Not long ago, I accompanied my 94-year-old mother, Pat, and her 95-year-old friend to lunch at the Sarasota Yacht Club. When the waiter started to hand the women two large menus, my mother stopped him.
“We don’t see,” said Mom, who is nearly blind because of macular degeneration in both eyes.
“We don’t hear, either,” her friend added.
The waiter backed up, not sure how to respond.
“But we do drink,” my mother added with a wink. “I’ll have a Dewar’s on the rocks.”
I love to tell friends that story when they ask about my mother, who lives at Sarasota’s Plymouth Harbor retirement center.
In addition to grappling with the steady decline of her vision and hearing, she has suffered several other setbacks in the past few years, including a broken hip and two bouts of pneumonia. She had to give up the apartment she loved in the independent-living section of Plymouth Harbor and move to a small private room in the health center. Though it’s nicely decorated with some of her antiques and family photos, it’s still a room with a hospital bed.
But though the boundaries of her world have narrowed, her spirits have rarely sagged, and her sense of humor has never failed her. A few months ago, because of a bleeding problem, she was rushed back to Sarasota Memorial Hospital the morning after being discharged after a 10-day stay. I was a nervous wreck, but when the emergency room doctor asked her how she was doing, she flashed a weak smile. “I’m doing OK, but all these ambulance rides are interfering with my sleep,” she told him.
Even at her advanced age, my mother is still teaching me valuable lessons, showing me that getting old and battling illness can be handled with grace, courage and spunk.
Until 10 years ago, I must confess that I never thought of my mother as particularly brave or strong, for she had no reason to display those qualities. She led a comfortable life centered around family and friends. My charismatic father, a former professional baseball player, was the six-foot-four, larger-than-life figure in our home. She was his devoted partner for nearly 60 years, until he died instantly in a car accident in 1998.
Suddenly, my mother’s life turned upside down. She had to deal with his loss while moving from her Whitfield Estates home of 40 years to Plymouth Harbor. At the same time, her vision was declining rapidly. She had to stop driving, switched from reading books to listening to them on tape, and could no longer tell the spades from the clubs during the bridge games she loved.
But I never heard her express anger or self-pity. She threw herself into her new life at Plymouth Harbor, making friends, taking water aerobics classes, attending lectures and becoming a star in the painting studio (“Because of my eyes, all my paintings look like Impressionist works, whether I want them to or not,” she once quipped).
I’ll always be grateful to the staff and residents of Plymouth Harbor for providing the nurturing atmosphere in which she could enjoy rather than merely run out the days of her life. In fact, my mom doesn’t want me to have a funeral service for her when the time comes. “People at Plymouth Harbor have too many things to do,” she told me. “They have busy schedules. And anyway, death is no big deal here. It happens every day.”
One more lesson from Mom: Try to put death into its proper perspective, as a natural and inevitable part of life.
Of course, another reason my mother doesn’t want a funeral is that she doesn’t think she’s provided me with good eulogy material. When we attended a memorial service a few years ago, a woman’s son mentioned that he’d never heard his mother say an unkind word about anyone.
Mom tapped me on my shoulder. “Oh, Charlie, you won’t be able to say that about me,” she whispered.
Exactly. And that’s one of the things I love about her, that her sweetness is tempered with a little sauciness. I also love her sense of style. Even now, she’s always one of the best-dressed ladies at Plymouth Harbor. She gets her hair and nails done every week, and even when she’s feeling blah, she can be coaxed into a shopping trip to a Main Street boutique.
I love her sense of adventure, too. As a child, I never thought of Mom as adventurous, but now I realize she always was. After graduating from college, she had planned to be, in her words, “an old-maid schoolteacher” in the small Oklahoma town where she grew up.
But one day, a relative stopped by on the way to Washington, D.C. Mom was invited to travel along, and she accepted immediately. She got a job in her congressman’s Capitol Hill office, met my father and never returned home.
Until a few years ago, her love of travel was undiminished. At 90, she and I toured New England in the fall. I’m not sure how much of the color display she could really see, but she loved the cozy inns and the crackling fireplaces. At 91, she joined me on a Caribbean cruise, attending every after-dinner show and dancing to reggae music with a dreadlocked guide on a shore excursion.
Her traveling days are over now, and she can’t hear well enough to enjoy Talking Books or the television anymore. But though I think the mundane routine of her life must depress her at times, she never lets on.
She still loves taking wheelchair rides with me through Selby Gardens and the Ringling Museum. She also keeps making new friends, from the compassionate employees of Eldercare Services to Juan Cardenas, the acting student she sponsors at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. Last year, when she was stronger, Mom attended all of Juan’s performances. “I couldn’t hear a word, but I enjoyed it, and you were wonderful,” she told him after one show.
Mom has developed a new passion late in life: eating ice cream. She has it at every lunch and dinner (a good thing, since her weight has dropped to 82 pounds), and we visit the ice cream shops on St. Armands regularly.
Before I left on a recent trip, Mom told me not to worry if something should happen while I was gone. “I know you’ll be sad, but just remember that it was my time,” she said.
I told her I appreciated the philosophical tone, but that I was sure she’d be around a while longer.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I have a lot more ice cream to eat.”