To get old is to stop being interested in life. When the interest stops completely, we withdraw and die.
I write this as I sit beside my mother in the cardiac intensive care unit. She is busy withdrawing from life. The nurse said, “There’s been a sudden change in your mother’s condition,” but the truth is that it has not been very sudden. She began withdrawing from life over fifteen years ago when my father died. They were friends and lovers for fifty years.
The withdrawal escalated when my brother, Tim, died of lung cancer a couple of years ago. He was her favorite child, and in many ways, he was the favorite of all of us. Tim made no bones about telling her often that he was going to take care of her when she got old. It was so painful for her to bury him that she cut and ran; she stopped engaging in life. It was all too much. She didn’t want to feel what life was presenting.
Now, it is obvious that she doesn’t have the energy to talk to those of us who hover over her with anxious smiles. She is tired and has great difficulty breathing. A loving sponge bath, a little lotion, a bit of massage, and unflagging love seem to revive her somewhat, but only briefly. The chart says ‘congestive heart failure’ and the nurses use terms like ‘respiratory failure’ while pointing out her 86 years. But the real reason she is leaving us is that she stopped being interested in life years ago, and began to withdraw, ever so slowly, culminating in the present situation.
“What can I do?” I ask myself in panic. Nothing. Nothing except sit and hold her, listen to her ragged breath, and be with her as she exits. Her exit from this world is as painful for me as I imagine her pain was at my entry into this world. I try to talk with her, but she does not respond. I sit back, quiet again, wanting her to wake. How foolish death seems when one is in the middle of living. How foolish life seems when one is in the middle of dying.
She is probably not leaving today. They said she could linger for weeks, but it is obvious that we are in the process of letting go of one another. There were six children once. Now there are five. Who will anchor us, hold us together, and love us once our mother is gone? I sound like a forlorn child, but I can’t help it.