My mother has been going through a rather dramatic extended illness this year, and at one point, I announced to my partner, “If I ever get this bad, just hit me over the head with a brick and call it a day.”
Of course, I was kidding. A brick is unwieldy, and most people don’t have them just lying around. Sleeping pills are the way to go – you can make pithy last-word proclamations, and then drift off attractively as your family members gather around you in a circle of love and light and start slipping off your jewelry.
Actually, I’ve always believed that even the most difficult of circumstances has lessons in it for everyone involved, annoying and inconvenient as they usually are. But when you watch someone you love lose almost everything that mattered to them, that idea gets tested more than a Jersey Shore castmate for brain damage.
My mother, who has always been an incredibly dynamic woman, now spends her days in one room of their house. She hasn’t seen the lower level of their home since Jesus rose from the dead last spring.
Although she has always preferred books and magazines to television, she now watches endless hours of the Food Network because, thanks to a wide variety of medications, she can barely read a watch without falling asleep.
She used to love sitting amidst the three acres of lawn and trees in their backyard, but the only trees she has seen since April are the ones whizzing by the car as Dad drives her to the doctor.
All her life she has worshipped a, shall we say, “orderly” house. (Growing up, our home was so disturbingly clean the CDC could have used it to store vaccines, and I used to have to rake myself into my bedroom at night so that our carpeting was a pristine, undisturbed meadow of shag.) Now, although a maid comes occasionally, Mother barely has enough energy to write her own name, much less a To Do list.
She loved to go to the Missouri wineries, some of which are quite beautiful (and which would provoke a Norm-from-Cheers response upon her arrival). Now wine interferes with her medications, and even one glass would likely turn her into a cast member of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Her hair is no longer perfectly coiffed. She wears no makeup. She sports no diamond rings or fashionable pantsuits. And this woman, who has always had a steel trap mind, will ask me three times, in the space of seven minutes, if she’s had her pills.
“You should have been here the other day,” she’ll say and begin to recount a story. One that occurred 20 minutes ago. While I was sitting there.
Yet, curiously, this formerly glamorous go-getter doesn’t seem to mind that everything that was once important to her has, at least for now, fallen away.
I, of course, initially ascribed this to the drugs. “She must be high as a hot air balloon, or she’d be really pissed.”
But as I’ve watched her very slowly improve, and she’s no longer stoned on drugs, I’ve realized that some of those things just aren’t so important to her any more. It seems that now, her happiness comes from her determination to enjoy each day, no matter how small the events, or how large the annoyances. (And when you go to the bathroom twenty times a day, the annoyances add up.) She’s enjoying the slow process of recovery, not the idea that, once she’s recovered, she’ll be happy.
Every Friday, Oprah’s Lifeclass show is about what Oprah calls “Joy Rising” – those moments of pure joy when something wonderful happens. And although I think we’d all agree that Oprah giving you a house could be considered “joy rising”, my mother seems to have discovered her own version. The diamond rings and trips to far-flung locales and a perfectly ordered house are no longer her joy. Her children coming to vist, my dad quietly holding her hand, or a really good episode of Paula Deen – that is some joy rising.