At some point, if we live long enough, we all become motherless children. As I read the full obituary of the mother of a dear friend on Tuesday morning, the line from that mournful song, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” came to mind and has been playing in my head ever since. Most of my contemporaries have now lost both parents. It’s a huge life transition to lose the people who have known you from the moment you made your entrance on the planet. It makes you pause. It makes you consider your own mortality. It makes you wonder how things might have been different. It makes you sad about whatever your childhood might have lacked. It makes you grateful for the things you took for granted for so long. It makes you wonder how you will behave and how others will perceive you as you near the end of your own life.
My friend’s mom, Ruby, was the oldest girl in a farm family of six kids. Not easy for anyone growing up 80+ years ago, but definitely hard work for those living off the land. Stories of Ruby tell of her milking the cows on the morning of her own wedding day. After she married, she moved to the cities. She took a job driving toddlers to Miss Peters’ preschool. She watched her husband go off to war, leaving her at home alone for a year. She birthed three children and made a good home for them in the suburbs. She worked for 29 years at Honeywell, on the assembly line. She had impeccable taste and her modest home was beautifully decorated. And she always looked the part of the Beaver Cleaver mom if ever any St. Louis Park mother did. You could stop by on a Saturday morning and she’d come to the door, beautifully dressed, looking lovely. If you asked where she was off to, you were surprised to learn that she wasn’t going anywhere at all. Many moms didn’t look that wonderful when they were going somewhere.
Having watched my own dad’s decline and eventual move from his home to the nursing facility where he died six years ago, I commiserated with my friend when that decision had to be made for Ruby several months ago. Watching a parent’s decline is awful in any scenario, but when a nursing home is added to the story, it becomes even more difficult. Whose heartstrings wouldn’t wrench with pain when their parent asks, over and over, when they are going home, not remembering they can no longer care for themselves? They don’t remember that they’d proven that inability again and again, sometimes dangerously, before the move decision was made. As the adult child during those times, you are constantly and fully aware of your own vulnerability and helplessness. You visit, you comfort, you console, you grieve. And some days you get frustrated because the parent may behave badly toward you. And while you understand that aging and illness and dementia are fueling the behavior, it still hurts. And then you feel guilty for feeling frustrated, ever, with someone who is dying. Sometimes you have to deal with the opinions of relatives or friends who think they just might know better than you what is right for this dear parent of yours who you are desperately trying to do your very best for. And though you know the “advice” from others is out of love and care, it still adds to your angst.
When death finally takes your parent, it’s still a shock even though you absolutely knew the time left was incredibly finite. And then you grieve some more. And you finally fully understand what it means to become a motherless, or parentless, child. Even if the relationship wasn’t always what you’d hoped it to be, even if you never had the luxury of becoming friends with that parent, even if times were sometimes very stormy, the loss hits you in ways you couldn’t imagine beforehand.
As you go through mementos and photos, preparing for the funeral or memorial service to celebrate the life of your parent, you may come across pictures that include your own smiling face, showing times that you have no memory of. It may be a birthday party that you don’t remember but you know that it was your mom who baked the cake and bought the party hats. Or you see yourself in some adorable outfit and you know that it was your mom who bought it especially for you. Or, it may be those first day of school photos and you know that it was your mom who took them despite your whining and protesting the older you got. You might look at old high school yearbooks and come across your parent when they were young and still had their whole life ahead, filled with possibility and dreams. And you are reminded that your parent was so, so much more than what they had become lying in that nursing home bed.
The parents of my generation went on first dates, and to school dances and shared a tentative first kiss, and they loved and were loved back. They worried about good grades and school, and delighted in their first paying job. Some were forced to drop out of school to help their own families survive. They nervously approached their own wedding day wanting it to be perfect, maybe OK'd guests they didn’t want to attend or even had an in-law who didn’t welcome them warmly. They rejoiced at our births and were proud of our accomplishments, despite the fact that many held strongly the “don’t-give-them-a-big head” philosophy and thus, rarely told us directly how great they thought we were. Our parents worked hard, worried about making ends meet, taught us right from wrong, kept food on the table and a roof over our heads. And in their imperfection, they did the best they could, just as we do. And those parents of ours knew how to have fun, too. They laughed and partied and celebrated and had a zest for life that we had either forgotten or never known they were capable of as we were wrapped up in our youth and the importance of our own self-focused lives.
I remember attending Ruby’s 60th birthday party, 29 years ago. And I remember thinking she was old. Then, five years ago, she came to my 60th birthday party and I told her, “Ruby, I remember your 60th birthday party and I realize now, you weren’t nearly as old as I thought you were.” How our perspective changes over time. How had I dared, even for a thoughtless or joking moment in my mind, to reduce her to an adjective so small as “old” when she was always, and forever will be, so much more.
Perhaps my own biggest fear of getting really old is having my child’s last memories of me be of me in that “old” state instead of in my best, vibrant, “I-really-am-somebody” years, the years when I had a ton of fun and laughed and played and had a career and danced and entertained and volunteered and spewed political opinions and made memories—oh so many memories—with people I adored and who adored me.
Death causes us to reminisce and pause and ponder. That is a gift. Perhaps, for a brief time at least, it reminds us to be fully present in this moment, to cherish the now—both our own and that of those we love. My friend’s mom gave the world three children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren—and she gave countless memories to the many whose lives she touched. She gave me a dear, lifelong friend. That is no small thing. Rest in peace, dear Ruby O.