The sun rose in a corner of deep scarlet sky the morning that my visit to my mother ended. Japanese tourists rushed to catch it with their expensive cameras; I stared at it wishing I could peel it away and stick it on the wall of my mother’s dark little bedroom.
Her room is narrow, wide enough for her bed, a folding chair, and an end table. A chest of drawers faces her at the end of the room, which holds her television, her Bose player, a stunning bouquet of tulips that my sister brought her, and photographs of her children. Little piles of books are on the moving shelf that’s attached to her bed and on the nearby table and a colorful reproduction of an Impressionist painting brightens one of the walls. The only window is curtained to keep out the sub-zero cold of an interior
winter. This is where my mother lives.
If she could walk, she could get out of bed and sit in a living room that’s banked with windows. Moose frequently come out of the trees to the deck and lick away the salt that’s sprinkled on it to thaw the ice. She could play with the small dog who presides over the house and talk to his owner, Marion, who’s a woman of style and opinions. In a room nearby is a woman in her 90’s who has lived in
Fairbanks all of her
life. My mother and she would probably find they have much in common, but
they’re two of a kind, proud and private women. For each of them, their rooms are their castles.
My mother has become tiny. Her shoulders, which were always broad and strong, are little wings under her flannel nightgown and her arms have only enough flesh to cover the bones. Her collarbones protrude like little jewels and the legs she was always so proud of have become sticks, my sister told me. Her face is distilled to its essence—her glowing eyes and her smile.
My mother is ending her life not as she longed to, in her own dwelling place, able to take care of herself. But in some ways that is very fortunate for her. In her own house, she was surrounded by memories of what she could do and she hurt herself when she tried to do those things—walk to a cupboard, go to the bathroom by herself, stand at the doorway to give treats to my sister’s dogs. She is a woman of tremendous will and in her own place, that will refused to be quiet.
house, my mother is a paying guest. She receives tender and intelligent care,
and in return, my mother does nothing to transgress the boundaries of the
kindness that surrounds her. In a strange place, it’s easier to accept the
limitations of her body. What is amazing to me is how lovingly and gracefully
she has entered the end of her life.
My mother could choose to be bitter that only now is her family coming to her side, that during the years that she was still healthy, we all stayed away except for my youngest sister. Instead she’s chosen to radiate love toward all of her children who have come to her side when she has nowhere to run from us. The strength that it takes for her to embark upon a visit with people who have missed all of the stages that brought her to this bed, the energy that it takes for her to gleam her love toward us, the humor that glints frequently as she talks, all of this is the gift she gives to her daughters.
The largest gift is the example she offers of how to end a good, although often difficult, life. When we said goodbye, we both knew it was probably forever and my mother sent me away with a smile and more love than I deserve glowing in her eyes.