Beside

I’m getting to watch spring come twice this year.  I watched it arrive in Amsterdam two weeks ago and now I’m in Wisconsin watching it unfurl itself from leaves and stems with the same quiet, beflowered beauty I’ve come to associate with the arrival of warmer temperatures and longer days.

But I didn’t come here to see spring twice.  I came back to watch someone I love suffer again.  More to the point, I came to help her recover from surgery, but what I came for and what has taken place are altogether different things.  Last year I watched the woman who raised me die in these rooms and now I’m watching the woman who bore me struggle to live, and contend with the fear of continuing to live but in a state that would leave her without a life she wants to live.

Though she didn’t raise me, my biological mother never was out of my life.  Though I did not live with her, and though we were never as mother and daughter to one another I still love and care for her.  In the middle of April she had triple by-pass surgery and now she’s back in the hospital and fighting off blood clots which have traveled into her lungs.

I’ve spent the time since I was 15 watching the people I love most in the world suffer.  I’ve held hands, wiped away tears, talked with, sung to, massaged, and written for them for years on end.  When my mother’s life ended last year I wiped away my own tears and thanked God for giving her peace.  While I was saddened, and while I miss her, I knew that her agony was over.  The woman had lived with chronic pain that I have little comprehension how she endured so long without losing her soul to it.  She lost but few of her faculties in reasoning despite losing her mobility, the strength of her fingers, and her mental ability to calm her fears.  I watched the person who taught me to sing lose much, but not her spirit and not her mind, and she never gave up hope even at the end when she asked us to let her die.

I was proud of her, and I wondered if I’d ever met anyone as strong as she was though she saw herself as weak and a burden to those who loved and cared for her.

Yet despite all this experience watching the people I love suffer, and suffering beside them in empathy I was not prepared for what my birth-mother has gone through in the last week.  Since I arrived the person I never saw voluntarily cry in my life has shed the bitterest tears without any control, has lost the ability to speak in full sentences, has begun to lose her mobility because of her waning strength and intense nausea, and to my shock I can see and sense a hopelessness in her that scares me because I have never seen it in any other person.  I thought that I had felt hopeless before in my life, but the truth is that I know I’ve never worn the expression I see in her eyes: empty, vacant.  She looks like someone has cursed her to live but without a shred of dignity, and I hate watching someone so proud be humbled so profoundly by the sudden imposition of limitations that had never existed before in her life.

There was something always fiercely beautiful in my birth-mother’s demeanor towards life, like a stubborn refusal to submit to anything but the worst.  I may have never admired much of the decisions she made in life, and though we’re vastly different people I have always loved and admired her courage, strength, and (yes) even that incredibly, seemingly unbreakable will of hers.  To watch something like that shatter is to look on a person when they’ve hit the bottom and to be unfeeling in the face of such acute suffering would be unthinkable, but not to learn from it would be equally unimaginable to me.

I know the words stubborn and courage are often thrown at me in description as well, as is the word perceptive.  I tend to observe others and file away behaviors, words, and patterns of thought.  To some extent we all do this, and I tend to think that’s because it’s part of how we navigate the world of interaction in humanity.  Before my birth-mother was sent back into the hospital with these clots she had her first therapy session.  It was in these sessions that I noticed she never smiled at people, never thanked them when they gave her things or explained things or helped her.  I watched and noticed it and the reason it stood out to me was because the lack of it surprised me.  She and I were raised by the same people.

My mother used to say that wearing things like crosses were “outward signs of inward spiritual feelings.”  Closer to the end of her life she and I had a conversation about behaviors in people.  I said that I thought all behavior was similar to those outward signs and that from observing the behaviors of individuals over long periods of time one could gain an insight into the nature of their inner regard for life.  Mom thought this interesting and mostly agreed with me. One of the ways in which I thought a person could observe this inner attitude about life was by how they treated others with regards to observing rules of politeness.  It’s not just a symbol of being grateful for the person’s intervention in your life.  To put it another way, watching my birth-mother go for days on end without thanking a single soul for the things they did for her showed me that she wasn’t grateful for her life.  By refusing to acknowledge the people around her she was isolating herself from their care, isolating herself by disappearing inside of her feelings of anger about being alive, and though she was cooperating with the program it had the air of someone being chained to it like a prisoner.  She didn’t care about what others were doing for her (or pretending that she didn’t care) because she didn’t want to care about living.

Which, to my knowledge, I have never witnessed from her in 30 years.

On Monday I took her into the ER because the pain robbed her of the ability to pretend that she didn’t care about anything other than not being in pain anymore.  As I have said, I’d seen suffering, but nothing like this.  As the days have stretched out here into the latter part of the week I’ve spent hours in the room with her.  The woman who always seemed to have so much strength now had no strength except for screaming, crying, or sleeping, and her speech has become so limited that I’m worried about what has happened to her mind through all this trauma.  The one thing she keeps making clear to me is that she’s tired, she doesn’t want to survive this, and she is suffering.

I keep trying to be hopeful, keep trying to remind her that there’s no reason she should die from this so young, and the worst thing is, I’ve never seen hopelessness look out at me from the eyes of someone I loved.  My father when he died looked constantly tired, and his too was a soul deeply humbled by infirmity, but he never looked at us this way.  I had seen bitterness, sadness, anger, remorse, shock, fear and pain in his eyes, but to the end he remained grateful for life and fought for it until it couldn’t be his any longer.   My mother outlived him by 14 years, survived calamity after calamity in those years, and though she cried with pain I never saw this look in her eyes even in her last days.  I saw the fatigue and I watched both of them give up life, but it wasn’t hopelessness I saw.  It was more like they both knew that they couldn’t slide past death this time and were accepting it.

I had never seen people angry to be alive, not truly.  I had never seen someone so afraid of the pain they hunched in on themselves afraid even to breathe, and though I thought I had known how helpless the young and strong can feel when faced with the inability to give that to another person, I did not know the depth to which it could sting me until yesterday.  I would give my legs to help her walk, and my health to not hear her scream, but how on Earth can I give her back the hope that has evaporated from her in the month since last I’d seen her?  And for such questions there are no answers because I had also never realized until now how precious, individual and vital hope and gratefulness are in the “self”.  They make the living portion of “living being”, and when they’re gone the journey to find them again must also be an individual and spiritual path that others cannot be part of.

And so the “other” must now watch, wait, hope, pray and love.  In the last seven days I have taken back into practice my old mantra of saying over and over the fruits of the spirit.  So many of them are part of this vigil of sorrowing love: self-control, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and, of course, love.  They have been part of the vigils I’ve held in my life for all those I’ve loved who were suffering, but moreover they are part of the way I want to live my life because if we nourish and grow the trees that grow the fruits of the spirit from within we will never be hungry or chained from within.  Then when we come to others for compassion and understanding it will not be because we need them to supply what we have not provided for ourselves.  My birth mother looks at me with hopeless eyes because her trees were left barren for too long, and now she cannot even take from others because her pain and anger has erected a barrier to the others who are around her.  Her suffering within won’t end until she turns the soil of her own heart.  Perhaps now is the time when she will learn, at long last, how to do it.

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on May 2, 2013.

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