Recently, I flew across the country from Seattle to my hometown of Albany, New York, to spend a few days with my elderly mother. While my father died relatively young (at age 64 – a year older than I am now), my mom is like the Energizer Bunny. At 97, she keeps going and going and going.
Well, maybe not exactly. She now needs hearing aids in both ears, her short-term memory has declined significantly, and she is legally blind, able only to make out shapes and colors but with no detail. And she needs a wheelchair to make it any further than two feet. But otherwise, she is doing amazingly well.
While my mother knew I was coming to town, she kept forgetting exactly which day I’d be arriving. So, when I knocked on her room door at the nursing home facility, I entered the room only identifying my presence by saying “Special Delivery for Betty.” She got momentarily confused, not knowing who was calling on her.
I proclaimed I had a special order of Peanut M&M’s (her favorite candy), but she was still unsure about who was bringing her this surprise. She guessed a few names before I gave her a hint: “It’s your fourth son, Tim!” Suddenly, she lit up like a Christmas tree and hugged me like my visit was the return of the prodigal son.
Her fragile frame, once 5’3”, now barely reaches 5’. But her smile is still radiant. I would be visiting her for the next six days, and all I wanted to do was be there with her and to hopefully add a little sunshine for a few precious days.
Moving very slowly now, in one important way she had not changed: her remarkably sunny disposition. During our several visits, members of the staff frequently came by to check in on her or make sure she took her medications. And each one teased her and shared with me comments like “your mom is such a silly girl” and “your mom is my favorite resident”. The staff calls her Betty Boop (after the 1930’s cartoon character).
Despite being confined to a modest, plain room most of the time, she maintains an astonishingly positive attitude on life for someone just three years shy of becoming a centenarian – enduring a life filled with many hard times and disappointments.
She graduated from Miami University of Ohio and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army at the peak of World War II, serving first in Oran, Algeria, then Pistoia, Italy (near Pisa) as an officer (she was a first lieutenant) and a dietitian at army hospitals. Then she raised four sons and a daughter (with very little help from her husband). Her fourth son would sadly turn out eventually to become a humor writer. But otherwise, her other kids turned out just fine.
Speaking of humor, I discovered that even with all her physical limitations, my mom’s ability to laugh at herself remains totally intact. During one visit I mentioned that later that week I planned to take her out (for dinner), but before I could complete my sentence, she interrupted, “Why do you want to take me out? Are you in the mob? Do I know too much?” And then she giggled like a ten-year-old.
In our visit, we covered a myriad of topics – her favorite place she’s traveled to (Jerusalem), her favorite music (baroque classical), and what I was like as a young child (“you were very well-behaved, but you did tend to whine a lot”).
Despite her fading memory and her many physical limitations, she never once complained. She delighted in holding my hands as she asked about my daughters. She excitedly shared that the new pastor of her church comes by every other week to visit, and every Friday a hairdresser comes by, so she can get her hair done down the hall.
During our many visits that week, as we talked, I kept looking at my mom’s eyes – her tender, kind eyes. The years have dimmed her outward beauty, but they have not stolen her wonderful sense of humor. Over the course of several visits that week, I was reminded about this as she cracked many jokes.
My mom never misses her Sunday church service. She’s the oldest member of the congregation, she shared with pride, just before asking if I would join her for church the following Sunday. How could I say no to that? When Sunday morning arrived, I came to take her to church. As I wheeled her down the hall, several of her friends asked her, “Betty, where are you going?” Without skipping a beat, she smiled and quipped, ‘I’m going to go pray for your souls.”
I asked how she fills her days. She shared that every day she listens to audio books for the blind – but only non-fiction. “I don’t want any of those trashy romance novels,” she said, slightly indignantly. She just finished an audio book about the travels of the Portuguese explorer Magellan. Now she’s listening to one on the human genetic history. And every day she rides on the exercycle for 15 minutes. Not going to break any land speed records, but she’s 97 and still exercising! Seriously, mom?
During my last visit before it was time to head back to Seattle, I asked what she felt was the key to happiness in old age. She thought for a second and joked, “Well, the food here’s pretty good. Beats airline food.” She laughed. Then I pressed her again. I really wanted to know if she had any advice for how to live a contented life in one’s twilight years.
She wasted no time, smiled and replied, “Keep exercising and eat in moderation.” Then she added, “And don’t hold hate in your heart for anybody.”
Impressed, I just had to ask, “You really don’t hate ANYBODY?!”
“Nope”, she exclaimed. Then she paused, and with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, blurted out, “Well, maybe Donald Trump.” Then we both laughed out loud, as she beamed a smile that could melt an iceberg.
I don’t know how many more chances life will present me to make these cross-country trips to spend time with my mom. So, I treasure each chance I get to sit with her, hold her hand, and listen to her stories – even the ones she’s forgotten she’s told me countless times before. Those are my favorite ones.
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Check out my latest humor book: YOU’RE GROUNDED FOR LIFE: Misguided Parenting Strategies That Sounded Good at the Time
© Tim Jones, View from the Bleachers 2018