We inevitably lose our parents, and perhaps it is fortunate when we lose them before they lose us. My father-in-law lost his daughter, my wife, before he passed away, and I think it really crushed him. So there is a blessing and an initiation when our parents pass. Our grief can bring us into adult, mature and compassionate places that perhaps we never reach without it.
My mother is in the stages of passing away right now, and having lost my father and two stepfathers, she is my final parent. I’ve been her guardian for eight years, her primary caregiver for some of that time, always the one ultimately responsible for her well-being. Penny has thrived in her memory care unit for five years, held by a remarkably stable and loving collective of caregivers. It’s Alzheimer’s. She stopped recognizing me more than three years ago, and has needed a wheelchair and hospital bed and two people to move her for most of that time. She’s been on a liquid diet since she got aspiration pneumonia and was hospitalized a few years ago. Her skin is so fragile, it looks like parchment. She has not spoken in over a year, and when you speak to her by name, her eyes do not move. I do not know how much of the woman who raised me and loved me is still there — no way to know — but it cannot be much.
The last few weeks, she has been eating less and less, losing weight, sleeping more. Hospice nurses and my eternally helpful caregiver friend Laurie tell me she is looking content. This is a wonderful thing, for I do not believe she found much contentment in her life.
A rampant perfectionist, I rarely heard Penny voice her approval of anything, neither me nor my brothers, any aspect of her life, any of her three husbands, the functioning of any organization she participated in. That critical voice is very well internalized for me, and much of my work over the last few decades has been around criticism and contempt.
I hold her in my heart, as she peacefully sleeps, feeling the years of responsibility for her, wondering what it will feel like when she is gone.