Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Gift

Yesterday my brother emailed, “What you said about Dorothy's death was illuminating. I remember hearing that when Katherine Graham died (at around 83), it was called the ‘perfect death,’ because she died suddenly and painlessly just before her mental and physical abilities diminished. While you're caring for Mother, do you think about what your life will be like when you are her age?”

I have said many times that I do not want to burden my own children this way. I also do not want to live in a nursing home.

Last week, two caregivers, staying at our bed & breakfast in search of respite, told me a cousin had purchased long term insurance to avoid the scenario their life was following. It costs $3000/year, per person.

These thoughts are swirling through my brain when I hear Bea call. I hurry to her bedside. She stares up at me with fixed gaze and demands, “You’re my daughter?”

The tone is sharper than usual. I nod and stand there wondering what my mother will say next.

Heartbreaking is the only way to describe the feeling inside as her second and third questions register: “What was your father like? Was he a nice person?”

I do not remember my response. I immediately seek out Sven for comfort.

I had a hard time posting yesterday’s blog. It is difficult to imagine one’s own sweet father actually punching one’s mother in the nose.

Was he a nice person?

Yes, of course. He probably regretted the action immediately and did not hit Bea again.

Sven comments, “He couldn’t have been such a nice person then, but he became one.”

Bea would have said, “He had a difficult childhood.”

Sure enough, in one of her letters, I find just such a passage:

“Certainly you have seen in Daddy’s memoirs some of the hostility-provoking treatment he received from both parents and Irish tutor, Mr. Boyle. The effect of getting attached to people and then losing them as a child must have been traumatic: first the adored nurse, then Koukoulya, then his summer tutor, all without explanation from anyone as to why they had to part. And the social environment at home so arid with his mother all alone for eight years while his father was in Cannes. As a child, Daddy was really starved for love and that is why, in my opinion, he nearly got anorexia nervosa at 12, saved only by a kindly cousin, lonely in an unhappy marriage herself. Then, just when he was coming to grips with life and asserting leadership at the Corps des Pages, comes the revolution and all its uncertainty …”

Still, a difficult childhood and revolution are not an excuse for violence.

Bea was a firm believer in psychoanalysis. She always explained away behavior based on life experience. She certainly did so with my dad, more than once. That is what love is about, the acceptance of both good and bad.

I tiptoe back into her bedroom several times during the afternoon. Bea sleeps, and sleeps, and sleeps. Often her face is illuminated with joy. I like to think that my father’s spirit is visiting, ready to lead her away when the time comes …

Bea may not have had “the perfect death” of Katherine Graham and sister Dorothy, but staying this long has allowed me to know her better, an experience that enriches my life.

I open an email from Joe, who blogged about a similar experience: “Enjoy this most beautiful time you have with your mother. As people often tell me, and I know now for myself, it’s a gift.”


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