I had been staying with my mom for a month, nursing her 98-year-old body back to a relative state of health after a downturn.
I am not sure what really happened prior to me getting there, but I think she had kind of thrown in the towel. For almost every moment of her life, she has been incredibly strong, incredibly willful. And she was always so determined to be independent and not interfere with her children’s lives. Her favorite expression,“I can do it,” used to apply to working three jobs to make ends meet, but recently it applied to the three stairs she needed to climb.
After 98 years, the last four alone after her second husband, her beloved Bill, died, she was just too lonely and too tired, the gap between what she wanted to be able to do and what she was capable of doing was too great, navigating with a walker and the effort to feed herself and drink properly was too much. She just sat on the couch and stopped everything. Had her neighbors not found her, I think she would have slipped her skin.
A short hospital visit, some fluid and nutrition and she was well enough to go home. But it was obvious she could no longer be alone. My brothers and I decided to set up month long rotations to have someone stay with her. I had the first shift.
Being in the middle of nowhere Tennessee was painful beyond words for about 27 entitled reasons I won’t bore you with, but my mom and I had a great month together. Yes, she slept a lot. But we shared meals, had our little repartee, and laughed a lot. I am not religious, but she is and so I prayed with her at night and read my incredible teenage son’s beautiful letter that he wrote to her when he thought he was going to lose his Grandma.
She had such a tough life and yet, every night, she thanked God for all the blessings in her life: her Bill, her family, her experiences, her friends and neighbors. I would tell her that it was really good to be with her and also how beautiful she still was in my eyes. Despite her protests, I meant both.
On my last night, as I said good night, I also said goodbye because I was leaving early. I told her that I would probably see her again in a few months when it was my turn to comeback out, but I also said that God could take her anytime and that was out of our hands. She agreed.
I told her how much I loved her, what a great teacher and role model she was to me and how lucky I felt I was to have her as a mom and to have had her for so many years. She told me she was really glad I felt that way that she had worked so hard to be a good mom and would hate thinking she had fallen short. I was going to ask her if there was any last thing she wanted to say to me, but decided not to.
I was leaving early for the airport and I had thought I was not going to wake her. But for some reason I did. She said to me, “Thank you so much for coming to be with me.” And then she looked at me in a way that I don’t ever consciously recall seeing. Maybe because it was morning and she was not so exhausted, but something shone through: so much love, so much gratitude. Time seemed to slow down, as if to allow something more to pass through her gaze. Eternity. The Mystery. Right there. In her eyes.
As I was flying home, I had this thought: my Mom had given me the only thing that I think children really want from their parents: to be blessed. Not just a blessing of words like over a plate of food, though many hunger for that too, but the blessing that comes from being seen, being reflected in loving eyes.
That thought came later. In the moment with her, I was certain that feeling would remain in my body until my own bones turn to dust.
And I am now left with this: there is more in our eyes than the images they see. There is the reflection...what others see in them.
Dennis is an executive coach and consultant based in the San Francisco bay area. More by and about him on his website.
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