My mother is nearing the end of her life. Healthy, active and mentally spry until just a year ago, she is deteriorating at a rapid pace. She remains in perfect health but she is 91 years old. She lives alone in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh near Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. None of her five children lives nearby.
My mother’s physical deterioration coincided with her steady dis-connection from the world. At first she stopped summoning her computer guru whenever she encountered a glitch, then she stopped communicating with us by email and now she uses her landline exclusively, while her iPhone sits unused in her purse. After a year of fiddling with her new iPad, she lost interest in that, too, and gave it to me.
She had prided herself on keeping up with technology and I noticed with a sinking heart that as she let go of the gadgets one by one, her body became increasingly weak and frail. She started cutting back from what had been a busy life involving world travel, committees and volunteer work, book clubs, international clubs, classes at the university and cultural and church events.
She has had one physical ailment. She is hard of hearing, which makes phone calls sketchy and intensely frustrating now that she has spurned email. But it’s not just a squeaky hearing aid that inhibits our conversation these days. It is vagueness of mind, a mental drift into God knows where. She just doesn’t seem to be interested anymore.
Bit by bit, this well educated, well read, well informed woman, whose vibrant enthusiasm for life and fierce independence inspired me even when we were most at odds, has caved in on herself. Her life has tapered off to an existence of lying down in darkness and in silence 80% of the time and resting with a warm washcloth draped over her eyes.
The other day I found an essay she had written for a creative writing class she took two years ago. The topic is what she believes to be the legacy of her mother and father, Paul and Emily Howe, and her maternal grandfather, who had been a strict Presbyterian minister.
She wrote: Along with my skin color and my IQ, I obtained my beliefs and values from my parents; the former innate, the latter taught by word and example. They include honesty, responsibility and being faithful to one’s commitments. Above all, I learned from them empathy – understanding the needs of others and caring about those less fortunate than we were.
I think I was about eight when my father took me by the hand to walk to the orphanage in our town with Christmas boxes to give out. I remember when the house mother – Cora Blackledge by name – asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and how I replied pridefully, ‘Oh, a missionary.’ I also recall the sense of pleasure I felt at being able to do something for children my age who had no parents or homes of their own, as I did.
This experience and many others that my parents shared with me became the guiding light of my life.
Upon reflection, I see that while my empathy resulted in thoughts and yearnings, theirs was demonstrated in specific daily actions which benefited not only the hobo at the back door but refugees from oppression in Europe and orphans in Korea, for whom Care packages were constantly being assembled in our basement.
From my parents and my maternal grandparents, I witnessed unconditional love rooted in the Christian way. I saw how family love was magnified in our Church family in ever widening circles of compassion for people of different races and cultures worldwide. I learned from our Bible that ‘to whom much is given, much shall be required.’
I tried to demonstrate my gratitude for my blessings, but today I live with the guilt of knowing that I never gave back enough. My unearned good fortune has made me realize that life is grossly unfair. It led me to question how an all-powerful God could be both just and good, a contradiction I have never resolved. So I came to believe that everyone’s life events are random and arbitrary, which circles back to my parents’ empathy for the poor and disadvantaged.
Having given up my belief in an all-powerful God who intervenes in human life, I remain in awe of the Holy Spirit, which consists of Love, Compassion, Beauty, Harmony, Wisdom and Joy. I believe there are many paths to take in seeking this Spirit. I choose to seek it within the Christian Church, which means that I am still firmly rooted in the teachings of my parents.
I have my own impressions of my mother’s influencers. Although my grandmother was a ferocious Democrat and active in the NAACP, when her daughter chose to marry a Catholic from the other side of the tracks, the destitute son of Croatian-Slovenian immigrants, Emily Howe objected in the strongest possible terms. It was my grandfather who persuaded her to give them a chance.
It was my grandfather, who strolled into the seedier parts of the city so he could slip money to panhandlers. I also remember him puttering in the basement assembling packages for Indian reservations out West. He urged us to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, so that we should never forget the “shameless, awful thing we did to these people.” He saw active duty in both World Wars.
He could be a little crazy, too, but usually with reason. On the eve of our entrance into WWII, he was so alarmed by American isolationism, he frequented movie theatres so that when a newsreel of der Fuhrer came up, he could rise to his feet and shout “Heil Hitler!” to demonstrate that this madman was being taken seriously and constituted a threat.
As I prepare myself for what will be the most painful loss in my life thus far, I find myself trying to imagine my mother’s life, all of it, and mourning not only the loss of her, but also the seeming futility of life itself. She was so beautiful once.
Twenty-five years ago, when I arrived at my father’s deathbed four hours before the end, and understood by his vacant stare, emaciated frame and extremities already turning cold, that he really was dying, I burst into tears, said I loved him and thanked him for everything he had done for me. He forced his eyes open into a dazzled stare and blurted through his morphine haze: “I did my duty.”
It didn’t occur to me to feel hurt or chilled by this until my therapist later pointed out that what he should have said was: “I did it because you are my beautiful daughter and I love you.”
But this was not my father. Or my mother. Or their parents or the parents of their parents, so far as I know. It made sense to me that my dying father should express himself in terms of duty, just as my mother’s ninety-year-old impression of her parents, and of her debt to them, should involve “being faithful to one’s commitments.”
It was strong in all of them, the Americans whose lives spanned the 20th century and meshed with catastrophic economic upheaval, global war and even the rewards of coming home to build a new society and vanish into a suburban conformity they may not have wished for themselves but maintained for the sake of their children.
As I anticipate devastation and existential unease in the approaching death of my mother, I mitigate the crisis of mortality with a heightened interest in the genetics that made us, the culture and world history that encompassed us and most keenly, the strata in between: the family stories, the family values, the familial bond. Between ancestry and history, there was the circle we made around a blazing hearth inside a singular home.
Somewhere between DNA and the big picture, our lives individuate into a flux of psychology, emotions, aspirations, memories, rivalries, dysfunction, attachment and love. We transcend and transform reality. Our stories adapt to absolve or gloss over our clan’s imperfection: a grandmother who, despite her good works, showed prejudice when put to the test; a grandfather whose soldiering and eccentric altruism unraveled into bipolar illness and clinical depression; a father who could not say he loved me even at our last hour together and a mother whose many sins of omission are already losing definition behind the pall of death.
They were the dutiful ones. And I? Not much was ever asked of me. My time and place on Earth has not necessitated great sacrifice and I have lived my life diligently avoiding significant compromise.
And yet to say nothing was required of me is not entirely accurate. When you are raised by Dutiful Ones, you are mantled with high expectations about your individual contribution to society. I am far more clear about their achievements than I am about mine. As I feel the last of them slipping away, I experience an urgent need to channel the legacy of my elders into my own contribution to the world. I long for that connection, so that when my existence reduces to lying down in darkness and in silence 80% of the time with a warm washcloth draped over my eyes, I will see meaning, I will see Love.
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