Think on These Things: Face to Face with Mortality

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My inevitable physical end of life is not something upon which I dwell. I’d rather think of myself as being somewhere in my thirties despite the evidence in the mirror and the 20- and 30-year-old adults who claim to be my children. (Who are these people and why are they calling me mom?)

This past month I came face to face with my own mortality when I travelled east to help my sisters deal with the deterioration of our parents. This wasn’t unexpected; our mother has had health problems all her adult life and they have accelerated during these past few decades with two major heart surgeries, stents in her legs, falls resulting from deep brain stokes, ongoing issues with diabetes, and so on.

Her reduced physical and mental abilities have necessitated she be placed in a nursing home. Our father was no longer able to care for her physical needs since he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At least the two of them are together sharing a room in the home where all their needs are being met.

What took me east was an emergency regarding my mother. Complication of her diabetes and poor circulation necessitated the amputation of a leg — it was either that or a slow, excruciatingly painful death as her body died from the toes up, her last few months spent in drugged existence. Given her fragile physical state there was no guarantee she would survive the surgery or the subsequent recovery. If I wanted to see my mother alive again, I needed to be with her prior to surgery.

To make a long story short, she survived the surgery and recovery, and was transferred back to the nursing home for ongoing care. But this was not the mother I remembered. My sister had warned me. My last visit had been August 2015 when my mother was living at home and using a walker. Now, she is nothing but skin and bones with limited movement, confined to bed and wheelchair. This once vital woman who has taught WordPerfect, obtained a black belt in Tai Chi, and performed as Granny G at YukYuk’s can no longer use a phone, is unable to even shift herself in bed and can barely string two sentences together in a coherent conversation. Her entire world centres around ensuring my father is there to help her. And my father, a man with a lifetime membership with the CGA, who developed and taught a business math program in a university, who could add dozens of numbers in his head faster than his students could use a calculator, is no longer able to manage his bank accounts, access his email or drive a car.

This is one of my possible futures. But there is more.

One of my tasks while out east was to sort through all my parents’ papers and decide what to do with them. In my archeological exploration of their files, I discovered letters they had written to each other, prior to their marriage and during the time they were separated when they were immigrating to Canada. I didn’t read them all, but came away with a greater understanding of my parents’ relationship. They wrote each other daily and in amongst the notes of day to day living, I read of an intense yearning to be together again, my mother’s need for my father and my father’s love for her.

That relationship is still there. Its almost as if the end of life experience strips away the façade of living, the things we do and the image we try to project. When my mother was separated from my father in the hospital, she was easily agitated and would only settle down once my father arrived. On the other hand, my father was anxious to be with her as much as possible and wasn’t able to sleep properly until she was transferred back into his room at the home. The love they planted 61 years ago has grown and bound them together and despite what else they have lost, love remains.

This, too, is a possible future and despite my dismay as my parents disappear, this is something to cling to.

Creston resident Anastasia Bartlett is a member of St. Aidan’s Orthodox Church in Cranbrook. St. Aidan’s Pastor Andrew Applegate can be reached at 250-420-1582.

 

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