Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas
Several weeks ago, my mother had a series of mini-strokes and had to be first hospitalized, and then moved to a long-term assisted living facility. She wasn’t happy about either situation (who would be?) but then again, my mother’s never really been happy about anything.
I used to try and cheer my mother up, or pacify her rages, or offer her solutions for the seemingly endless litany of complaints of which her conversation was comprised. I tried for years to persuade her that herproblems were mostly in her own head, and that if she stopped blaming everyone else for her misery, she might have a shot at contentment.
I was asking too much of my mother, who was diagnosed with narcissistic borderline personality disorder some years ago . This is a woman who hasn’t called me in twenty years, who has rarely (maybe twice in the past thirty years) asked me how I was, or how My Best Beloved was doing. Although she never read any of my books and refused to come to my readings, she apparently took great pride in telling her ever-changing parade of acquaintances that her daughter was a (slightly) famous writer.
Last Saturday, I sat with Mum and My Best Beloved at lunch in her new home. The dining room has tables covered in white clothes, and large windows overlooking a garden full of peonies, irises, and roses, and directly beyond Lake Ontario shimmers in the sunlight. The day before, we moved my mother’s belongings into her private room, which also overlooks the lake. We bought her a new silk duvet, hung pictures, arranged her favorite chair and footstool, watered the African violets she so loves, hooked up her television, placed her clothes in the drawers, set out little keepsakes, fluffed pillows. Now, over a tasty lunch, she demanded scissors, and said she “could have killed” the nurse who urged her to get out of bed and come for breakfast that morning. When I asked my mother if she knew where she’d been the day before (the hospital), she threatened to throw first an eclair in my face, and then a glass of apple juice. She may only weigh ninety pounds, but I know from sad experience she can pack a punch. I let it drop. Last week at the hospital she had been found with her hands around the neck of the patient in the bed next to her, whose snoring apparently bothered her.
Mum will not go gently into that good night.
My mother’s frontal lobe injury means she is no longer capable of controlling her aggressive, inappropriate and violent impulses. Her physical decline is not repairable; she is, after all, 90 years old. She has lived her life fiercely attempting to control everything around her and lived in a funk of rage and thwarted entitlement. Nothing will change that.
It’s not that my mother’s behavior now is that much different than it was before the vascular “brain events”; she often treated me badly. The difference is that whereas she used to do this only when the two of us were alone, now she treats me like that in front of others. She can’t hold the socially acceptable mask in place any longer. My Best Beloved is ashen.
I’m not angry at my mother. There’s no point in that. It isn’t that she withholds her love, it’s that she isn’t capable of it.
Many years ago, when I asked her why she had done some of the things she had done to me when I was a child, she looked puzzled and then said, “You have to understand, when I was doing those things to you I wasn’t mad at you, I was mad at your father.”
And I thought, huh, if that makes sense to her, if terrorizing a seven year old child because you’re angry at a grown man makes sense . . . well, her perceptions were so twisted it was like dealing with an alien species. She never offered an apology, or even acknowledged she might have done anything wrong (“That was your father’s fault,” was all she offered), and I never again asked for one.
Spending time with my mother is painful, but being my mother must be more painful still. How I wish her last months or years might be spent doing exactly the opposite of what Dylan Thomas hoped for his dying father — how I wish she might go gently into that good night. How I wish she might at last stop fighting, stop trying so desperately to defend herself against imaginary foes. My prayer for her is that she lift her eyes from the ground in front of her and see the beauty and the blessings.
I think of Raymond Carver’s poem, “Late Fragment”, which reads,
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
But in the end, my mother is who she is, and she will, I suspect, end her life as she has lived it. All I can do is thank her for the lessons I’ve learned from her. I can make different choices; I can lead a different life, and I pray that at the end of my life I can say, as Sarah Williams said, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”