Elizabeth Slade: One last lesson - living in the present
This summer, while on vacation with my family, I got the call that my mother was in the hospital.
Following her diagnosis of vascular dementia two years earlier, she had moved from our childhood home into assisted living and even in that organized environment she was often confused. Her hearing had worsened, she flatly refused to wear a hearing aid, and this served to confound the confusion. I couldn’t imagine how she was navigating the demands of the hospital. There was only one thing to be done: go to her.
I took a ferry to a shuttle to a train and walked the final 2 miles, arriving winded on the fifth floor to find her diminished in a hospital bed. The light appeared though when she opened her eyes and saw me. “Finally!” she said as though she knew all along that I was coming.
There is something particular about being someone’s child, being shaped by their view of the world, their choices, their being and it was never more apparent to me than during those final six days of my mother’s life. My mother, a direct, tenacious, punctual pragmatist, saw what was imminent and demanded to be released from the hospital. As her daughter, she had not a moment of doubt that I would make this happen on her behalf.
“By noon tomorrow,” she declared, as she drifted into sleep.
The next day, after repeating the plan to the third specialist and surviving a grueling interrogation, I sat weeping at my mother’s bedside. Was he right that I was killing her by taking her out of the hospital?
Should we agree to the tests and procedures, the surgery? My mother opened her eyes and saw me there. I smiled in an effort to mask my feelings. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
With this question the tears began again. “I just want to make the right decision,” I told her.
She paused, considering this. “All right, you can have ’til 5 o’clock,” she said closing her eyes again.
At 5 o’clock we left by ambulance to return to her apartment. My mother was jubilant, waving to her homies as she was wheeled through the lobby. When my brother arrived with dinner she let out a whoop in celebration. She was home. In that moment it was as if she had won an award, made a scientific breakthrough or finished a marathon — one of the happiest days of her life. My brother and I exchanged a look of confusion. This is not how we expected it to be bringing our mother home to die, and yet her enthusiasm was compelling. We shrugged and joined the party. She was talkative, funny, alive. My mother ate two bites of soup and fell asleep. Within 24 hours she fell deeply inside herself. Within days she was gone.
When I emerged from her apartment to return home, I was changed. My scale for what mattered had been recalibrated. Life is time-limited. My time with my mother was over and my time with my own children won’t last forever. I won’t have this life forever.
This is what my mother taught me at the end. It isn’t what happens, it’s how we experience what happens that matters. Deciding to be present to what’s happening, to show up and really be there, makes each of those moments infinitely better.
Last night I got home from work late, with my spouse leaving to go to a meeting. We kissed in the driveway and I entered the warm light of the kitchen, not sure I was ready for whatever it was that might be waiting: moods, dishes, homework hang-ups, defeats of the day to be aired.
Inside, Bella jumped up to greet me from where she was doing math homework at the counter. She’d gotten her hair cut short-short and let me run my hands through it. Bliss. Isaac was on his way out to the garage to visit the hovercraft he and a friend had built on the weekend out of a leaf blower, tarp and plywood. He had another project in mind and waved cheerfully as he disappeared. I sat at the counter eating cold, leftover dinner, watching Bella do her math and listening to the loud banging from the garage. Shortly,
Jasper hopped down the stairs to go see what Isaac was up to. I could hear their voices rise and fall in argument as I finished eating. Then I turned to see dishes all across the counter. I went to the garage door.
As soon as they heard the door open they both began making their case as though I had come in response to their argument. I waited for them to get through it and said, “Boys, I see your dishes on the counter.”
“The dishwasher’s full,” they reported.
“Full-dirty or full-clean?” I asked. They weren’t sure.
e_SDLqIf it’s full-clean I’m going to need a volunteer to help empty it,” I told them. Grumbling.
Back in the kitchen I opened the dishwasher to find it clean. I sighed. “I’ll do it!” Bella said jumping up nearly knocking over her stool.
“Wow, how lucky,” I told her. “I’m going to tell your brothers.”
“I’ll tell them,” she said, moving to the garage door. “Brothers, you’re lucky. I’m doing the dishwasher,” she called and slammed the door before hearing the “Thanks!” that followed.
And so we emptied the dishwasher. A simple task I have dreaded was in that moment easy, delightful even. I wasn’t enduring my life; I was living it. I was in it, doing the simple repetitive tasks of every day, but remembering how fine my company was in it. Appreciating the moments of evenness, accepting the moments of rockiness, now understanding that it won’t be forever.
Elizabeth Slade, author of the novel “Rest Stops,” lives in Leeds with her spouse and three children.