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Growing Old Alone

Jeff Conant

At least twice a year I fly to New York to sit with my mother. She doesn't want help, so all I can offer her is company. Often, she doesn't want that either. Often I plan to spend a week with her and I end up passing most of the time with friends in the city and generally avoiding my caretaking role. This time there can be none of that. She lives in a HUD independent living complex for the elderly and the manager of her home has made it clear that she needs more regular care or she needs to move out. This visit is about getting her a social worker, signing her up for a meals-on-wheels program, and taking her to a doctor. All against her will, and all vaguely beyond her understanding. Her mind, as it was, is gone, and she is simply waiting for her failed understanding of the world around her to fade to black once and for all.

She was a vibrant woman, spirited and willful at best, angry and drunk at worst. In her twenties and thirties she worked as an editor in Manhattan, and for a short and glorious moment, lived in the West Village and attended parties with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, Richard Wright, Dylan Thomas, and Peter Falk. One of her ex-husbands, institutionalized at Bellevue, shared a room with J.D. Salinger just after he'd written A Catcher in the Rye. When I express sadness at her current state, she tells me again and again "I had a life. I knew people. I lived." When she talks about the life she had, more than anything she's referring to the ten years between 1955 and 1965 when she was a liberated woman in the great city of New York.

I was born in 1967. It was the Summer of Love and my mother, 35, was bearing her second child and planning a future with her third husband. She took me in a stroller to the protests against the Vietnam War. When we moved to the suburbs in 1970, she immersed herself in the life of the community. She joined the cooperative nursery school, became a substitute teacher, and later helped to integrate black kids into my mostly white Little League. She nearly single-handedly organized a demand that the city provide a bus service so that kids from the Projects could play on the Little League in our more affluent neighborhood. She managed to take her liberal ideals from the early days of civil rights and put them to work in the suburbs in the mid-70's. She did good work.

So how do I explain her bitterness? As her son, I have no finger on the pulse of her psychology, but I can speculate. All three of her husbands, my own dad being the third, were either alcoholic or lunatic or both. And all three, my dad being the last, took care of her as men "took care" of their wives in the American Fifties. So she became a kept woman, a slave to self-pity, and a restless alcoholic.

I've always suspected that my mother, breaking out of her depression-era childhood and first-generation child-of-immigrant roots, experienced a profound freedom in the beatnik years of the late fifties in New York. She was a proto-liberated woman in the proto-liberated years when the shadow of McCarthyism was about to give way to the sunshine of Timothy Leary and the Beatles. As a New American Woman she resented and despised her Old World roots. And later, when she lost her freedom to marriage and the suburbs, to child-rearing and middle age, she grew to resent and despise her new American woman-ness because it, too, was constricting and dull. Through her I grew up with an intuitive sense of that particular American form of psychological trauma: regret about the past, boredom with the present, and fear of the future.

Growing up watching my father work too much and my mother drink herself numb, it was easy to develop the feeling that the philosophers call ennui and the aging call disappointment. It is this same feeling that middle class punk kids recycle into rage: a quasi-political intuitive understanding that all of life is organized as a single system of suffocation and domination. Birth, school, work, death. The challenge of growing older: to avoid being dominated the way one's parents were. (Thus the rock-n-roll credo: Hope I die before I get old.)

Watching my mother age has been like watching a ship drifting towards an iceberg. Now, after years of witnessing, with an extreme sense of powerlessness myself, I'm seeing the ship breaking on the ice. The powerlessness I feel as my flight descends into JFK International airport in the midst of America's new invisible War on Terror is a mixture of personal sorrow and political outrage, social alienation and bodily fatigue. I cannot separate the personal from the political, and in both arenas the message seems clear: things go from bad to worse. Like many of us accidentally born inside the Empire in a post-enlightenment, post-family, post-meaning, past-hope age, I am empty, exhausted, and sick.

