It’s the silence, the unending quiet that reminds us of our loss.
Last week, in celebration of Mother’s Day, our church sent out cheerful, kindly invitations to a Mother-daughter luncheon. For the first time in my life, there was no one to go with me. It surprised me that I felt the loss so deeply. Mom had been in and out of our lives so often that we never counted on her to be around for celebrations. She might call from somewhere up or down the East Coast so we could wish her Happy Mother’s Day. Or we might be able to get in touch with her if her cell phone was charged, or she had it with her, or she hadn’t lost it, which was almost always the case. But she was rarely around to actually attend a church luncheon.
Mom’s passing last December has left a considerable hole in the fabric of my life. All the frustrations of the dementia, the stubborn willfulness, the growing gangrene on her foot, the daily care and concerns are now distant memories. Several friends had told me that I would be grateful for the time I had with her during her last few months. I didn’t think I would, especially while enduring the trauma of being her caregiver. But they were right. I am glad that I brought her back to her little home here on our “back forty.” She seemed happy even if she didn’t know where she was. Only occasionally did she ask for Al, her husband/friend of forty-odd years. Now, however, only the emptiness is left.
Many of us in our sixties and seventies are losing loved ones. Some lost parents long ago. For those, whether for parent or spouse, the mourning is quieter, the pain less frequent. But the loss is still there. Not an open wound, but still grief. A brief thought, perhaps, a heartfelt wish that we could share some happy time or laugh over some foolishness. We cling to our belief that our lost ones are “up there” somewhere looking down on us and wishing us well. We sometimes find it comforting.
To lose a beloved spouse, however, as several of my friends have recently, is terrifying. Although there may be sons and daughters hovering in the background, or step-sons and step-daughters, facing the bareness of widowhood is beyond comprehension for those who have not been there. That is a silence that is deafening in its pain. And climbing out of the hole that is left in our souls may take years. The hole never fully closes.
Equally difficult is waiting for a loved one to die. A dear friend put her husband of many, many years into a Long-term Care facility. She had tried to keep him at home as long as she could, hiring expensive caregivers and taking the night-watch herself. But it had reached a point where she could no longer cope. He was falling when he tried to get himself out of bed, no longer aware that he could not walk. A big man, she couldn’t lift him without help. The danger to him, and to her, had become acute. He didn’t want to leave their home, but she had no choice. She had to put him into the hands of round-the-clock professionals.
What surprised her was the agony of doing it. Having had to do it with Mom, I agree. The guilt of giving up is overwhelming. And it is much worse when our loved ones don’t want to be there and know it. They may complain, or sulk, or scream, fighting to get out. Or, as one friend did, she found a way to get back home by inviting a granddaughter come stay with her and attend college. She may not know it, but that is a truly temporary fix. Granddaughters don’t make great caregivers.
The questions, as we drive back and forth to the facility, pour through us like buckets of ice-water. “Could I have held out longer?” “Maybe he was getting better?” “Could I have gotten more help?” My friend was surprised to find herself crying at her decision. Her spouse hadn’t died, after all. He was still there. But he wasn’t. Not really. And while she maintained a stoic, outward clam, I knew well that guilt was gnawing at her, much like the Spartan boy with the wolf under his cloak eating at his vitals. The pain of having her guts ripped out was just as real as death.
But we all survive the death of our loved ones. Whether we cling to religion or some belief in an after-life, we find a way to explain away death. I have been researching for a chapter on Bernardo de Gálvez and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. I ran across Philipp Blom, author of A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. He explores the ideas of a group of men who met in Paris during the 1780s in the home of Baron Paul Thiry d’Holbach. Among the company was Denis Diderot, famous for his Encyclpedie; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher; Horace Walpole, English writer and traveler, and, perhaps not surprisingly, our very own Benjamin Franklin.
What these men suggested was a world without the underpinnings of religion. Rational thought led them to believe that it is simply narcissistic to count on a Providence, a higher intelligence simply because otherwise life would be meaningless. What they argued is that we must accept the meaninglessness of existence and use education and social order to work together to make the best of the lives we have, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, living in the now, to quote Eckhart Tolle. The possibility of our societies simply muddling through for millennia to come (the most likely scenario, they contend), avoiding some catastrophes but suffering others, without any hope of resurrections or second comings, is, in their view, simply what the future holds.
Are there those who would follow this path to nihilism? Certainly. Cultures around the globe have a variety of views on life and death. Some send us back to be worms, others provide virgins or Valhalla. Not all end with ascension into a heaven strewn with angels playing harps and streets paved in gold. We, in the West, may no longer discuss moral or political issues framed in an explicitly religious context, but the religious roots are still there. We continue to cling to the hope that there is a life-hereafter, Benjamin Franklin notwithstanding. It is so much nicer to think of our loved ones up there somewhere waiting for us.
Bet you didn’t see this ending coming, did you? Me neither.