My mother has been living in an assisted living facility in St. Louis for the past three months. Before this, she had spent the previous 88 years and 2 months of her life in Philadelphia. The change, naturally enough, has been difficult for her and I suppose, in its way, difficult for me. She is somewhere she does not wish to be, in a physical state she does not wish to be in and surely does not define her desire or her image of herself. I am inconvenienced financially and burdened by a commitment that consumes an enormous amount of time and attention. Neither of us want this situation. But yet it does not really seem so difficult or so bad as all that. Not exactly fated, yet in some vague way scripted in the sheer ordinariness, the sheer commonness of it all: old parents who become the responsibility of their children. I think we were both waiting for this, expecting this to happen.
I now think about my mother every day. I did not do this before she came to St. Louis to live. There was, in fact, a stretch of years when I did not think about her much at all, particularly the years during her second marriage when I had also married—her second marriage at age 48, and my marriage at age 25, occurred within months of each other—and was rearing young children. She had a life and I had mine. I no longer lived in Philadelphia, abandoning that city in 1977 with utterly no regrets, rarely ever touched by even winces of nostalgia for a place that I found increasingly to be, shall we say, unpleasant for a young black man to live for some obvious, and some rather obscure or deeply personal, reasons. Even after her second marriage ended with the death of my stepfather in 1994, I still did not interact with my mother a great deal, visiting her perhaps once a year, talking to her on the phone perhaps once a month or so. It was when my mother’s health began to fail in the last half-dozen years that I was forced to think about her more. This intensified greatly when my oldest sister died of pancreatic cancer in 2015, a loss the unreality of which still quite amazes me. At that point, I was struck by one undeniable fact: no one is indestructible. I also saw a great sea change in my mother, both physically and emotionally, when my sister died. When I brought her to St. Louis, the sea change became clearer to me, in both its origin and meaning. My mother had not gotten over my sister’s death and she never will. That explains, finally, even to an enormous ignoramus like myself, everything. It explains why I have become my mother’s final caretaker. I was her only son, the baby boy. With the eldest child gone, only the son and a middle daughter were left. It was inevitable how things would turn out.
The necessity of adjustment is, in truth, the more profound human drama. Trust me on this.
I do not visit my mother every day. It is not good for someone in an assisted living facility, I am told, as it will only make the loved one even more unhappy and more unwilling and unable to adjust to the place. And institutional adjustment is the prime directive of our lives in the modern world. Since kindergarten we have been told constantly, unrelentingly, to adjust. (I suppose all this storming about politicized identity these days is really our rebellion against adjustment. “I will adjust only to my liberated self as my own law and to nothing else,” is the motto these days, the melodrama of which risks the reaction of boredom and fatigue. The necessity of adjustment is, in truth, the more profound human drama. Trust me on this.) Institutional adjustment makes life easier by making oneself less conspicuous and thus making one’s bedeviling self-consciousness more manageable. My mother has adjusted, to the extent that anyone can to this sort of dormitory-cum-warehouse, not with ease by any means, but far easier than I suspected. My mother has become docile, surprisingly but conveniently for me, in her closing days of fragile health and the infirmities of old age. She deeply hates being old, having been a vigorous and lively woman, an assertive woman, when she was young. She rails against it bitterly even now but she also accepts things as they are, which means that she can hold two diametrically opposite ideas or emotions in her head—hatred of how things are and acceptance of how things are—a skill I do not think she had when she was young. I like to think that because I am her son and probably her favorite child that my constant presence now gives her a certain, for lack of a better term, confident fatalism. She does not fight against me nearly as much, indeed, not at all as she fought against my other sister, the middle child. Their fighting is why my mother now lives in St. Louis.
A son’s devotion is not a bad thing to wrap yourself in. To other people, it is downright admirable. It even has a simple honesty about it because I am acting from such a reflex, so unthinkingly, that I am not debilitated by doubts about my motives, as I am most of the time about many other things.
I do not visit my mother every day (I see her three times a week) but I think about her every day. I seem to think about her every hour of every day. Everything I do is weighed against my mother, how it will affect my mother, how it will affect my ability to take care of my mother. My mother doubtless is the star of the drama of her own life but she has become the star of the drama of my life. I do not mind this as much as I thought I might have had I been told beforehand that I would be thinking in this way. Thinking about her actually gives my life a certain sense of mission, a kind of moral clarity. A son’s devotion is not a bad thing to wrap yourself in. To other people, it is downright admirable. It even has a simple honesty about it because I am acting from such a reflex, so unthinkingly, that I am not debilitated by doubts about my motives, as I am most of the time about many other things. In short, having my mother in St. Louis with me has lessened my guilt which has made it easier for the both of us to adjust to each other after so any years apart. I remember a short-lived television program my mother and I used to watch when I was a child (we watched a lot of television together in those days) called “My Mother, the Car” about a man (played by Jerry Van Dyke) who buys an old Tin Lizzie and discovers that it is the reincarnation of his mother (voiced acted by Ann Sothern). The show was about their relationship, a series of adjustments to her change and to his response to it. These days I feel a bit as if my mother has been reincarnated as a dependent with special needs voiced acted by the woman who reared me.
But I am aware that this form of adjustment is only temporary. However much time my mother has to live, a few months, a few years or even more, is actually part of what may be called the long game of our relationship, unless by some quirk of fate I die before her. In the normal course of events, what we are both facing is not simply entering the stretch run of the race but rather reinventing the meaning of the beginning of it all, how we two beings, by the accident of nature, came together at all. No matter how short or long the run, there is, in this regard, a great deal left to be settled between us.