As one who has worked with seniors for my entire career, I thought I knew all about successful aging. But in spite of my so called “expertise”, I could not convince my own mother to age “successfully”. She chose instead to progressively isolate herself, to hold onto the family home for 45 years, turning it into a shrine to my father’s memory, and to hide her increasing frailty and pain as the cancer that she was living with was winning the battle. She was living on her own terms in spite of the fact that other choices would have made her life so much better. But, it seems her self-determination was her answer to successful aging. She survived each day according to her plan, not mine.
Whatever our professional backgrounds, nothing completely prepares one for the ultimate trauma that accompanies end of life decisions, strategies, choices. Choices? Hah! What choices are there really when none are acceptable? So, being my mother’s daughter, I have developed my own unique version of coping with illness and loss that seems to have bubbled up to the surface out of instinct rather than through any carefully crafted philosophy or belief.
When I lost my father, I took some consolation in singing for him as he drifted further away from me. It was comforting for me to belt out the corny old songs that my father taught me on long drives as a child, and I hoped desperately that he could hear me through the fog of the sepsis and the whir of the respirator. In My Arms, The Bells are Ringing for Me and My Gal, I’m Gonna Buy a Paper Doll that I Can Call My Own.. Songs that I will never forget because they were a gift from my father. I paid no attention to the others around us in the ICU; I was trying to draw him back from oblivion and would do whatever it took, at the expense of my modesty. Nothing prepares you for what you will do, for the depths that you will go, to hold onto someone you love.
And 13 years later, I found myself at my mother’s hospital bedside facing that familiar desperation to keep her alive. But, the consequences of denial were extreme. It was her time. She said repeatedly that she “didn’t want this anymore” and yet my siblings and I were too conditioned from years of fixing her problems, and drawing her back from the edge, that we once again rolled up our sleeves prepared for battle. We argued with the doctors, we evaded my mother’s question as to whether she would” be okay”; we begged them to revive her each time she lost her airway. Shame on us! In the end, I just climbed into bed alongside her, wrapped my arms around her and let her know that we would all be okay.
In the days and months that have passed since losing my mother, I have transferred that physical embrace into a different sort of embrace…I wear my mother’s things.
Clothing for Flossie was so much more than just what she happened to don on a particular day. As with many children of the Depression, my mother grew up with very little, and coveted what she received. A piece of black market bubble gum that her father was able to procure would last a week as she would add another tiny piece every day to the accumulations from the days before. A wealthy cousin would summon my mother and grandmother when she was giving away clothing and my mother would fill her closet to the brim, just for the sated and secure feeling it provided.
So, when cleaning out the family home we children were left to deal with a 45 year accumulation of clothing, ranging in size from 14, from Mom’s more robust days, down to 2, which she wore in recent frailer times. As my siblings and I have uttered on countless occasions, she could have clothed a small village. In fact, she probably did with the more than 50 leaf bags full of clothing that we donated in the weeks after her death.
While we gave much of it away, my sister and I held onto many special items that happened to fit. And I discovered that there is curious comfort in wrapping myself in my mother’s things. In the same way that clothing and jewelry had come to represent so much else for her, when I drape myself in a sweater or scarf that belonged to my mother, I can sense her presence, and sometimes even the lingering scent of her Red Door perfume. Unlike the other women in my family, I was blessed with the same shoe size as my mother, who could have given Imelda Marcos a run for her money. When I wear her shoes, I believe that I am walking in her footsteps, and this evokes a feeling of connection to my mother like nothing else for me.
At her memorial service, each of her six granddaughters proudly donned a piece of “Buboo’s” clothing, as a symbol of love and respect and of the flair with which she lived life, and to say that her legacy would live on through them. I have given many of the special women in my life one of her scarves as a gift that my mother would have wanted them to have.
I saw a play recently, “Love, Loss and What I Wore”, and I felt that more than most of the women in the audience, I could appreciate the symbolism and connection between clothing, and the person and experiences beneath it. My mother draped herself in beautiful things. Those who knew her will always recall the petite, spirited and bubbly lady who was always so well coordinated and put together. But for my mother, how she dressed went well beneath the surface; it represented her attempt to connect with the world which was not always kind to her, to compensate for disappointments, to engender acceptance and praise. Whatever it represented, because it had belonged to her, it is a treasure to me. And I have accumulated enough of her belongings so that I might never have to leave the house in the morning without something soft and colorful, some bauble that reminds me that she is always with me, and that I am a part of her. When someone compliments me on something I am wearing, I accept that compliment proudly on behalf of my mother. This is the way I am coping with this newest and awesome loss. Whether this is “successful” grieving matters less to me than the fact that I can get out of bed each day and walk out the door, with one of my mother’s colorful scarves flapping in the breeze.
Judy Trerotola is CJP’s Director of Senior Services.