On the long subway ride towards Brooklyn, I am still trying to make sense of the vast separation between son and mother. I am too aware that it's not just my problem, not just my fucked-up life. Without trying too hard to boost the drama, I imagine the hundreds of thousands of Afghani refugees fleeing U.S. attacks into Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran. The New York Times is beginning to print reports of civilian casualties, but there is no headline naming the grief of all the families broken apart and separated by hardship, distance, or death.

It is easy to feel dramatic on this visit to Mom, because the circumstances of her hopelessness are so dramatic. At the same time, there is too much to do to let me sink into self-pity. Between the first day of my visit — when I rented an economy car in Manhattan and drove straight to her home in suburban Connecticut — to the last — when I walked out of a doctor's office with the new certainty that my mother's illness was called Cancer — I went about my work like a good son caretaking his aged mother.

Every time I walk into her small apartment I'm shocked to see her. First there is the smell — not the "old-people smell" of lanolin and Listerine that I remember from childhood, but a smell of cigarettes and piss. Then there is the sight of her, shaking and emaciated in a cloud of cigarette smoke. She is thin — seventy pounds — and her bones protrude from her withered flesh. Her hair has grown patchy on her head and her skin is almost translucent. She is unsteady on her feet and her eyes are glazed over as if full of smoke themselves. When I reach out to hug her she barely reaches me, and she feels like a skeleton.

In a culture driven full speed towards the New, youth fears the aged, and I am afraid of what I see when I visit my mother. She is old. But she is more than old — she is tired and angry and alone. Seeing anyone so vanquished, bewildered, and abandoned is frightening in itself; feeling responsibility for the abandonment makes the fear worse; and being unwelcome to help, being told there is nothing to do but wait out a slow and humiliating death, is the final note of helplessness and fear.

My reaction to her is painful and difficult. I've tried, over the years, to convince her to stop drinking, to quit smoking, to join a social group, to take walks. In short, to choose life. At the same time, I question my own place here, and I wonder how it is that I have fought so hard to believe that life itself, and a sense of dignity and empowerment, is worth fighting for.

My efforts to help her have included one long winter when I moved to live near her and I visited and took her shopping once a week. Our conversations naturally revolved around her unhappiness and sense of loss and my own failure to support her. I followed her through the supermarket week by week as she supported herself on the shopping cart and collected her weekly lot of provisions: Coke, cat food, cigarettes, candy, breakfast cakes, and a few frozen dinners. She often got lost in the aisles. Her memory loss left her stranded, insisting that they rearranged the supermarket each week.

After several long months of offering this kind of help, and after being told ad nauseam that my help was neither needed nor wanted, I moved back to California, to my own life.

I'm back now because her failing bladder is causing her to mess the sofa, bed, and carpet in her apartment, and even the hallway of her home. She needs a doctor visit, and to be fitted with diapers, and to be better fed, and the company of a family member. I've never done this before, and there's no one to tell me what to do, so each step in the process is a painful mystery to me. I'm talking to her about her drinking and getting denial, though there is a musty glass half full of scotch in the kitchen and another in the living room. When I ask about her diet she claims to eat just fine, though it's clear from a look at her cupboards that the cookpots I brought her six months ago are unused. Her freezer is filled with months-old freezer-burned ground meat. The packs of lunchmeat in the refrigerator are fuzzy and blue with mold.

When I finally get around to the subject of her incontinence, and the fact that her home smells like a litterbox, she insists that it's the cat. If the cat wants to pee on the sofa, she tells me, that's the cat's business, not mine.

After I fail several times to have her accept her body's failure and the need to stay clean, I call the agency on aging at the local Health Department and talk with a case worker there. He is available to help. So I take leave of my mother and drive out to see him in my rental car. Contrary to my fears, the man who greets me is friendly and compassionate, with the abstracted sense of duty of a County worker. In his windowless concrete cubicle on East Main Street, I describe the challenges, and he spreads out a fan of different colored flyers and brochures: the hospital's geriatric assessment service, the meals-on-wheels program, Friends for the Elderly, Lifeline, In Home Care, Prescription Drug Assistance, the Senior News. He asks me his standard set of questions:

"Who takes care of her?" "No one. She's refused any care."
"Does she go to any social group?" "None."
"Has she ever attended AA for her drinking?" "No."
"What medications does she take?" "None."
"When was her last visit to a doctor?"
"Nineteen-ninety five."
"Is there any other family?"
"No. Well, there's my sister, but she doesn't talk to us."

