How the Little Things for an Aging Mother Become Huge

It is – however Hallmarkish the saying – the little things that matter.

And I don’t actually mean that, picking out the perfect Hallmark card every Mother’s Day, which I do, spending countless minutes in front of the sappy Hallmark Dearest Mother section. I don’t even mean the first gift I ever remember, at age six, making for my mother, an elaborately magic marker-colored bookmark.

And I don’t mean the simple small tapestry hanging I wove, one for my mother’s 90th birthday. One I embroidered with the same saying from a beautiful simple silver necklace she’d given me on my 40th: What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

I mean the little things like the carving into tennis balls (no easy task; try it sometime if you’re bored and looking to build up hand muscle) to fit the bottom of my mother’s walker to make it glide more easily over her tile floors:

Little things like buying a tray to fit her walker so she can still prepare her own breakfast and carry it to her bed. Like cutting a rubber mat to fit the tray so that her coffee won’t spill. All those little things that help her retain her already tenuous independence, as her daily life has been whittled down to just that: mere survival. One that is hard to witness, even to write about.

I think about my father who died at the age my mother is now, 93, but by then he was lost in a rather delightful world of dementia. He didn’t mind being in a nursing home, thought he was on a cruise ship, and when we visited, he had a woman-dementia friend who liked to announce with great glee if he’d had a bowel movement that day. Her glee was contagious, and my father would laugh happily along with her. He didn’t notice his own mental deterioration, or if he did, was not bothered by it. Most fortunately, he did not experience the ravages of other dementia victims. Rather, he retreated into childhood pleasures of pressing things into clay and drawing little animals, and remarking on his own shadows that liked to follow him down the hall.

My mother’s short term memory is a bit shorter. But her whits are sharp. Her interests in the arts, in all that is happening in our messy political world and even just outside her window in the natural one, are fully engaged. Her convictions about how little we are doing for the poor, for the destitute are as strong as if she still had the physical strength to  go out and picket rather than sign petition after petition. She cares deeply about this planet she still inhabits.

But acute, and often physically painful, awareness of how her body has become an entrapment, is torture. My mother would not tolerate a nursing home because she would have no illusion of being on a cruise ship. She is where she wants to be, in her own home which she loves, with its window vistas and collection of blue bottles and geraniums on the sills.

Still, she is beginning to wonder what is the point of all the “work” of getting up, struggling to get dressed, to eat, then lie down again because she needs to rest. But she does remark on the “drama” of monarch butterflies “tossling” outside her window and chastises the nasty blackbirds that monopolize the bird feeder. And still fumes, rightly so, over all our worldly messes and childish political battles that smear the headlines of her daily newspapers – paper newspapers, tossed onto the end of the driveway which for her can be a trek to reach.

So here is another little thing that matters: a neighbor’s thoughtfulness to leave it on her doorstep where she can reach it with her metal pick-it-up grabber.  The little things do matter toward the end of a long life. Hugely.

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