Another Mother

Another Mother

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

Another Mother

When my mother, hospitalized for a simple flu, died of a heart attack at sixty-five, I would have given the world to have her survive so I could care for her in my home. But she was suddenly, irreparably, devastatingly gone.

That was twenty years ago. Since then I have heard the many woes and worries of friends with aged parents. I feel some relief that this task will never be mine (as my father has married a much younger woman who will assume this responsibility), and yet I also experience wistfulness, even envy. To have my mother—or an older version of her— back with me for just a day!

So the decision we made that afternoon three weeks ago wasn’t difficult. My husband and I live in Sweden. That afternoon we had stopped by his mother’s fifth-floor apartment in Old Town Stockholm to check on her before enjoying a movie and dinner out. At eighty-eight, she was gradually weakening, and for years has longed to join her husband in death. Her 1600s-era home has no elevator, and the steep, winding flights of stone steps had become Mt. Everest. That day she seemed, as the Swedes say, svagg or very weak. “Come home with us,” I heard myself saying.

And surprisingly, this very independent woman did. While I quickly ransacked drawers for nightgowns and necessities, she went into her husband’s long-empty bedroom and closed the door. Only his large picture propped on the bed knows what she said. Then, clutching a grown grandson’s arm with one arthritic hand and with the other a plastic bag of underwear and medicine bottles, she shuffled slowly down the steps in her slippers and robe.

Life for all of us changed.

We gave her our ground-floor bedroom with its adjacent bath and set up dining-room chairs to lean on for the few steps it would take to reach her walker. Upstairs in the guest room, my husband and I, mature but still enthusiastic newlyweds, shoved two single beds together and reconciled ourselves to a crack that seemed like a chasm. We learned to use the toilet quietly and to brush our teeth in the kitchen sink.

I discovered that once a mother, always a mother— even if one’s “child” is a nearly ninety-year-old mother-in-law. Once on the alert for babies, I’m now attuned to her. I also learned that even my perfect doctor-husband—like the average man—hears nothing in the night.

The days now unfold in slow motion; my self-directed days no longer are. I’m sometimes summoned awake before I’m ready, and just-for-me moments don’t come until my husband arrives home, and I can consciously clock out. Mealtimes are regular and seldom vary: butter-thick bread and tea for breakfast, soured yogurt with lingonberry and a few cereal flakes for lunch, and please, a potato for dinner? And don’t forget the small pitcher of water for the too-warm tea, heating the bowl for the too-cold yogurt, the small white pillow for the chair back, the light blue blanket for her shoulders, the lamb-skin rug wrapped around her feet. Remembering each item before she does becomes a game.

Yet Eivor is easy. Grateful. Sweet.

Often we talk as women over tea. She tells me, “There were supposed to be two more babies, but I had trouble, so I have just the one child.” “Was I a good mother?” she wonders. Look at how your son turned out, I assure her. “And now a professor. His father would be so proud,” she says. “I think I spent too much time cleaning,” she says of what seems to me the Swedish indoor sport. “People are more important,” she adds. I nod, and resolve to sit until she has finished her tea before I pop up to load the dishwasher.

Other days, conversation is scant. I prod her with questions and choices, but her only answer is “I don’t know. I am a wreck. This is so terrible. Why can’t I die? Each night I pray to God I can be gone.”

But when tomorrow comes, she is still here. And I am glad. For Eivor is teaching me much.

For the first time, I know the intimacy of helping to bathe an adult. Standing naked as she lowers herself into the lawn chair I have wrestled into our small shower, she is as unselfconscious as I am slightly embarrassed. I test the temperature of the water before handing her the nozzle. I shampoo her newly permed white hair. As she stands dripping at her walker, I towel her dry then apply gardenia-scented lotion, warming it first between my palms.

How many times have I bathed my babies, my grand-babies? It’s not so different, only one doesn’t grab the rubber duck or camera. And it is every bit as tender. But time has replaced soft, sweet curves and dimples. The hips which conceived and bore and lost babies are wide, the years have lichened her body with the thickened brown spots of old age. No airbrushed, magazine advertisement this, yet there is beauty here. And history: the playing child running free, the young mother cradling the babe who will become the man I love, the passionate wife, the outstanding cook and hostess, the old woman bent over her sick husband.

As a woman well into middle age, I look at my mother-in-law and acknowledge the preview of my own body, should the movie of my life last as long as hers.

I’ve come to enjoy our physical contact as much as she does. Such simple pleasures: the warmth of the blow-dryer on pink scalp, the feel of my fingers in her still-heavy hair. The slipperiness of her perpetually cold hands as I smooth lotion into the gnarled knuckles, willing warmth into them. Her satisfaction at a fresh nightgown and clean robe. Her white head against my chest—suddenly, surprisingly, as precious as the soft downy heads of my babies.

She may not know it, but Eivor bears many gifts. Oh, not her nightly, “Thank you for today, Jann,” nor her instruction on the proper folding of used plastic bags, nor her lesson on the Swedish custom of welcoming spring by wiring colored feathers to birch branches and placing them in water until the “mouse ear” green leaves appear.

No, she’s also teaching me the importance of patience: the grace of eating and drinking and moving more slowly, the importance of expressing gratitude regularly, the delight in a snowy day or the sight of a vase full of tulips close-up or the enjoyment of children at play in a nearby yard.

Eivor is teaching me that my own body—which looks to me so unattractive at nearly fifty-nine—is really quite young and agile in comparison. She’s teaching me that death needn’t be feared if life has been savored. But most of all she’s teaching me that it’s never too late to learn more, to love more.

Eivor’s blue-veined hand in mine is not my mother’s. And yet it is. It is my mother’s hand and my mother’s mother’s hand—and her mother’s before that. It is the hand of Eivor’s mother and her grandmother. Just as someday, it will be my hand. Or your hand.

May the universe provide us all with another hand to hold.

Jann Mitchell

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