I remember the first time I realized my mother was aging. I was 16 years old and at summer camp. I stood at the top of a hill, watching mothers and fathers trek up the hill for parents’ day. My mother was fit, but her face looked older. I shivered as I realized at that moment that she was mortal, and she wouldn’t live forever.
A few years later, my father suddenly died. He and my mother had been childhood sweethearts. For the better part of a year, her soul was shriveled, and she was pale, inside and out. I was terrified that she would die like my father. But she eventually bounced back and thrived. Whew. Her vulnerability was temporary. I didn’t have to worry.
But then, a decade or so later, when I was living in Europe, my mother came to visit me with her boyfriend. He said that he noticed that the skin of his arms was aging. I looked at my mother. The skin of her arms was aging too.
When my mother was 80, she got cancer, and lost a kidney. Uh oh. But she was a tiger, and it didn’t keep her down for long. She went back to her life, which included helming a book club and jogging up to 10 miles a day.
At 85, she was taken with Eminem. She made her first public appearance as a rapper on her birthday.
At age 89, my mother was still jogging, and still the leader of the book club. For her 90th birthday, she danced with the coach for Dancing With the Stars. If this was how it looked to be 90, well, it wasn’t so bad.
Next week, my mother turns 96. I just went to visit her. She looks fine. Her mind is as laser-sharp as it was at 50, her hearing is perfect, and her memory is much better than mine or almost anyone else’s I know. But she can hardly walk, even with a walker. And reading is a thing of the past. In fact, she says she can barely see the food on her plate, she can no longer see the image on a TV screen, and she listens to books on tape and has the radio on in every room.
Some people might accept aging with a resigned sigh, but my mother is determined not to go gently into that good night. She hates her life and is miserable. She rails against old age. Almost every sentence she speaks has to do with illness, death, loss of friends, futility. She doesn’t want any suggestions about how to make things better. She hates going out. She lives with a caregiver, and clings to the slivers of physical independence she has left.
I have had a complex, often difficult relationship with my mother throughout my life, and have certainly been angry and judgmental of her behavior. But I find that I cannot judge the way she is reacting to physical decline. I am not sure that I would be able to accept the loss of physical functions and the diminution of my quality of life.
Maybe all I can do is recognize that my mother has survived everything else in life, and somehow she will survive old age. She will adapt, try to make the best of what she has, or, eventually, pass to what I hope is a better life.
It is not easy watching a parent get old. It is not easy knowing that you are next in line.
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Judith Fein is the author of The Spoon from Minkowitz, which, among other things, deals with the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. She is also the author of Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 105 international publications.