Published May 16, 2008 by Sara Davidson
“Does age bring awakening?” I ask myself as I stand in the drugstore checkout line, clutching a box of Depends. My sister, Terry, and I are about to move our 93-year-old mom out of the condo where she’s lived for decades to a home for people with memory impairment.
Mom has always been a dynamo: strong-willed, opinionated and exacting. She told us that she wanted to stay in her home until the end, and we respected that. The problem was: her home is in L.A. I live in Colorado and Terry lives in Hawaii, so we’ve had to manage her care from afar. We hired two loving women from El Salvador to stay with her, but they’d call us in alarm. “Your mother isn’t eating. She says she’s too tired to go to the park. What should we do?”
Mom falls asleep while getting her nails done.
We flew to L.A. to assess the situation, and I was shocked that mom, who’s always been tireless, was nodding out all day. While eating lunch, getting her nails done or in the middle of a conversation, she’d drop her head to her knees and go to sleep. She was becoming incontinent. When we took her out to eat and brought her home, she asked, “Whose house is this?” So… maybe she wouldn’t notice if we moved her?
The startling thing was, mom wasn’t troubled by her inability to remember anything outside the moment. If you sat with her, she could go over her tax return, line by line, but a minute later she wouldn’t remember seeing it. Terry heard about a new drug being tested with Alzheimer’s patients that was reputed to restore their memories. We asked mom if she wanted to participate in the study, but she declined. Why? I asked. “If you could take a pill that would let you remember everything, would you want to do that?”
She shook her head no. “I’m fine the way I am. What do you want me to remember?”
Well, your grand-daughter just got married, you were in the wedding, you walked down the aisle and danced. Wouldn’t you like to remember those happy occasions? She thought a moment. “There are a lot of unpleasant things too.”
She knocked on wood – the table. “I’m fine the way I am.”
Terry started looking for a place in Hawaii where mom could have more intensive care, with activities to stimulate her and a doctor on call. She found a newly built center, Hi’olani, and the pictures she emailed me were so lush and lovely, I wanted to move there myself. She was told there was a 2-year waiting list, but a few days later, they called and said a room had opened up if we would take it right away. We did.
Then Terry was wracked with buyer’s remorse. Had she made the right decision? I felt remorse of a different sort: I’d held a lifelong grudge against mom for always judging me and finding me wanting. Now I focused on what she’d given me: a love of story telling, curiosity, and courage. At a moment when she was alert, I thanked her and apologized for not appreciating those gifts. There was another feeling that both Terry and I had. Dread. This could be us, couldn’t it, in the blink of an eye? It seemed an awful finale.
A week before moving mom, Terry and I went to a 5-day silent meditation retreat with Adyashanti. Adya, born Steven Gray, says on his website that he “dares all seekers of peace and freedom” to take seriously the possibility of awakening in this life. His theme at the retreat was letting go of control. Like Eckhart Tolle and other spiritual teachers, Adya urges people to be fully present in the moment, to accept what is, and wake up to one’s true nature — the aliveness inside. This aliveness or presence, consciousness, spirit – it goes by many names – never changes, which is why we don’t feel old inside.
Depends – new and improved.
At the end of the retreat, steeped in awareness, we felt ready for what mom’s transition might bring. On the morning of the flight, I helped her put on Depends for the first time, and she did not resist. Mercifully, the new and improved version looks like white ruffled panties with elastic legs. OK, the thing is paper, but it does not look like a diaper.
When the plane landed, Terry’s husband and daughter drove them straight to Hi’olani, and walked mom into her room. It was yellow, her favorite color, and had been decorated in advance with familiar items and pictures from her condo. When I called two days later and asked mom, How do you like Hawaii? She said, “I’m not in Hawaii.”
Wow. We’d been bracing for her to protest and shame us for moving her, but she’s happy where she is. She never asked, When am I going home? She’s cheerful and more alert now, although the staff members dress her abominably. Today, my sister reports, mom’s wearing all pink clothes except for her socks, which are turquoise.
She’s attained what we just spent 5 days in silence cultivating: acceptance, letting go, just being here now. Maybe losing your memory is not as bad as it looks? Maybe there IS a way to go gentle?
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I welcome your comments. Just reply to firstname.lastname@example.org
My deep thanks to Terry, Gary and Summer Jennings for doing the heavy lifting.
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Taking care of our parents is a transition I address in “Leap!” — now out in paperback. I would so appreciate your HELP in spreading the word. Tell friends it’s ten bucks now and if you buy it, you get the free Leap! workbook.