My mother is 88 years old. She has lived an adventurous and blessed life. She travelled all over the world, is highly educated, an extremely talented artist, was a loving wife, and mother. For most of her life she was incredibly active, healthy and strong. So fiercely independent, she seldom needed help nor asked for it even when she might have.
But all of a sudden, her health has taken a rapid down turn. She is now having trouble walking, or doing simple tasks like getting dressed and rising out of her chair. There is a frustration written in her face as these once easily accomplished tasks have become formidable. Even basic, simple actions require a focused concentration and effort. The hallways in our family home, that she once dashed down on her way out to the theatre, to Scottish country dancing, or to exercise at the sports club, are now painstakingly navigated with a cane and a tentative, shuffling gait.
It has been very difficult to see her morphing from a vibrant, healthy, athletic woman into such frailty and uncertainty. Thankfully, there are still moments where her blue eyes sparkle with delight as she engages in a stimulating discussion or as we laugh about the silliness of aging.
But mostly, these are challenging times. There are moments where my grief is overwhelming. Where raw emotions pummel my heart. And I weep. Overcome by the mere thought of a world without her.
There are tender moments. Such as when I kneel by her bed to gently rub cream into her crooked toes and weary, worn, knobby feet. Or when feelings of mutual vulnerability are forced upon us as I help her bathe. It is so unbearably moving to see her bravely, slowly undress, and then leaning into me as we work together to maneuver her onto her shower seat. There is also gratitude as we watch her loving and skilled caregivers help her dress, go for a walk or prepare her dinner.
I notice our conversations have changed. She was never one for sharing deeply personal thoughts or feelings. But there are now moments she is more revealing about the matters in her heart. She is reflecting more about her life, her worries for our family in the future, and how she wishes this part of the journey could just be easier. I too have a greater immediacy to say everything that is on my heart. It is as if I need to cover off every thread, to share precious, previously unspoken thoughts.
As we walk alongside my mother, my sister and I have talked a lot about what we are learning from her about the autumn of life. We talk about the inevitable journey we are all on, and how we can best prepare for our own autumns. I can’t say that we have it all figured out. But at least we are talking about it. We are learning the language of it all. Being allowed to share in this journey helps us to prepare for our own walk.
We have learned the true value of companionship. We have discovered that no one should face autumn alone. As winter approaches, this road particularly needs to be travelled with loving, caring companions. Companions and friends, with who we are free to both cry and laugh, show our fears, and from whom we can draw upon for strength and courage. We need companions comfortable with vulnerability. Who can talk, and listen. Or just sit in silence.
We have learned that asking for help is an essential part of this journey. There is a time when there is no longer any choice. It is a time to humbly and graciously accept the helping hands of others.
We have learned to deeply appreciate “earth angels”, the caregivers, who serve so selflessly to drive, bathe, cook, clean and simply love. Words can simply not express the emotions one feels watching these caring women support my mother so she can remain, content and safe, in her own home.
None of us have any idea what the next moment or day holds. Life will continue to surprise us with twists and turns and the unexpected, unwanted. I am learning to fully appreciate the gift of the moment. To simply delight in life at it’s fullest. To slow down. To breathe deeply. To look around, and up. To notice the splendor and details of creation. To pause and listen to the symphony of sounds around me. Or alternatively, to savor quiet, still, peace. To pay attention to what matters, and let the rest go. To understand that God has a plan for my life, and I need to rest in that knowledge.
My sister and I have learned the value of having those difficult, but essential, conversations with our own partners and children. Conversations about our hopes and preferences for how we would like to travel through our autumns, so they have a road map and some directions on how best to support us.
We have learned that in the grief and sadness, we will need to seek the things and people that bring us joy. To find the humor in life and in every circumstance. It is there—we just have to look for it. To embrace what we will still be able to do, rather than grieve for or focus on what we can no longer do. So that even when we can only do a fraction of what was once possible, we can still find pleasure in life.
And we have learned that our bodies will falter. It is a certainty. That no matter how many fitness classes or vitamins we consume, in the end our bodies will slow down, joints will stiffen, and our memories will falter.
Rather than give into temptations to avoid or ignore the harsh experiences of life we need to lean into and embrace them. Instead of remaining aloof and untouched, we need to courageously accept the invitation to enter someone else’s story. Not only so we can best support them, but because we will benefit from all they have to teach us.
Like most mother and daughter relationship, ours has not been perfect and in fact has had its challenging moments. But now, as we face one of the toughest seasons of her journey I feel privileged to be her travelling companion. And as we stumble forward, I am learning that I must let her go. Even though I am tempted to do everything in my power to hold her back, to keep her with me, I cannot. Because what she requires from me now – is for me to support her gently and lovingly as she moves forward inexorably to a place where I am not yet called.