I ask my mother if she has trouble deciding, though I know the answer. She may agonize over something and sacrifice precious hours of sleep but when she feels she knows what needs to be done, she does it.
She has lived long enough to make plenty of difficult decisions but the one that broke Mom’s heart was deciding to put her husband Joe in the memory care unit at Sunrise Senior Living in Petaluma. She tried to prepare him, framing it as appealingly as she could and assuring him:
“You’ll be close to Jennie and Paul, they want to spend time with you. I’ll be close too, I’ll move back to Petaluma and visit you every day.”
She could have saved her breath, Joe did not want to budge from the sweet spot that had been his address for the last eight years. For him and my mother too, ‘haven’ was a sunny house on a rise under a broad expanse of cobalt sky on a rolling hillside in El Dorado County. They traded the fog and wind that was often the weather during their many years living in Petaluma for mild but distinct seasons, a rarity in California. Sometimes they even caught a few snow flurries on their tongues in winter. The property had a pool, a red barn, a spacious yard full of old valley oaks and two spectacular pink dogwoods. It lay along a rambling lane where Joe took his daily constitutionals, walking back and forth, end to end with carrots in his pocket for the horses in the pasture below their home.
Before the dings and dents on his car began to betray him and his drivers license was removed from his wallet and retired, he loved to go into the town of Placerville and take his walks along Main St. inspecting the Hangtown shop windows, people watching and anticipating a bear claw at a local coffee shop he favored. Joe was not a man known for excessive joie de vivre but his contentment in these last days of his life was obvious, especially to me.
I visited them fairly often and found him consistently good humored and agreeable. He had long since changed his mind about me never amounting to much more than disaster since I had left the State of California and made good elsewhere. But though we had a cordial relationship, he liked to put a cap on my visits, just in case, and would routinely ask me over the years how long I was planning to stay, usually within 30 minutes of my arrival. Not anymore. He surprised me more than once with a farewell that included a genuine invitation to come back soon.
My parents moved to El Dorado, partly because of the ideal climate and mostly because it was the final affordable frontier in Northern California. They had a list of what they hoped for in a house and location but they did not anticipate that so many of their asks would be granted and that living in the foothills of the Sierras would be as pleasant and satisfying as the vistas from the eastern windows of their new home.
Now my mother was literally pulling the carefully placed rug out from under Joe, making plans to sell the property and return to Petaluma—and the fog and wind. Joe’s dementia was a heavy curtain drawing steadily around his memory palace; he had forgotten that my mother was his wife and at a crisis point, locked her out of the house as a trespassing stranger one night. In years past, in his right mind, Joe had purchased long term care insurance but disdained in home care. He told my mother that once he rounded the bend he wanted to be in the hands of trained professionals. But he had forgotten that too. When my mother took him to visit Sunrise he viewed it as an ‘upholstered prison’ and told her he wanted to stay home with her. She said:
“But Joe, you won’t let me get in the bed at night, you tell me it’s improper for us to sleep together when we don’t know each other.”
On the day of his departure, he stood in the house, gazing around at all that was familiar to him and said:
“I have spent the happiest days of my life here and now this is the saddest day.”
The resolve that my mother had labored to reach crumbled and she began to think she had been too hasty, that she could take care of Joe whether he knew her or not and give him the comfort and security of home as all else faded.
But as his mind tangled he had become equally unsteady on his feet. He fell off of a tall stool sitting at the kitchen counter, he fell twice outside and suffered a concussion in one incident. Now as they walked to the waiting van, my mother keeping a firm grip on his arm, Joe caught his heel on the steps to the driveway, pitching them both forward. They were able to right themselves before they hit the ground but she recognized that if he fell again, she would not be able to catch him or lift him and she was likely to be injured herself. The stumble reordered my mothers thoughts and she saw the wisdom of her decision, even as it crushed her.
Some of us thrive on deciding, others experience anxiety and paralysis to varying degrees, others decide by not deciding and letting the chips fall. I know the anguish of choosing for another when they are not capable of doing it for themselves. Kenny and I took our oldest daughter, Rebecca to a boarding school in Missouri shortly before the end of her 8th grade year. She was beautiful and strong willed and sneaking into dangerous territory with dangerous people. We did it to save her life. The school was a no frills lockdown and when we got her there we were instructed it would be months before we saw her again. I stood up to say goodbye and my legs came out from underneath me. At the time I thought it was grief but my body rightly registered it as loss. Something changed in that moment that has never been restored in all the moments since.
I think one of the qualities that enables my mother to keep her backbone steady is her ability to see that loss and gain go hand in hand. She accepted the absence of her one true love and filled what could have been a bitter hole with friendship and deeper intimacy with her children and grandchildren. And so it is, one hand opens to release while the other is already catching something new.