As I said on Facebook, my folks can’t seem to get a break—well, they got one, but not the kind we wanted. A couple of weeks ago, Mom fell and broke her femur, near the hip joint. She may have had a second fall, but we don’t know the details. A caregiver found her, and my Dad spent another day in ER, while they took x-rays and CT-scans, eventually coming to the conclusion that she would need surgery. After surgery, she would need physical therapy and an extended stay in the Masonic hospital rehab wing, before she could return to the Hearth.
The doctor’s reports were more optimistic than I felt. Sure, they could screw the bone back into place, but how would Mom be able to manage with physical therapy? Even before the fall, she could scarcely follow directions to stand or sit. Another disorienting hospital stay was likely to wreak more havoc on her dwindling cognitive functions. How could her plaque-ridden brain possibly learn to walk again?
Doubts like these breed terrible thoughts like: why bother repairing the body when the mind is so damaged? Wouldn’t it be better if she could catch pneumonia and go swiftly, saved from the discomfort and indignities of hospitalization? Wouldn’t it be better if (Write it!) if she could just die?
There, I’ve written the unthinkable. It can’t get any worse, can it? To understand hopelessness, to fully inhabit despair, there’s no better place to turn to than the “terrible sonnets” of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Take this excerpt from “No worst, there is none“:
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.Comforter, where, where is your comforting?Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chiefWoe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘
I used to think T. S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” was a miserably inhumane poem. It enacts a series of one-sided conversations between the speaker and the eponymous lady. She’s needy and suffocating, and he’s desperate to elude her emotional demands. After several evasive maneuvers, the speaker imagines the ultimate escape:
Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for quite a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon …
Would she not have the advantage, after all?
…And should I have the right to smile?
The speaker’s lack of empathy—his calculated distance from his own emotions—always struck me as cruelly misogynist. But now his imagined relief at the prospect of the lady’s death seems more human and uncomfortably familiar. When intimacy cannot be reciprocated—whether because of a disease of the psyche (Eliot’s modern condition) or the brain (Mom’s Alzheimer’s)—the relationship can feel oppressive and burdensome. You just want to escape, and death beckons slyly, like a guilty pleasure.
Yet with Alzheimer’s, another apparition also beckons: the glimpse of the person as you once knew her. She appeared to my brother one day, when she was lying in the hospital bed, dozing off mid-sentence, unable to focus. Then, suddenly, she looked at him and said, “I just don’t want to disappoint you.” Voila, there she is, as anxious to please as ever. A few days ago, on the phone with me, she asked, “So have they made their decisions?” clearly referring to Thomas and Luke’s college plans. As I rambled on in enthusiastic detail, she seemed to disappear and go silent. “Mom, are you there? Mom? Hello? Can you give the phone to Dad, Mom?” Silence. TV noise in the background. “Give the phone to Dad, Mom. I’ve got to go. I love you.” Silence. “Mom? I’ve got to go. I love you.” Then, suddenly, she replies, “I love YOU very much,” so ardently and intentionally that I feel cradled in a blanket of maternal love. I tell her I love her and say good bye again. Another pause, and then she scrapes the most wrenching, “Goodbyyeeee,” from her throat. It sounds like ripping apart industrial strength Velcro.
In those rare, unexpected moments of connection, I feel as if Mom is still there, intact, but able only on fleeting occasions to break through the thick fog and express herself. She’s moved past that horrifying stage of the disease when she couldn’t recognize her own husband. She knows, trusts, and loves us. And at those moments when she manages to reach us, I know that when she dies, it will be much worse than I have imagined. So I want her to live.