Mom's 100th Birthday

Mom's 95th Birthday Celebration

Mom's 95th Birthday Celebration

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.

8 Comments

  1. Happy Birthday to your mom! What a wonderful story you’ve shared about who she is – even though she is no longer here where you can see or touch her. I believe the ties remain in some way, shape or form.

    It is very sad that she was unhappy living in a retirement home and that she had no choice. I have an elderly friend who moved herself out of one and back into her own home without her adult childrens’ consent or help. Consequently, they didn’t speak to her for a year and a half. But she lived through the hurt of their anger and has been reconciled somewhat with a few of them. She’s still in her own home now although she needs help getting out into the community to do her errands and going to medical appointments. She’s determined to die in her home, even if that means not sharing all of her current medical events with her kids. Sadly, she now mistrusts them. In all honesty, I think she’s just spunky enough to make it out of this life doing things her way. I sure hope so anyway.

    Bless you as you remember your mother and life on this day. Each year on my mom’s birthday, I bake a pie in her honor as her pie’s were always the BEST! It’s a small way in which I spend some time thinking of all the good times we had and allowing myself to become misty and continue to grieve the loss of her on this earth.

    • Thank you for your lovely comment Diane and sharing your friend’s journey. I do believe that my mother was more like your friend then she ended up showing in her choices. My mother made wonderful pies ~ particularly apple ~ perhaps next year I will celebrate her birthday as you do your mothers. It’s a wonderful idea!

      By the way my mother would have loved your jewelry as much as I do!

  2. We never know how our last days/years will be spent. I sure hope that our generation will have the spunk and good health to do things our way. My mother made it to 71 and thus never got into a retirement village like my Dad did. I think she would have liked that lifestyle because the village they had chosen encouraged independent living. I cannot see my husband being willing to move to a retirement village – I am open-minded about it because I know there are some great ones out there.
    Happy birthday to your Mum, Dorothy, enjoy your memories.

    • We all cope with things in our own way. I would encourage anyone caring for an aging parent to encourage the parent to choose where they feel most comfortable. Some would enjoy a retirement community like my mother’s. It was top notch and very well managed, and she and my Dad chose to move there before he died. After his death and as her capabilities declined she became more and more withdrawn from the activities around her.

      We cannot plan for all eventualities, but it doesn’t hurt to think and talk about it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences Helen.

  3. Thank you for your story. It touched me as I am now approaching the age when I have to start thinking about those things. Also, my sister and I had to take care of our mother’s decisions for her care in her last years. We were lucky because mom trusted us to do what we felt would be the best for her.

    I think you are being too hard on yourself for the decisions you made. Your family was probably doing what they felt would be best for her and your dad. Losing her husband while she was there was probably more devastating to her than being there. Becoming more withdrawn was just part of the process of grieving for him and then dying for her. Some people go out with a bang and some people quietly give in to their body’s decline. And as you said, she was “beneath the surface unhappy, much as she had been and tried to deny throughout her life.” People die as they live. It sounds like it is hard for you to accept, but that’s the way she was, and there is nothing really wrong with that. I wish you peace and I believe she is wishing you the same thing right now.

    • Thank you for your kind words. It has been several years now and I have come to accept that the choice was hers. It was not that I did not care and care deeply but as you say, people die as they live. It was her journey to travel just as the choices I make are mine. I appreciate your comment.

  4. It is so wonderful to see the conversation on end of life care starting in our communities. It has been such a closed topic and death has been hidden. I am a member of the Sydney Threshold Choir and we are running a Good Grief Cafe as part of Dying to Know Day, that will allow people to the have conversation about death and dying, about how they want to go, and how we can face our loss.
    All the surveys I have seen suggest that 70% of people want to die at home. How many do?

    • You are doing some very important work! Living in fear of dying has never helped anyone! I have read similar statistics. The number of people who wish to remain at home seems to be rising and so many of us watched our parents do the opposite.

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