My mother has left her home. Age first took her balance then her appetite, then her ability to walk, When a person can no longer go to the toilet alone, that’s a sentencing. My mother was luckier than most. The daughter who has always loved her best took her to a house owned by a woman who cares, and who will care for our mother.
Early on, I saw her teeter and fall. She was still walking then, but her balance could fail her without warning. That was four years ago. It was an omen that was as decisive as breaking a hip. Gradually, but not slowly, her balance deteriorated, and with it went her confidence and her independence.
Mother would probably claim that her independence began to wither when she could no longer drive. For decades she had been used to hopping into her car at will and taking off on tiny adventures—going to the movies, or to buy groceries. The distance traveled was unimportant; it was the choice that mattered, and the spontaneity. When she gave up her driver’s license, her world began to shrink and “I wish I could still drive,” was a keynote of her conversations.
My mother had been a woman with a drive-by life. She loved fleeting encounters with random people, anecdotes that always concluded with her hopping in her car and driving away. She was nourished by these meetings and when she no longer could go out to find them, I think she began to starve a little. Slowly she began to shut down.
She lived in a lovely little apartment that I coveted—an open room with large windows overlooking a riverbank, and leading into a dark, cozy little bedroom. It was compact and “just right,” like Goldilock’s porridge. There was room for everything my mother loved to do—cook, read, listen to music, and watch movies. But it was out in the country. The bus that took aging people into town didn’t come as far as my mother’s house and taxis made a whopping hole in her budget. To go anywhere, she had to be driven by her family.
She was surrounded by an enclave of family. Her son-in-law had built her apartment specifically for her, and it was two steps through a covered garage from my sister’s house. His mother and father lived across the yard and two other households were within walking distance. At first there was a pool of transportation possibilities for my mother; eventually there was only my sister, and her husband when he was home.
Mother went to Weight Watchers and Curves, went to my sister’s Toastmaster meetings, went to the library—but it wasn’t the same for her. This was all scheduled, not spur of the moment, and it was someone else’s schedule. For her much of the fun was fading from her excursions, even though they were not much different from what she would do on her own.
When I was little, I would go out to our car, sit in it, and pretend to drive. I had noticed the sense of joy and freedom that my mother found behind the steering wheel and I wanted that for myself. Mother learned to drive when she was pregnant with her fourth child; for years she went nowhere without a cluster of children in the back seat of her car. But she was in another world when she drove; it was a socially sanctioned way to escape the housekeeping she detested and the cooking that consumed her life—three meals a day for five children and a husband. There were no demands when she drove; her children knew better than to break her concentration upon the road. Her happiness was palpable; it was what I tried to feel as I imagined that control of the car was mine.
As soon as she could, when I was old enough to be left in charge of my brother and sisters, my mother made her escape even more private. She’d put on a fresh coat of red lipstick and blot it by kissing us all goodbye, jump in the car and go to pick up the mail and buy groceries. It was a trip that took several hours, all of them hers. She’d return with stories of who she saw, what they chatted about. Her car was her sanctuary and her lifeline. Mother took to driving the way other women took to drink.
And now that was gone. She did her best to substitute the telephone, using it for long visits with her daughters, her nephew, a cousin by marriage. She became the conduit of information between all of us, but that lacked the savor of finding her own stories. Then her hearing began to fade away.
Mother had a bulging bank account of stories from her seventy years of life by that time and she had always dreamed of being a writer. This would have been the time for her to pin her stories to a page but she didn’t do it. For her, the pleasure was in the attention, immediate and gratifying, that she received when she told them. She was a storyteller in the oral tradition, not a writer. She should have followed my sister into Toastmasters. She would have been a star.
She lives now in a house where she isn't the only old person. There are four other people who are cared for in this place. Some are older than she is, some have more pronounced limitations of age. All of them value their privacy and their dignity as much as my mother does. She will be part of a small community again, and not dependent upon her children for phone calls, conversation, trips. When my sister found this new home for my mother, she also found a new source of stories. As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I hope that’s true. I hope my mother begins to find fresh stories.