Saturday, July 9, 2011

Observations: The good son?

This was hard. As we drove away from The Meadows, I told my wife Michelle to take the route that would pass by her apartment. Sure enough, there she was in the window, waving goodbye.
The Meadows is an assisted living facility where Mom moved two months ago. Her new apartment is very spacious and very nice with a private deck off the living room. It is, however, much smaller than her house and her condition prevents her from filling it up with the things she loves in life.
Most of those things, the result of a lifetime of collecting the antiques that she loved so much, are now laid out on the floors of her house like some cheap market bazaar. To see her century-old, handmade, wooden furniture and her precious and very fragile glass items set into piles like so much unwanted merchandise was highly upsetting for me. That’s not how it is supposed to be.
But that’s how it is right now. She can’t have too much clutter in her apartment, she can’t have wall-to-wall antiques because it is important that her new home not present obstacles to how she gets around — sometimes with a walker. From a physical standpoint, she needs the space more than she needs her stuff. But from an emotional standpoint, she needs her stuff.
We spent an afternoon bringing over her extensive collection of Shirley Temple items. For years, that was her hobby, her mission really. At first, she bought anything and everything; but as the collection grew, she became much more selective. What she has now is a collection that would rival a museum, filled with unique and interesting things — some of which may be the only artifacts remaining in existence. After all, how many Shirley Temples finely carved and painted from soap could still be around after nearly 80 years?
After an afternoon of moving and carefully stowing away boxes and excess Shirleys, her entire collection was once again in one place, now packed into a closet in her apartment. Beyond Shirley Temple, there is much more stuff that had meaning for her spread out on the floor of her house. We spent the evening slowly walking through the house grabbing the things she wanted. With the larger items we’d stop and ask, “Are you sure you have room for this?”, but most things just went into boxes to be taken to her new apartment without question. As we finished up, she remarked to Michelle, “I’m not dead yet.”
My brother feels bad about it, I think. He tried to move everything that had meaning to her — he thought he had. But she tells each of her kids something slightly different. In his case in particular, as her primary caregiver and an exceedingly busy man with little free time for himself, almost certainly she just didn’t want to ask him. She didn’t want to add to the burden that he already carries. He has no reason to feel bad, but he does. He wants her to be happy. He also wants her to be safe.
There is a fine line between safety and happiness. There is a fine line between the autonomy that Mom still wants and the protection and safety that her children want for her. Mom’s stuff, her antiques and knickknacks, give her happiness, but they also have the potential to become a hazard to her. Is depriving her of the things she loves in the name of safety the best way to ensure the happiest, longest life she can have?  There’s no good answer to that. The only thing that is known is that each of her children wants her to be both happy AND to be around for as long as possible.
It’s hard to leave. I wonder what my dad, now gone for 33 years, would want. Often I think that if I were a good son, I’d pack up our lives and move to that little town in Minnesota to be there to help her and my brother with the day-to-day needs of living. I’d be there to spend time with her. I’d be there to swap out antiques that she doesn’t feel comfortable enough to ask my brother about. I’d be there when the fear of the unknown begins to take over, ruining days that should not be ruined. She’s not dead yet. She deserves to enjoy to the fullest the time she has left.
I wonder why I didn’t plan to see Mom’s life left in boxes on the floor when I was in my 20s and she in her still-youthful 50s. But then, I realize that I could not have because it would have been unimaginable then. It is unimaginable now.
The antiques themselves, spread out on the floor, somehow haunt me. When they were made, life was so much harder, so much less luxurious than it is today; but somehow the answers to life’s questions seemed easier, clearer. Families stayed together because they had to. More often than not, they needed each other to survive. Besides, where else would anyone go?  Today that’s not the case. Kids move away and build their own lives far from home, relying on modern transportation and technology to bridge the gap that they themselves created. It seems life is easier today, but the questions are much more difficult. The answers certainly are.
I tell myself that I need to try to be a good son. I need to try to be a good brother, a good husband, a good reporter, a good friend. When I fail at any of those, I tell myself to try harder. But what I really need to do is not to try but to do. The question is, “What should I do?” I know there are many other people out there in my situation, far away from home with an aging parent who increasingly needs help.

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