Saturday, August 27, 2005


People rarely leave us all at once - most leave-taking is a slow process, like tanning a hide, during which we become innured to the pain. When my grandmother died last year of Alzheimer's at the age of 82, i was aware that really we had begun to lose her five years previously. There were the almost imperceptible changes of habit and personality that went unremarked for a long while, only noticeable as a pattern, really, in retrospect. There was a shrinking process as she began to inhabit less and less of her own home - foregoing her bedroom upstairs to sleep on the sofa in the living room; eating at the kitchen counter instead of the dining room. Eventually there was the awful day we had to convince her that she could live there no longer - after she had burned food one too many times, after we discovered the spoiled milk in the refrigerator and the confusion over medication. We probably should have intervened sooner, but like lovers sad to see the morning come, we were reluctant to part with our image of the woman we loved and admired.

That move from the house where she had lived for 35 years, the house she had worked so hard to pay for when my grandfather died only six months after they signed the mortgage papers - her leaving that house was like a death. The shrinking process continued as, with only a few of her prized possessions, she moved into an "assisted living" facility, into a 12' x 15' room with attached handicap bathroom. She hated it at first, but became acclimated to her new surroundings and actually took comfort in the narrowness of her orbit - as her dementia progressed, she became more and more fearful of new places, new experiences.

Then there came the day that she fell and broke her hip; after two weeks in hospital, this necessitated a move to a skilled-care facility where she would receive physical therapy. There, she had to share a room - shrinking, shrinking - and all she had of her own were some clothes and a few pictures for her bedside table. She was never able to leave that facility; she gave up on therapy, refused to eat, and died 10 weeks after the broken hip. As we settled her "estate," my mother and i remarked how sadly simple it was because of each bit of paring down along the way.

i'm coming to understand this leave-taking is something each of us must do almost constantly by the time we reach mid-life. Perhaps that's really what the famous mid-life crisis is all about - we occupy our youth with getting and spending, climbing to the top of the hill, only to see that the downhill slope on the other side is littered with things that slip away. And not just things - people, too, begin to slip away at an alarming rate once we reach our 40s and 50s. How can we ever be ready?

At the end of my street is a tidal marsh; i love to watch how the scene changes as the waters rise and fall, and it's particularly interesting at the changing of the tide. i always feel sorry for the tiny crabs and fish, though - spun one way and another as the currents change direction. Perhaps at mid-life we are like those little creatures, still buoyed forward by the surge of our strength and productivity, but being sucked back as well and forced to let go. Our clinging - to youth, to perfect vision, to stamina - only makes the leave-taking awkward, painful - and, okay, sometimes ridiculously humorous!

This week, my daughter, who has taken a job in another state right out of college, informed me that she could safely be taken off our insurance - she now has her car registered and insured in her new state of residence. This was welcome news, as she'd been dragging her feet about it for two months. However, when i called to let our insurance agent know, she asked, "So, she's no longer in your household at all?" *Gasp* Must she put it like that? Of course i want Rachel to be independent, to fully realize her potential - but i felt at that moment as if she'd been ripped from my arms! Stupid, since she's been taking her leave for years, really. When did it begin? When she went away to college? No, that's not right. That first day we took her to college, as she stood on the sidewalk in front of her dorm, waving good-bye, i had an instant flashback to the first day of kindergarten. i realized that the leave-taking had begun even then...i just hadn't known.


Blogger Bela said...

What a lovely, nostalgic post!

I suppose this slow leave-taking is still less painful than a sudden, unexpected separation: we all need time to get used to a loved one's absence.

I've only been that daughter, so I can only imagine how you feel. But you express it so well. :-)

9:50 AM  
Blogger red-queen said...

Thanks, J. i was the daughter once, too - and blissfully careless of any such feelings my parents must have had! This leave-taking seems to be the business of mid-life and wonder people have crises :>)

7:14 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

D, this post touches me deeply, for two reasons. First,I've had all of the experiences you describe(except for the death of a parent, though my father suffers from Alzheimer's) and more importantly, you have written so elegantly and bravely about these things that I know. Thank you.

8:08 AM  
Blogger mireille said...

There's so much here, worded so well. thanks, d. xoxo

7:33 PM  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

What a beautiful post.
Next week, my youngest starts kindgergarten and I've been aware of the leavetaking already with my children.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Tan Lucy Pez said...

So very well worded and well written.

My husband is 77 and I'm 63. I can see what lies ahead. When we're young we rush, rush, rush. We want a bigger, better, nicer home. I have a lovely home now. Big. Too big already. But now, it's not important to have it.

What's it all about?

9:44 PM  
Blogger ParisLondres said...

Wonderful post dearest D! Thank you for reminding me how rushed I may have been leaving my family!


8:04 AM  

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