My mother was once a beautiful, vital, vivacious, smart, intellectually engaged, and generous woman. She was strong-willed, independent, high-powered, and passionate. Her family meant everything to her and she had many devoted friends.
Today, at 96 she is nearly blind, nearly deaf, and has dementia. She can no longer read, hear music, listen to books on tape/CD, or watch television. She falls frequently and has many aches and pains. Most of her friends have died and all her nine brothers and sisters are gone.
Two years ago it was clear to my brother, me and everyone who knew her that she needed to move from part-time to full-time care, but she could not afford to have someone live in her home 24-7. We decided to move her from independent to assisted living, but she resisted mightily. At last we refused to take “no” for an answer.
Over these two years her situation has worsened. At times my mother knows who I am, but she forgets seconds later and wonders what strange man is sitting with her, and why. I remind her that I am her son, but she is now more often than not bewildered, frustrated and angry because she is aware enough to know how much mental capacity she has lost and of the dramatically shrunken world in which she exists.
Only two things sustain her these days. She has some of her long-term memory remaining, and so she recalls vividly her parents and siblings thus bringing them alive; and her knowledge that my brother and I we are well and happy offers her a measure of comfort.
I share my mother’s situation with you because I know that my brother and I are not alone. Many others also experience the disabilities that afflict their parents, grandparents and loved ones as they reach extreme old age.
In a lucid moment yesterday, my mother asked me, “What could I have possibly done that God hates me so much to make me so miserable!”
I took her hand and said, “Mom – How could God possibly hate you? You have always been loving and generous. You were always the first to respond to those in trouble and who needed help – to family, friends and strangers. You contributed to every good cause. You served the Jewish community devotedly. I cannot believe that God is angry at you. Rather, I am sure that God loves you. I love you. Michael [my brother] loves you. You are just very very old, and this is what happens when people get old like you!”
She listened but didn’t respond. I don’t know if she understood me.
What else could I say? She is miserable, and for good reason.
She spoke about another woman, Anna, who is a resident on her floor and a devout Catholic, and said that Anna has more reason than most to end her life because she is “even more miserable than me!” She added, “There are ways to end your life, you know. But she won’t do it, because she’s religious.”
“What about you, Mom? Do you ever want to end your life?”
“Yes, I want to die,” she said, “but I would never take my life for the same reason that she doesn’t take hers!”
I marveled at how strong, still, is my mother’s faith. From the time she was a child in Winnipeg, Manitoba she was a deeply spiritual and religiously inclined person. On Friday nights she secretly went to synagogue alone without her parents and siblings knowing because they thought religion was nonsense. She told them she was attending school events.
Every Shabbat for months I have been offering a mi shebeirach healing blessing for my mother over an open Torah; but of late, I have begun to wonder whether I should stop based on a famous story from the Talmud.
When the great Rabbi Judah HaNasi was near death his disciples came to pray on his behalf in the courtyard below his window. His maidservant, hearing the desires of those “above” for Rabbi Judah’s soul and the desires of the students “below” decided to drop an earthen vessel to the courtyard stones hoping that the crash would at least momentarily distract Rabbi Judah’s students from their prayers. The noise indeed diverted their attention and they stopped praying. It was then that Rabbi Judah gave up his breath to God. (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 104a). Rabbi Judah's maidservant is regarded positively and with respect by tradition.
The Biblical Kohelet wrote that there is
“A season set for everything, / A time for every experience under heaven; / A time for being born and a time for dying…” (3:1-2)
When is my mother’s time for dying? Are my prayers on her behalf in any way sustaining her when she so deeply wishes and is ready to pass on?
Excruciating questions, and I have no answers.