My mother lived to be ninety-seven years old. Born in 1911 she saw the world undergo enormous changes. She lived a life that was not without its problems, but always seemed to find a way to give to those in need. When she and my father sold the family home and moved into a retirement community it was an enormous change for her. She didn’t know what to make of apartment living after tending to her own home and gardens most of her life. She struggled to make it “home” and for the most part, she succeeded. When my Dad died a few years later, she was adrift. Disabled from a stroke in his mid-sixties, she had hovered over him and cared for him for twenty years. She was a caregiver by nature and I learned, first hand, most of the tricks of the trade.
For the next eight years, my mother struggled to make sense of her life, to understand what it was she was supposed to do with her time while she waited to die. At first she rallied the necessary support from her children to fulfill her bucket list. Then she turned her attentions toward her neighbors in need. She baked cookies, washed laundry, fetched mail and looked in on sick and dying friends. There came a day, however, when she could do this no longer. One by one she gave up her caretaking activities. It was her turn to be cared for, but it was a completely unfamiliar role and she fought it every step of the way. This made it difficult for her children.
As we age we are asked to change our idea of ourselves and our purpose, sometimes multiple times before we die. As our physical and mental capacities diminish placing limits on our accustomed activities, we must find new ways of understanding who and what we are. For many it is difficult to live without a purpose, or for those like my mother who played more or less the same role her entire life, impossible. Trying to comfort my mother by distracting her was the only thing we knew to do. It may have been the only thing we could do. After all, each of us must make peace with our own lives, no one else can do it for us. This is the job of the elderly. This is the purpose of the last years in life.
It is hard for the living to understand the dying process. It is almost impossible to plan in advance how we will respond. Watching from a loving distance, as our parents pass through this difficult life process is their last real and valuable gift to us. We have much to learn from them even or especially when they are dying. What we witness will inform how we will handle our own last days. It may inform how we live from that day forward. Walking with them, loving them, and allowing them to do whatever thrashing about they need to do as they wrestle with their living and their dying is our last gift to them.