My mom turns 96 next month. She’s not doing well as she has no appetite, lost nearly ten pounds in a month, is down to 82 pounds, and sleeps – a lot.
She lives at Mercy Circle, a retirement community in Chicago for Mercy nuns, and her life speaks gently and profoundly. She had ten children, lost my dad 34 years ago, and buried two sons. I want so badly to hear stories, to know what her life was like growing up during the Depression, being raised by Irish speaking parents, falling in love with my dad, staying true during WWII, creating lifelong friendships, getting married at twenty. As I sit with her in the dim light of her Baggot Street room, childhood images settle into my mind.
She was always working – for us, always focused on what needed to be done to serve us. Grocery shopping was a half-day undertaking complete with mutliple shopping carts, packed station wagon, and systematic unloading of brown paper bags. Meals were carefully planned, and cooking began around 2:00pm. While we were at school, my mom prepped the house – for us. It was a quiet place.
At night after dinner, the kitchen was lit by the soft glow of the under cabinet light as the dishwasher hummed. Each night, the counter was wiped clean except for my mom’s simple evening snack – saltines and soft butter.
In the solitide of the Artesian Avenue basement, my mother ironed, washed, sorted, whitened, brightened, and starched. She also tossed whatever attire was deamed inappropriate.
On the concrete wall by the ironing board, there was an old black dial phone the size of Maxwell Smart’s shoe that weighed ten pounds. The cord was not a fancy, curly retracting coil – it was a thick black wire with a limited extension of five feet from cement. Occasionally, my mom would chat with friends while somehow juggling the 16-inch wrench-shaped metal receiver in her right with a hefty clothes iron in her left while crisping Catholic-school unifrom blouses, shirts, pants, and pleats. Mostly, she was quiet down there.
She never asked for a better floor or lighting or heat in that dank, dingy space. The cracked green and white linoleum tile, the harsh flourescent bulbs, and the cavernous chill were never mentioned. She putzed down there in the mornings, lights off, with natural light streaming through the narrow foundation windows. It was quiet down there.
My mother’s laundry room provided her a refuge, a place to be by herself doing things for others – namely my siblings, my dad, and me. Her mornings were spent in the solitude of downstairs, the afternoons in the kitchen. It was quiet in there, too.
We grew up, and when I had children, she would say, “Give me that little dress. I’ll get that stain out.” And she did.
Now she doesn’t do laundry, she doesn’t cook, she can’t use a phone, and she doesn’t care if she eats. She takes no medicine except an occasional Tylenol for pain as her legs and hands are cramped beyond extension. She hasn’t walked in a few years, and she spends as much time in bed as possible. She loves to lie down and rest. When I enter her room, it’s quiet in there.
It will not be a blessing for me when she dies. I hope nobody says that to me. If you do, I forgive you in advance. You can’t help but try to help me see the bright side.
My mom is a rock. She asks for little, and she suffers her discomfort quietly with an occasional grunt or groan. She gives thanks gracefully, and she’s funny.
This week, I told her I was going to stay with her until her nap. I said, “I’m going to hang around and make sure they help you get into bed. You are too nice to ask.”
Eyes closed, body slumped in her wheelchair, she whispered, “Boy, have I got you fooled.”
Her gift for self-depracation puts others at ease and creates lightness, wonder and joy. She’s feisty. And her wit preails in the midst of confusion. She’s a living paradox as she appears fragile, yet she exudes strength.
Her bragging rights consist of being the best napper on her floor.
I often pray for God’s will to be done with my mom. The older I get, I realize that’s the only prayer that matters . . . and that works.
My Aunt Aggie asked her this week, “Eileen, do you pray?”
Eyes shut and curled under the covers, my mom replied, “I sleep – same thing.”
Her life is a prayer, and it always has been.