4:13am Mother’s Day
I’ve been awake worrying about Mom since she got sick two weeks ago, and now, moreso that we moved her into the so-called Skilled Nursing Facility yesterday. It’s located in the same building her independent living apartment is, where she has thrived in a more constrained way for the last 7 years than her previous 90 years.
Still she’s thrived. She’s made new friends, always making new friends, enjoyed the food, though it is the worst of American cuisine, and forced herself to go to exercise and craft classes and talks on current events and appreciated what she still has and allowed herself only a little time to feel the feelings of missing her husband who died 9 years ago. She’s been at all times generous to her children and grandchildren, and at all times happy to hear of any happiness we wanted to share with her.
Mom is alive, but after a bad illness and five days of hospitalization, she is seriously weakened. She has always bounced back in a remarkable way, even from a fractured pelvis last year, but this time there seems to be a sort of decline that, at 98, will be hard to reverse. I imagine that tomorrow, Monday, she will begin physical therapy, and then, who knows? Perhaps another remarkable recovery?
This is mom last year after a pelvic bone fracture with one of the physical therapists she will see now. They totally got her healed and back to her life after 4 weeks!
The nursing at the Skilled Nursing Facility is pitiful, but the physical therapy team is stellar. Mom, with all her mom-ly ways that drives each of her children a little bit crazy, is a lover of life and by that I mean of us, though if we weren’t here, I think she would still love it, life, that is, as long as there were people in it willing to receive her smiles and her questions about whether or not they have a boyfriend (or girlfriend) and other overly personal questions, but really she is just checking for their happiness, because happiness has always been important to her. Through her questions, she is looking for connection, because… who amongst us isn’t?
My friend, Maxe came over for dinner last night. We talked about a lot of things and Maxe was saying how difficult it is to be happy when there are so many bad things happening and so much suffering everywhere. I know this line of thinking because I’ve thought it. A lot. First, there’s the question of guilt. What right do I have to be happy, lucky, privileged when others are suffering so? There is also the question of sorrow, of feeling so deeply the pain of the world, you miss out on the moments you could feel happy.
I told Maxe that I had tried depression for years, (most of it unconscious but still working its damaging effects on my mind and body) and I have tried guilt and all that, but none of it worked, and anyway, if you go around miserable, or decide you can’t go on anymore, what do you do beside create suffering for those around you and especially for the ones you love and who love you most.
I told her that since everyone has a right to be happy, that includes us. I understand the us part of that equation is a slightly elusive idea.
And not only a right, but a duty to be happy.
At this point, Maxe said, But of course you feel that way because your mother put you in your room whenever you weren’t happy and told you not to come out until you put a smile on your face. This is true; Mom thought she was training me to be happy. She thought she was doing a good thing with her sometimes melancholy daughter.
I spent many years refusing happiness, or just not being able to get to it. I saw so many kinds of suffering I didn’t know how to navigate.
I said, yes Maxe, it’s true, that happened. But this happiness I’m talking about is not that. It’s the happiness that first of all we deserve simply for being alive and being able to perceive the good and experience pleasure. That’s our birthright.
It’s the happiness that will make those around you happier, that will give you the energy to do the things you want, including whatever work that is yours to do to relieve suffering. Maybe I can’t personally, directly help all the starving children in the world, but maybe my presence, my joy as well as whatever tiny things I can do — a photo, a hug, making my garden beautiful, (which also helps the bees and butterflies), something I say, or the way I listen.. those tiny things might inspire the very person who just might directly help the starving children. We never know. We can put ourselves in the network of people and animals doing life-affirming work, people who will stand up for change, who will work for it. We can contribute our happiness and its results to the energy field.
Anxiety, depression, and other mind states work in myriad and weird ways, so I’m definitely not saying that everyone can be happy at all times. I’m just saying if you have the choice, if you have the possibility of contemplating and choosing happiness, well, it’s not a selfish act. It can feel selfish in the moment, especially if you have the internal narrative of what right do I have to be happy when others are suffering? It can seem selfish. But it’s not. It’s not.
Now, don’t go bullying people into happiness! Don’t send them to their rooms until they can put a smile on their face or guilt trip them for their sorrow.
I love the tenderness and vulnerability of those who are able to feel, to suffer with, to hear the cries of the world, but that said, I am mostly inspired by those who choose happiness as a path of being.
For instance, the Dalai Lama. How can he even be happy, especially after all the suffering he has endured personally and witnessed? And yet, his happiness (and the ways he manifests it) is a great source of inspiration for millions of people.
I am sure there are many other examples, but it is 4:43 in the morning. Before I started writing this, I read several Mary Oliver poems from a big fat collection of her poetry. I was looking for poems about serious aging, possible dying. I was looking for some instruction, for some light on this particular new and poorly lit path I am on, the path of holding on tightly while letting go.
This terrain is the oldest known to humans, but still new to me. I’m in need of the wisdom and kindness of those who have traveled this path, who have something to tell me. I have loved and let go of dear patients of mine, of dear friends of mine, of my father. But… this… is new terrain.
Me and my sister, Terri, last year at Mom’s.
My mother asks overly personal questions to strangers; I write words and send them and pictures out into the world, Mary Oliver walks in the woods and writes poems about it, our nation sent up a space capsule with all kinds of information about us, Earthlings. The Dalai Lama belly laughs and invites scientists and meditators to talk with him and each other. My friend, Maxe spends days taking care of the animals she loves and making phone calls to get people to vote. She is an actor in Netflix’s Sense8, a series about connections and interconnections.
We are all looking for connection.
And now it’s 5:13. I just wrote for an hour. I hope Mom is asleep, and my sister too. I hope the nurse’s aides were kind and took good care of her last night. It’s Mother’s Day today. For now though, for me, everyday has become mother’s day, and night too.
In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.