Elegy for the One Who Remains Behind

My mother is 97 years old, but the sad truth is, she stopped living many years ago

My friend Larry called earlier this week. He told me he couldn't meet for dinner because his 90-year-old mother-in-law was being taken to the hospital with pneumonia. The next day, I received an email that she had died.

My initial reaction was that I envy Larry.

Let me explain. I've been watching the slow disintegration of my mother over the course of nearly a decade. She's 97 years old, but the sad truth is, for all practical purposes, she stopped living many years ago. Now she merely exists.

Larry has always asked about my mom's condition. Like most people, his inquiries are almost in the form of an apology: "I hate to ask, because I know the answer, but how's your mom doing?"

I can't imagine that God intended us to end our days together like this.

My brother-in-law has had serious health issues far too early in life and frequently warns my wife, his sister, to be careful because in their family, the warranty on all the parts runs out at 50. While this is always intended as gallows humor, there can be no denying that the warranty does run out at some point for the many millions living past their expiration date.

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For people like my mom, the final movement of this cycle is in a perpetual holding pattern, circling endlessly, going nowhere, in what appears to be a state of suspended animation. For all of us involved, it is a special circle of hell on earth.

If this sounds somewhat harsh, it's because I've had all these years to meander through the various stages associated with watching someone you love struggle to hold on to even a small vestige of self. We children are the helpless chroniclers of ever unfolding disasters.

My mom is totally dependent on caretakers for every meaningful aspect of her day. She would never have wanted to remain alive in this state, and to see her struggle through every day breaks my heart over and over again.

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My wife and I went to visit my friend Larry and his wife Sarah the other day to pay our condolences.

"I feel so stupid even talking to you about how I'm feeling about the loss of my mother," Sarah said to me. She gently patted me on the shoulder, as if to console me for the fact that my mom was still alive. "I know you wish this had happened to your mom."

This is not to suggest that every visit with my mom fills me with pain and dread. They don't and, in fact, it's amazing what little things can make me happy. My mom has retained the ability to sing. She'll often break into what she thinks are duets. I let her finish the lines she remembers and applaud when she's done. Sadly, this is all I have to grasp onto when everything else has disappeared.

As my wife and I said our goodbyes and left Larry and Sarah's apartment, I know we were all thinking not merely of the woman who had recently departed, but the one who remains behind.

And I wondered whether it was wrong to feel worse for the living than for the dead.