom did, too, but nowhere could I see her; nowhere was she found.
We drove home in silence – overwhelmed by the day. I remember the bright sun and blue sky and the rolling lush hills, speckled with the hint of color from a few frosted evenings, touched by the Adirondack cool air, and I silently thanked God for my car-mates and said a quiet prayer of gratefulness.
Life is precious.
Be kind to each other, People, and I’ll catch ya next time, looking at life from my shoes.