I'm up late tonight, which is not unlike many nights before. However, instead of finishing the next chapter of my never ending novel, instant messaging my friends, or trolling message boards, I am looking for a cheap plane ticket home next month. Once again, that's nothing out of the ordinary since I travel home to New York as often as possible to escape the boredom of the Midwest. Unfortunately, this trip isn't social in nature. I won't be standing on line in the freezing cold wearing something completely inappropriate for below freezing temperatures waiting to gain entrance into the latest Manhattan hot spot. Nor will I be spending money I don't have at my favorite stores in Soho. I will be helping take care of my mother for a week while she recovers from spinal surgery to relieve arthritic pain in her lower back and hip. She is 55.
At 25, this is not a trip I expected to make for at least another 15 to 20 years. While my mother may no longer be a spring chicken, she is hardly old enough to be considered elderly. However, that's how she seemed when I saw her a few months ago. Her walk is slow and deliberate, as though she has to concentrate on the least painful way to make her next step. Once long and erect, her back is now hunched, causing her shoulders to slump. She reminds me more of my recently deceased grandmother than the mom I’ve always known. It would be naïve of me to think that my mother would stay forever young, but this aging feels as though it’s happening way too soon. These are supposed to be the carefree years when the children are gone, retirement benefits flow, and life is leisurely for her. Instead her life is mired in doctors appointments, medication, and invasive surgery.
Some people say that growing older is a gradual process and you can’t pinpoint exactly where it begins. I, on the other hand, know precisely when mom got old. It was right after her mother passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Grandma was 88 when she died, and although she was not terminally ill or dying, she did appear to be falling apart at the seams. Her feet, long hampered by bunions and hammer toes, grew increasingly more painful; an always present heart murmur needed to be more closely monitored; and her once agile mind could no longer keep track of all it once remembered. The family was in the process of relocating her from her home in the Bronx for over 40 years to a smaller apartment three hours north and minutes from my parents. The funeral was the week before the movers were scheduled to come pack up her belongings. Almost immediately afterwards, my mother who is usually a constant ball of motion was bedridden, suffering from extreme pain in her hip, which was later diagnosed as a side affect of a pinched nerve in her back. She could not walk, let alone work or attend the many community activities in which she is involved. Seemingly overnight, the woman who once seemed like Wonder Woman to me had been grounded. Medication and physical therapy have her up and running again, if only at half speed. During a recent phone conversation she joked, “I don’t think my mother really died. She just took up residence in my body, giving me all her ailments.” I laughed at the time, but I’m beginning to think there is a great deal of truth in her musings. In spite of herself, she has become her mother.
Interestingly enough, I’m not alone in my situation. In the last few months I’ve had countless conversations with friends who are all worried about recent physical ailments affecting their 50 something parents. Whether it’s adult onset diabetes, degenerative arthritis, failing eyesight, or terminal illnesses we are all under thirty years old and faced with the declining health and ultimate mortality of our Baby Boomer parents. While the conditions differ, our reactions to them are invariably the same, “One minute mom or dad was fine, and now they aren’t.” None of us want to lose our parents, but at the same time we don’t want to watch them slowly fade from the affects of aging, knowing that there is nothing we can do to prevent it from happening.
There was once a time when I effectively tuned my mother out during most of our weekly phone calls. I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing about the goings on in my hometown or her opinions on my unchecked shoe habit. But lately, I find myself calling her more often to see how she’s doing and get the latest updates on her therapy sessions and doctor visits. I worry about her more, but I also appreciate her more, realizing that she won’t always be here to simultaneously love and annoy me. I honestly do not know if this surgery will make her pain free for the next 10 to 15 years, but I am hopeful that I will have her around and living a full and happy life for twice that long.