When a life-long friend called me a few days ago to tell me about her mother’s health issues, it brought out so many memories of my own mother’s struggles in the last few years of her life. As I listened to my friend try to figure out what the best course of care would be, I remember how hard it is to make those decisions when you’re not sure what the long term ramifications will be. I remembered how guilty I felt every time my mom took a downward turn, because I was sure it was because I had made the wrong decision.
The conversation also hurtled me back in time to when my friend and I were young. We met in kindergarten, which means our mothers were in their early 30’s when we first met. Because my friend and I were both avid about our art, we spent time at each other’s houses painting. I have very clear memories of how her mother looked and acted when she was young, just like my friend has a clear memory of my mom at the same age. Mainly, I remember how vibrant and active each of our mothers were.
To make the trip through time even more interesting, our mothers had known each other in high school. They had grown up in the same time and place and were once young women with hopes and dreams. I have always had the blessing/curse of hurtling back in time whenever I look at an aging face. Instead of seeing the person before me, I imagine how they looked when they were young. I try to figure out what type of person they were when they were vibrant and energetic; I wonder what the world around them looked like during that time period. As my friend and I spoke, I found myself feeling nostalgic for those two young high school girls who we, of course, never knew. I wondered how many of their hopes and dreams came true and how many of them had to be adjusted to their sometimes harsh realities.
Mostly, our conversation made me conscious of how bad I still miss my mom. It’s been almost four years since her death and I still think of her daily. I spent the first 57 years of my life talking to my mother almost every day and the gap her passing left in my life has still not been completely filled. I grieve for my mother and I grieve for the hard adjustments my friend has in front of her, regardless of whether this is her mother’s last illness or if her transition is still down the road.
When I was growing up, the Vietnam war was being fought. It seems like the world was smaller then and everyone was very aware of what was going on in Vietnam. We only had three channels on our televisions and each of those stations carried the nightly news. On each of those news reports the daily death count in Vietnam was reported. In today’s world of information overload that may seem like a small thing but it affected me deeply.
I was still quite young when I started to struggle to comprehend how many people were impacted by each of those deaths. I can distinctly remember swinging on the swing set at my grade school watching the cars go by. I would do my best to count how many people were in each car and then take that number and multiply it by four. I figured that was the minimum number of people that would be saddened if those people were soldiers in the war who had been killed. Today I would call that the ripple effect, but at the time I was just trying to grasp the implications of that nightly number.
I think that grisly death count on every television in the country had an effect on my generation. Everyone coped with it in their own way. I don’t know if anyone else struggled to try to understand how vast that death toll really was, but it definitely opened my eyes to how many people are effected by each and every death that occurs. What I didn’t realize at the time was how long people would be dealing with every single one of those deaths. Unfortunately, I am now beginning to get an idea of it.
My hopes and prayers are with my friend and her mother, hoping their path through this inevitable, painful, transition is paved with the foundation of their love for each other.
(The painting above is a triptych named “December Flowers” and was painted in 2016 based on a floral bouquet I was given as my mother lay dying. That small act of kindness made all of the difference for me during a difficult time.)