Parashat Vayera: Old Age
My mother is 91. But life doesn’t stop just because one is old. Think of Abraham and Sarah – they had a baby at ages 100 and 90! For most of us, such wonders do not happen at these advanced ages, and for many, what faces us instead is the more difficult reality of a slow decline, in which having even a metaphorical baby is unlikely. Journeying alongside a parent who is experiencing such a decline is a spiritual exercise of the most intense kind.
Soon, I will enter another decade of life. My children are grown and on their own. I’m settling into my new career and taking steps to bring to fruition my own dreams. I have a precious new grandson and an enriching life. And on a regular basis, I put all these aside and spend time with my aging mother, who lives two airplane rides away.
My mother never expected to live so long. Her balance and her vision are impaired and a “neuropathy of unknown origin” is creeping both down her legs and into her hands. Her mind is not as sharp and nimble as it once was. Gone are the days of long rambles in the woods and fields of Wisconsin with her dog and her camera. Gone are the days of teaching eager students. Gone are the days of fellowship with like-minded artists and professionals. Gone are the days of reading for hours on end. Gone are the days of long road trips in her truck, alone or with her dog. Gone are siblings, both blood and in-law, and many, many of her friends.
Now, my mother’s days are filled with the details of life – laundry, mixing the orange juice, too many forms and bills and other now-confusing-but-unavoidable aspects of 21st century life, listening to Public Radio, walking with her “horse” (i.e., walker) around the 10-story building where she has lived for five years. Only now, as her capacities have become so diminished and she is no longer so engaged with the world, only now is she glad to be living with other old people, who understand the difficulties of life at this stage.
Abraham and Sarah were z’kainim, baim ba’yamim – “old, advanced in years.” (Gen. 18:11) They were not elderly, they were old. “Elderly” is too gentle a word. It takes courage to be old. Adjusting to the idea of a new baby wasn’t easy. Sarah laughed at the idea and when G!d questioned her laughter, she became frightened. My mother is also old, with all the hardships that 90+ years of being on this planet in a physical body can bring. If a “baby” were suddenly announced to her, I have no doubt that she, too, would both laugh and be frightened.
My mother has always lived deeply. No change in life was traversed without wrestling in the depths of her soul and in every cranny of her sharp mind. It has not always been graceful. But she has persevered, as one must, of course, and she manages now, and is more accepting. She knows her time is limited.
Next week’s parashah repeats that “Abraham was old, advanced in years” (Gen. 24:1) and the Talmud reads zaken – “old” – as “wise,” “a Sage.” (BT Brachot 17b)
There is a different kind of wisdom in very old age than in younger old age. New fears enter. Crossing a city street is now outside my mother’s repertoire, it’s just plain too scary. Too many things scheduled into a day or a week –whether medical appointments or concerts or visitors, disrupt her sense of well-being. Her world has shrunk. Her stories, repeated many times from my earliest memory, are repeated with different meaning; the stories – some stories – are different. Others are the same, and yet, they, too, are different. All her stories are told from greater distance and from a different perspective, the perspective that the end is approaching, the perspective of distance from the world in so many ways.
And so we spend our time together. My mother loves the simple homemade meals I cook for her – the salads, the fish, the plain fresh vegetables – food cooked for two, not two hundred. I read to her, this time a 17th century Japanese poet: A Haiku Journey: Basho’s Narrow Road to a Far Province. The reading gives us connection, gives her stimulation and comfort and peace. I wash dishes. I do laundry. I listen. I take her to visit a friend. In between, she rests – listening to the radio or lying on her bed, thinking or sleeping. And on the last day of my visit, I take her to Baxter’s Hollow.
My mother’s soul is at Baxter’s Hollow. There it was that she took the first of what was to become a soul-settling series of amazing abstract color photographs. A flood destroyed part of the road a couple of years back, and so it is closed off – perfect for those who need a walker to wander in the woods. The route is by no means flat, but my mother traversed its rather significant hill like a yeoman. As a child she frequently hiked the Catskill Mountains with her family, a pack on her back. She journeyed with them to remote corners of Mexico and Baja California. She paddled down the Colorado River in a small open boat. She rode behind reindeer in Lapland (one of the most fun things in the world, she reports). And now, today, she stoutly marches along the closed road to Baxter’s Hollow, stopping from time to time to listen to the birds, and to the silence. Noticing, despite her diminished vision, the wonderful phenomenon of fall and winter that one can see past the trees to what is behind them. Wondering what the spots of bright yellow are. Sitting on the seat of her walker by the dancing waters of the stream to munch on apples and cheese and carrots and a hard roll.
Being old isn’t easy. Neither is watching a parent age. I love my mother from the depths of my heart and soul, and I do my best to be there for her as much as I can. But it isn’t easy. There are so many emotions. I miss the deep conversations about meaning and symbols and art and religion. I miss being able to process my own emotions with her, and to see how much we experience similar things in life, despite our outward differences. And yet, as the days of this visit go by, I notice that our moods tend to match. Perhaps less has changed than I thought, just that the way it is communicated is no longer through conversation. At the beginning, I was agitated and conflicted about being there, and she was tense about her own issues. The day we were supposed to go to the International Crane Foundation, she simply could not do it – she needed to stay home. I was upset in anticipation, but by the time it came about, I was reconciled. I ran errands and helped her fill out forms, and she was relieved to get them finished. And then it was Shabbat, and as I chanted the blessings, the peace of Shabbat entered the room, and us. My mother commented on how much she likes to have Shabbat with me, despite not understanding the words. I knew the words were not important, and could even get in the way. I was not raised Jewish; my mother is not Jewish, she is not religious, but she is deeply spiritual, and she brings her soul to her experience of Shabbat and I feel it in the room. I feel her participation. And so we rested that day, and on Sunday we went to Baxter’s Hollow, and there my mother’s spirit was further renewed.
I had brought my mother some homemade strawberry jam. I don’t do much preserving of food; this was a gift of my soul and a memory of my childhood. But it turns out – despite her appreciation of the gift – that she rarely eats jam these days. Rather than let it go to waste in her refrigerator, I decided to take it home with me.
Leaving Boston, taking my bags onto the plane, I’d had no problem with the jam at the airport, but leaving Madison, they confiscated it: “More than three ounces of jell,” I was told.
Tears welled into my eyes. I instantly knew they were not about the jam. They were about my mother. They were about the pain of watching her slowly decline. They were about the grief of the losses that have already occurred, and the new ones that I now must acknowledge. They were about the anticipation of the difficult times yet to come, of visits filled with love and connection and lack of connection and silent meaning instead of meaning through mutual understanding and dishes and journeys into the countryside and days spent at home resting.
“Abraham was old” and “old” means “wise,” “a Sage.” The wisdom of very old age is acceptance.
To journey a diminished life. To accept. If she can, which she keeps arriving at anew, then I can, too. And I will, slowly, in my own way.
The opening words of Basho’s journal touched my mother: “The passing days and months are eternal travellers in time. The years that come and go are travellers too. Life itself is a journey; and as for those who spend their days upon the waters in ships and those who grow old leading horses, their very home is the open road. And some poets of old there were who died while travelling.” (translation by Dorothy Britton)
The double journey. Life and Baxter’s Hollow. Life and photographs. Life and forms that must be filled out in painstaking handwriting. Life and death.
Will there be more babies? In my mother’s case, the “baby” we have all long awaited is her book – her memoir, her life in words and photographs, so many, many years in the making. Will three messengers come to the opening of the tent, as they did to Abraham, to announce its impending birth? For Sarah and Abraham, for my mother, and for each and every one of us, only G!d knows.
by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen