My mother moved this morning. She had to leave her old apartment of some 20 years and rent a new apartment.
My sister, brother, and brother-in-law found her a bigger, sunnier place in the same neighborhood, ground floor (she had to negotiate two flights of stairs till now), arranged payment of the rental, went through everything she owned and packed them up, moved the boxes and furniture on Sunday, and this Monday morning brought my mother to her new home, where she found a clean, bright apartment with furniture in place, books in a bookcase, kitchen installed, even pictures hanging on the wall (deep appreciation to my brother-in-law for that special effort).
Yesterday I called her in her old apartment and she answered. “How’s the move?” I ask her.
“I’m already here,” she said.
“Are you sure you’re there, mom?”
“Of course. I moved, didn’t I?” She continued: “All my friends congratulate me on how, at my age (almost 93), I could do the entire move, with all the things and the furniture. They can’t believe I could do it, but I tell them: ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’”
I listened, thinking about how that very day her children had hauled things onto a truck, unloaded, and then put away, sweeping and cleaning. She has dementia, I know. At the same time, I wondered about what happens to our minds in dementia, and whether and how our habitual patterns persist even into very old age.
A friend of mine a long time ago related how a friend of his had ended her life at 75. She wrote a letter to her friends, of which he was one, saying that even though she was in very good physical and mental health, she was putting an end to her life because she wanted to die as she had lived, on her terms. Not for her the deterioration of body and mind that happens to those who age, she was putting a stop before any of that happened.
We both agreed that this is an individual decision, there’s no principle that applies to all. But, I added, what your friend may have missed is that getting older is as much of a growth process as when you’re young. When you decide to shut off the lights at a particular time, you may be doing this even when there’s still a lot to learn and discern.
What I think we most have to learn, I told my friend, is to empty our hand of things we clutched at much of our life, including our self-image, identity, and even work. None of that will last. It’s a big reason why Buddhism recommends that you prepare for death even when you’re young. Not that you shouldn’t have idealism, energy, and passion, not that you shouldn’t fall in love and raise your children, but even as you acquire, conquer, and enjoy, you learn not to cling to them too much. In the end, it will all go.
We open our hands loosely, I’ve told students. We have our opinions, stories, ideas, all of which are fine. But can we loosen up those fingers and hold things lightly?
My mother prided herself on her independence and drive for life. This is true for many people, but in her case I think much came from the Holocaust. The lesson she derived was that you had to survive at all costs, on your own.
Over the years, as she got older, her Buddhist daughter tried to talk to her about decisions she should make about end-of-life care, medical proxies, how she would like to live and die, and failed miserably. I think she heard that conversation as a betrayal of her deepest beliefs. She knew she couldn’t go on forever, but investigating what that meant, how she needed to consider a time when she couldn’t control her life, was anathema.
In her dementia she’s sure she’s the one who moved her home, she’s the one who packed everything and even helped load the furniture. Not very different from her confidence that she’s the one who organized my brother’s wedding last summer, that it wasn’t catered but that she’d cooked the food night and day (she hasn’t made a cup of coffee for herself for the last four years).
She doesn’t let go of old thinking patterns, won’t acknowledge much what folks do for her nor express appreciation. I’m not sure that’s just her dementia, I think it’s also old assertions getting stronger and even a little contentious. “Humph,” she snorts, “when they ask me how someone my age could do all this, I say: ‘Of course! Why not?’”
This is not easy on those working hard to take care of her. She has grown much softer and tenderer towards me, the one who lives far and can’t do much at all. Sometimes I think that it’s precisely because she knows I’m not there and that she can’t depend on me that she cherishes me so much.
I think of my mental and emotional habits, and how now’s the time to practice letting go.
I also think of Bernie, and especially how yielding he became towards the end of life. He was second only to my mother when it came to being independent, hating to rely on people. But after the stroke he just let it all go. He insisted on exercising every day and doing as much as he could for himself, but when he couldn’t, he let others take over and said thank you. He let others serve him, feed him, buy his clothes, and look out for all he needed. He, who loved to drive and play with computers, let others drive him, work out the hardware and the apps, help him to bathrooms, clean up, help him get up when he fell. Not once did he betray the slightest twinge off resentment or frustration.
You can say his brain had changed due to the stroke, but I don’t think that accounted for it all. He had practiced for this period of his life all his life, even as he couldn’t see the stroke coming. And when it came, he was readier than anyone I’d ever seen.
I always envisage him when he got up at 10 in the morning. I would hear him move around and would go to the bedroom to see him sitting up and looking out the window before laboriously putting on the heavy black shoes that, winter and summer, took him to the bathroom. I’d sit alongside and look out the window, too.
“How are you? How was the night?”
He answered truthfully. Okay to the first, and the nights were often not so good. What was he thinking, what was he feeling, I’d wonder about this most uncommunicative of men. He would look out the window, the beginning of another day with only half his body operating, and open his hand.