Monday, September 19, 2011

Let Her Be

 Let her be.  So all that is in her will not bloom - but in how many does it?  There is still enough left to live by.  Only help her to know - help make it so there is cause for her to know - that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

These are the final words of Tillie Olsen’s poignant, raw story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” a story that tells about a mother’s regrets, summed up as she stands ironing. She reflects that her oldest daughter . . .

was a child of anxious, not proud, love.  We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth.  I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother.  There were other children pushing up, demanding.  Her younger sister seemed all that she was not.  There were years she did not want me to touch her.  She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself.  My wisdom came too late.  She has much to her and probably little will come of it.  She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

I think of these words often when I reflect upon my own parenting. I too was often anxious but fiercely proud. I loved her then, and I always, always love her now. We sometimes made choices that did not provide the soil of easy growth. I was not a young mother; I was distracted by the demands of work and the unrealistic expectations I placed upon myself. Worst of all, my wisdom came too late. I learned that . . .

Success breeds success and brings with it, freedom. Failure is but a brief detour. We learn to endure, persevere, and overcome. Age also grants us the will to abide. A sense of urgency falls away, and we allow events to unfold without our stir. Our ambition does not die, but rather ebbs as we recognize that we have that which is sufficient. And those prickles and thorns that held us back no longer snag and tear.

I wish I could impart that wisdom to every twenty-something, but most of them would not heed the advice even if they recognized it as wisdom. They are made to shun or at least ignore all evidence of mortality. Their ears are dull to the lessons acquired in aging. They fly closer and ever closer to the sun as did Icarus, but most of them will not fly high enough to melt their wax wings. Most will simply learn to enjoy wind currents nearer to the earth. In their twenties, they will despise lower altitudes and call it “settling;” in their fifties, they will find it comforting and wish they had known then what they later see.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia destroy the peace that passes understanding in our youth. My grandmother cried about the strangers that visited her home every night, refusing to leave when she grew sleepy and asked them to go. Alarmed, I risked sending her into sobs in order to nudge the truth from her. Those strangers, I learned, were Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, and various guest stars. She had lost the ability to separate television programming from her tangible, material world; she had forgotten how to turn off the television to send those annoying men and women on their way so she could rest.

Alzheimer’s also steals the immediate and recent memory, but memories from long ago remain, perhaps longer than the power of speech and ability to write. Grandmother told stories about the wrongs she had endured at the hands of her brothers and sisters. Those prickles and thorns still stung when she was least able to heal.

What put me in mind of all this was a recent conversation with Mother. She had left her home after the companions left for the day to walk next door. I’ve asked her not to go out because we have endured more than 50 days of heat in excess of 100°, and she forgets or refuses to drink enough water so heats that oppress even after the sun has set are very dangerous to her. She misunderstood me when I admonished her, thinking that I intended her to be a recluse, a prisoner inside her home. The misunderstanding snarled further when I chastised her for asking her neighbor for help and accepting an OTC medication to treat her upset stomach.

Before I proceed, let me assure anyone reading that the neighbor called my sister and sought permission to pass along a laxative. The neighbor has been and continues to be a wonderful friend to Mother. She calls her daily and watches over those who come and go from Mother’s home. Mother needs her, and I would not wish to come between them, but Mother cannot reliably report what she feels anymore. She struggles to find words and hopes that her listeners will provide the right one to help her explain herself. She can no longer make phone calls; she cannot hold the series of numbers in her head long enough to dial. Worse, in her community, most numbers require the area code without the long-distance number one, but long-distance numbers need the number one. This new innovation to minimize the telephone company’s overload came too late for Mother to learn and remember.

Mother also does not recognize signals that her body sends. Like toddlers, she is slow to awaken to urges and instincts, and for these reasons, I have asked her companions to restrict all medicines to those recommended by doctors, and I have told Mother not to take anything else until we can bring her body back into balance.

Mother made her hurt and fear known by asking how I would feel if I were alone in this world, with no one to turn to, while sick. She is frail and keenly aware of her vulnerability.  Visits, phone calls, companions, and care will never compensate for the terrible losses of old age and Alzheimer’s. That is the sorrow. Contrary to Tillie Olsen’s narrator, there is not enough to live by; still, let her know that she is not helpless. Let her know that fear need not paralyze or drive her out of doors into the dangers she no longer recognizes.