Sunday, November 4, 2012

Accepting the New Normal

Twenty-five years ago I began visiting my mother in a nursing home. Her mental and physical condition had deteriorated over the preceding five years or so to the point that Dad could no longer stay awake enough hours to protect her from falling or engaging in some activity that endangered both their lives. Mom never really came to accept her new situation. She knew she was not in her rightful place and she strongly insisted that if she could return to it she would be able to do all the things a mother and wife should do.

A few years later Dad followed Mom into the same nursing home, partly because she was there, and he wanted to be there to oversee and protect her interest, but partly, too, because he understood that he could no longer maintain himself in his own home. He was not particularly happy there but he, at least, had made the decision on his own to be there, and he had the advantage of a clear understanding of his situation and potentialities. Interestingly, Dad died first, followed three months later by Mom, sixty-seven years to the month after they had first set up house-keeping together as a young bride and groom.

Now I’m watching as my only surviving sibling and his wife are separated in the same way. Her health problems, which have accumulated over the years, have reached a level of complexity that she and he – and their adult live-in son – can no longer cope with. She will undoubtedly spend her last days unhappily enduring an existence that will never seem “normal” to her.

These are examples of how, if we are “lucky”, we live beyond our ability to care for ourselves and often beyond the ability of those who love us, to care for us. It is one of the “blessings” of the new longevity that modern science – and the relative security of western culture – have brought us. Few of us would willingly relinquish those “golden years” even when they become fraught with discomfort and uncertainty. We have a strange “animal instinct” that forces us to soldier on even when the odds say there is little ahead of us to please the eye or palate, or stimulate the mind.

These thoughts come to me this early morning as I sense the irregularity of my heart beating and wonder if I should disturb my wife by going into her bedroom (it used to be “our” bedroom) and activate the pacemaker monitor, sending a report of the “heart flutters” to those who claim to want to know about it. I think of the many changes that have come about the last couple of years – teeth implanted, hearing-aids fitted, cataracts removed, the pace-maker installed, a CPAP regimen prescribed, a new sleeping arrangement necessitated.

None of these changes, taken alone, begin to approach the displacement my parents felt those many years ago, or the frustration and despair my sister-in-law is experiencing now. But they point to a new and ever-changing “normal” that one would not wish for. Something in us insists that the changes are only temporary. We are only in “rehab” and will soon be back in our normal place doing our normal things. For some – for a little while – that is the case. But for all of us – eventually – we’ll be required to accept that new and ever changing “normal” whether we like it or not.

So why not try to like it. I have often found inspiration in my father’s philosophy of life. He did not hide his dislike of the situations he often found himself in, but neither did he rail against them. They were, to him, the facts of his life. Those he could affect he attempted to affect. Those he could not, he endured for the sake of those around him and as a sign of his faith in God.

It was the latter, his faith in God, that sustained him through his long life. Without illusion he faced each day with a determination to live it through to its last second, and if another followed, he would give it the same determined faithfulness.

It occurs to me that his stability may well have come from an understanding of life’s ebb and flow expressed by Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath 

Well, Pa, a woman can change better'n a man. A man lives sorta – well, in jerks. Baby's born or somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman, it's all in one flow, like a stream – little eddies and waterfalls – but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.

Dad never read The Grapes of Wrath but he lived its experiences and he would have said “amen” to Ma’s insightful remark.

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