My mother is one of 12 children. She is 92 now. In all likelihood, she’ll see her 93rd birthday in late October. She was a middle child, but now she’s the oldest, having survived six of her siblings. The youngest girl, my Aunt Edith, is in hospital now. Dying. From cancer that appears to have metastasized to her bones. She is 83. The circumstances of my aunt’s decline are sketchy. We had seen her last October, as feisty and full-bodied as ever, but, frankly, looking a little older than my mom. My aunt has had knee surgeries and other ailments; my mom, nothing but a cold here and there and a bit of skin cancer that was quickly dealt with.
My mother considers herself blessed. She has no explanation for why she is so healthy relative to all her siblings, why she almost seems to grow younger as they continue to age.
Talking with my mom over the phone can be a surreal experience. On one recent call, I just listened as she discussed her sister’s deteriorated condition, interspersing bits of details and questions (collapsed lung, lesions on her bones, dehydration, eating more now, where will she go next, why didn’t the doctor know) with observations on the variety of birds she feeds, the gray squirrels that entertain her (don’t forget, there’s also a red one), the lilies she planted last week showing shoots already, the two chipmunks that accidentally drowned in a bucket she keeps outside to catch rain (and that was too bad because she thinks chipmunks are cute). I could have listened to her forever.
There was dying (my aunt), living (the birds and squirrels), death (the chipmunks) and birth (the lilies)–all in ten minutes or so. I wasn’t marking time. Perhaps without intending to, she gave me perspective. Things don’t make your life. Life makes your life.
My mom lives in a double-wide which she loves, although it’s beset by boxelder bugs and mice. She lives quite frugally and she’s says it’s by choice, but really, it’s how she has always lived. She wouldn’t know how to splurge if given the opportunity. I sometimes call her Moneybags because every so often she hands out large checks to her children and grandchildren. She’s “spending down,” trying to make sure there’s nothing to quibble over when she’s gone. I roll my eyes. The money is appreciated but it’s listening to her talk about her birds and squirrels and the occasional woodchuck that I’ll miss.
I’m feeling pretty philosophical right now and wish it could be my constant state, but it takes effort. For now I’ll just hold close her short monologue, replay it in my head whenever I feel bitter or tired or sorry for myself.
It might work because this morning we saw a fledgling pileated woodpecker in our backyard, the first one I’ve seen in many years. I couldn’t wait to call my mom and tell her.