After many phone calls I arrange for a geriatric assessment at the hospital. She protests, but is too weak to fight. I get her in the rental car and take her in. The doctors are friendly and personable, and allow me to stay through the verbal portion of the exam. They ask her a series of questions — who's the president, what's today's date, where are we — to assess her general awareness. She answers them all with her slurred voice and crooked smile, doing her best to feign control over her faculties. They ask her about current events and she faithfully names the War on Terrorism and Osama bin what's-is-name. They ask her to count backwards from 100 by sevens, and she even manages to get pretty far. But it's clear that her mind is weak. They send me out and give her a physical.

After a half hour or so I'm invited back in to hear the results. She weighs seventy pounds, and they've found some sort of mass in her breast. She's unclean and seems to have a problem with incontinence. They take urine and blood samples and do a brainscan. They'll send me the results. In the meantime I should take her to see a primary physician. They can't say for sure, but cancer is likely. They recommend a mammogram, which she refuses. They recommend that she improve her diet. She insists it's fine. They recommend that she cut down on smoking. Out of the question.

The next day I take her to another doctor. He, too, is friendly, and despite the American flags and pharmaceutical ads that fill his office, I take him into my confidence and explain her situation. I ask that, if he finds anything serious, he tell me before he tells her. He says that's an ethical consideration and he'll see what seems right. I tell him about her incontinence, her drinking, her denial, and I warn him that she may refuse any recommendations he gives her. I tell him to call the hospital and have them send over the results of the blood and urine tests.

After the visit he takes me aside. "She's a unique case," he says. "It's amazing you even got her here." He's also found the breast mass. He talked to her about her incontinence, and she insists it's the cat that pees on the rug. He's concerned about her weight and he's going to prescribe her an anti-depressant which will stimulate her appetite. He asks her if she'll take it and she says "Maybe, maybe not." Finally he tells me that the hospital found blood in her urine. That, combined with her weight loss, her incontinence, her smoking and her general state leads him to suspect cancer of the bladder. Of course lung cancer is likely as well, and breast cancer is almost a given. But without tests there's no way to know for sure, and she's refused tests. In fact, she's refused the possibility of cancer.

"The doctor says I'm fine," she reports after he's just told me the opposite. "He says I should go home and have a smoke."

My fear of doctors and social service people, and of the web of bureaucracy I expected to find, eventually comes to nothing. My mother's resolve to refuse help of any kind has rendered the available social services entirely impotent. Confirmation of her multiple illnesses helps me to understand her condition, but her denial negates any good the doctors may have done her. The good that the doctors have done me, however, is immeasurable for its validation of what I've struggled with in solitary for many years. "She's a unique case. It's amazing you even got her here."

I take her home and apologize for all the trouble I've caused by forcing her to see these doctors. She's angry at me and tells me she's had a terrible time. If I ever come to visit again, she says, I shouldn't make her do these things. How is it that she raised such a mean kid?

On the last day of my visit I set up a daily meal program for her, and buy her a microwave oven after much protest. I also call to get her set up with Lifeline, an electronic necklace with a call button she can press for help in case she falls down. This is standard care for the old and neglected. It's miserable and, in the absence of family and friends, it's the only option.

I say farewell, and give her a last hug. She's shaking, and reeks of urine. As I wrap my arms carefully around her breakable form, I wish I could just push her out to sea in a canoe and watch her float away with dignity. As its been with every farewell for several years now, I feel that this may be the last time I see her.

Returning to California by way of JFK airport, the soldiers and the security checks don't bother me so much. This is America. Get used to it.

When I call her from Oakland a few days later she tells me she's cancelled the meal service and refused to accept Lifeline. When I come back again I should take the microwave back. She won't use it.

"Oh," she says, "and another thing. The doctor called. He says I'm fine."

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