My father died when I was 14, a year after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In that year he became completely physically unrecognizable to me from the father I had known. Although he suffered terribly and without complaint, his formerly robust physique was skeletal and he looked like he was in his eighties instead of 59.
Yes, I had photographs from happier times, but his haunting image while sick is what stayed with me, and I couldn’t shake it for decades.
Now I’m finding the same thing happening with my mother, who died 5+ years ago and had Alzheimer’s. Towards the end, she was extremely physically and verbally abusive and it was profoundly traumatizing to see a formerly loving and caring person, with whom I was very close, turn into a stranger that I feared – – and do I have the courage to say it? – – even loathed. (It was not my mother I found repellent; it was the alien being she had become, and the guilt and remorse I felt, knowing I could have done better as her caretaker.) Once she passed, I tried, I really tried, to remember the 50 wonderful years I was privileged to have with her before she got sick, but I simply could not. I wanted to get those good years back, and I didn’t know how.
Even worse was that my adult children, who had been so close to their grandmother, were similarly traumatized. Only my youngest daughter could reminisce fondly, but that’s because she lived abroad and never really saw my mom in her worst moments those last couple of years.
It’s been 5 ½ years now and I realized I simply cannot go on like this. So I’ve sought therapy with a counselor for my grief, and it’s been extremely helpful. I am sharing something so intimately personal with readers of my blog not because I want to vent. I am hoping that the tools the therapist gave me can help someone else before they experience this.
The therapist asked me to write down the worst of my experiences with my mom, and my biggest fears. Then she asked me to write down my best memories with my mom, from my childhood thru adulthood. Like I said, I had completely repressed the good things to an unnatural degree. I was unable to recall good times with any feeling of sincerity — so numb and black was my spirit.
So my first advice to you is: if you are fortunate to have an elderly parent who is well, NOW is the time to write down good things about them: wonderful memories from your childhood; examples of their wonderful character; when they soothed your physical and emotional pains; how they found joy in their grandchildren; your gratitude. How I wish I could have relied on something like this when my heart turned black and was plugged with pain, and the good was blocked from my brain! Depositing these recollections will serve as a wonderful “bank” when, G-d forbid, things get hard; a bank of goodness from which you can “withdraw” cherished moments that will perhaps keep you from despair.
So what was my breakthrough moment? (Still a work in progress…)
In the process of decluttering not only my own stuff but boxes from my mom’s estate, I found several cartons full of hundreds of letters, pages and pages long, that my mother and I had written to one another. These were not the typical mundane “hope you are well” and “how is the weather” kind of letters that are written when one writes strictly out of obligation. These were chatty, deep, philosophical, intelligent, caring, and loving letters, pages and pages long, typed and single spaced, that reflected our closeness and love and respect for one another. I was a good daughter after all, at least then! And she was a truly great mother and grandmother. It rekindled the depth and dimension that defined our relationship. And suddenly the childhood pictures at the bottoms of the cartons also brought forth many positive memories I had repressed. I will scan and archive these letters for my children: when they are emotionally ready, they can read them and perhaps they, too, will once again be able to recall my mother with fondness and love.
Looking at these letters, something else occurs to me: future generations will not have this. Few people today have (or make) the time to sit down and write a letter. Instead we have email, which is hugely convenient, but they are mere thought “jots” rather than epic accounts. Once read, they are deleted: The End. Our grandchildren will not miss what they never had, but those of us who are older understand the depth of this loss.
I never fathomed why parents and in-laws make such a big deal out of naming a baby after a dead relative. Shouldn’t the choice of a name ultimately be up to the parents of the child, rather than pressure from family members? While I do think the decision of what to name a baby should be up to its parents, as I grow older I think I finally “get” it. Perhaps it is just human ego; but I think our biggest fear of dying is that we will be forgotten. As we age, our need to be remembered takes on a burning importance. We need to feel we contributed; and that one’s life had meaning in a positive and eternal way for our descendants.
May we strive to conduct ourselves in such a way, that we will always be remembered for the good!
(I’m working on this.)