Today is my mother’s 100th Birthday. Though she did not live to blow out the conflagration on her birthday cake, I think she would have liked to. All things being equal, the world conspired against that eventuality. My mother was a woman who saw little in her life’s accomplishments, though they were many. She did not celebrate the number of meals she cooked in her life time, the number of loads of laundry she completed, or the number of times she came to the aid of someone in need. She did not keep track of how many batches of cookies she baked for her children, her neighbor’s children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, and the church bizarre, while rarely eating sweets herself. My mother did not indulge in back patting. To the modern way of thinking, her perspective was flawed.
To her credit, she was able to brag about one thing and that was her age, once it advanced to the point where it surprised even her. In her last years, which numbered ninety-seven, whenever I took her shopping she would, without fail, start a conversation with a clerk in each store we visited. Often dispensing with all formalities she would get right to the point. Leaning into the individual conspiratorially (all five feet and ninety-eight pounds), with a decided twinkle in her eye, she’d pose her question, “I bet you can’t guess how old I am”. Then, stepping back she waited until they selected and announced a number that was invariably, by intention or design, lower than the actual one. My mother would cherish her secret a moment, and then, as conspiratorially as before, divulge the truth. The clerk invariably responded to the truth with astonishment (by intention or design) and Mom beamed with the pride of accomplishment.
My mother was proud of this one accomplishment in her life, although it was easy to sense that she knew she was not entirely responsible for it. The pride of the moment was far more complex than she probably even knew herself. Though all she had done was to manage to survive, she had survived an exceptionally long life, very little of it of her own choosing. She had made the best of it and that truly was a feat. She survived and survived fairly well. Her kids grown and more or less happily married, her husband exceptionally cared for until the day she buried him, her house clean, her cookies baked, she could rest on her laurels long enough to be proud of her age.
It was not hard to see that beneath all of this false bravado was a woman who had done very few of the things she could have done, and had the times been different, would have done. Although I could not quite understand or name her actions at the time, now, three years after her death, I understand completely. I face my own advancing age and I am much more bothered by what I have not done than what I have. My mother’s restlessness was incomprehensible to me at the time when I could have made a difference and yet, I feel quite certain that she was locked too tightly within society’s boundaries to have broken free even with assistance.
I continue to wrestle with my family’s choices about her end of life care. She had no health problems that would have prevented her from making it to one hundred. I believed then, and I believe now, that she could have and would have if things had been different. But we chose her end of life care because she would not choose her own and as a result she was unhappy (on the inside), tragically, deeply, beneath the surface unhappy, much as she had been and tried to deny throughout her life. Sequestered in a “retirement community” she felt cut off from her family, not because we didn’t “visit” but because we were “visitors” and in some sense no longer family. Her apartment was not “home” despite her valiant efforts to make it so. Surrounded by the feeble, the sick and the dying, sequestered within the walls of a commercially designed and decorated building, she felt deeply cut off ~ as much from the earth as the family. Nature had sustained her when nothing else did.
She did not have it within her vocabulary to ask for, or if necessary demand, what she wanted, alas needed, to end her life properly. She had spent a lifetime denying her needs, how could her dying have been any different? She chose to relinquish her preferred choice and take the path of least resistance. She chose to die instead and give up on reaching her goal of making it to one hundred. After all, did she really have a choice?
Would it have made any difference to anyone if she had lived another three years? Would her days have counted for more? I don’t know for sure, but I believe that to her it might have been among her greatest achievements, to have lived to be one hundred and to receive a letter from the President, recognition for a race well run, she might have died in peace. I know it would have made a difference to me.