Facing Aging on Mother’s Day: mortality, imagination and the stuff

My mother is on a mission. She is circulating a list of her and my father’s household and personal belongings that she considers valuable to her children. The mission is for my sister, brother and me to identify what we might like to have after she and my dad have died. Once we fulfill our assignment, our choices will remain confidential. Our parents will decide who gets what and seal the envelope. When the time comes that they neither need nor care about such things, the envelope will be opened and we’ll learn the final distribution of the stuff.

At 86 years old, she is wise to do this. She and my father raised three children. Evidence of their success is that, as older adults ourselves now, we remain good friends with each other and with our spouses and children. It’s what you would call a “strong, close-knit family.” But Mom also knows that in a time of grief, emotions are raw. There’s potential for deep pain to boil over into family conflict, triggered by a disagreement about such subordinate matters as who gets the stuff.  Although Mom assures us that she knows we’re better than this, she’s not taking any chances.

Nearly every time we talk, she asks me “How’s the list coming?” And, every time, I find some very good, life-is-so busy reason why I haven’t completed and returned it. Recently, she changed her tone. “Why haven’t you sent me your list?” she asked in that mom voice I recognize since childhood, signaling that she is losing patience.

Cindy Ray, Communication Specialist, Presbyterian Homes & Services

Why haven’t I?  It’s not a hard task; it’s a checklist. There are things on her list that are still useful and beautiful, are better than anything I can afford, possess precious memories, or all of the above. The pat answer is that I am in denial. Sure, there’s that, but I don’t think its flat-out denial. I have worked in the world of older adults every day for the past 40 years. I am well acquainted with aging and mortality. I have stood at bedside of those who are dying, prepared for funerals, consoled survivors, helped clean out apartments and homes. This is familiar territory for me. I think I face aging head on.

My problem is that I lack imagination. Hard as I try, I cannot imagine living in a world without my mother in it. Making choices about what stuff I want requires me to think about how I would use it, which would mean that she is not. The list wants me to imagine living without her. Since the day I was born, I have no idea how this feels and I’m not sure I want to know—until I have no choice.

It’s not her intention, but when my mother asks me to deal with the stuff now, not later; she is asking me to deal with life after her death now, not later. This is so hard. Checking off my choices on her list becomes a hard task after all because it is about so much more than the stuff. It’s about facing aging down to the DNA: my mother’s, my father’s, my sister’s, my brother’s and my own and reframing how we will live when the unimaginable becomes undeniable and we are no longer the family we’ve always been.

“Get over it!” I can hear her say. Among her many valuable lessons, Mom taught me to buck up and just do what needs to be done. She also taught me, by her example, that when it is something really difficult and we find ourselves avoiding it, do it anyway but not for ourselves—do it for the good of another. Be motivated by love, respect and honor for another. Do it because they matter and what we do matters to them.

I’ve set this Mother’s Day as my deadline to face aging head on by completing Mom’s list. It will be one of my Mother’s day gifts to her. I’ll finish this assignment, not for me because I still can’t imagine, but for her. After eight and a half decades, she deserves to have peace of heart and mind. She deserves respect and recognition as the arbiter of family harmony, a role she has held over the years and continues to fulfill so well. She deserves to complete the legacy work she has begun. Above all, she deserves for me to stand with her and for her and face that she is beyond aging, she is aged, and to love her and honor her life now, not later.

Cindy Ray is the Communication Specialist at Presbyterian Homes & Services

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