My mother is dying.
She is in hospice, taking no liquids, receiving only palliative care, visited by loved ones. When Michele and I visited two weeks ago — it’s a 650-mile round trip — she was showing substantial dementia, but rallied and was able to enjoy the visits of several of her 58 descendants. She knew us all, was able to recognize and admire my daughter’s wedding gown, and had a good day. Today, tomorrow, or the day after, however, her 99-year-old body will finish its job, and she will leave us.
I can’t help but think that there comes a time when being a “tough old bird” is no longer an advantage. My mom is that, in the best sense: an uncomplaining, common, ordinary, garden-variety hero, with the toughness and tenacity common to her generation. For many years she has caused me to think of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (The Life of a Hero), over which he caught much flack for presenting himself as the protagonist, but which has come to be — to me — a celebration of the hero in all of us that shows up, if we’re lucky, when we need it.
Strauss demurred, in the face of criticism, saying that he lacked the strength to be a hero. But isn’t that what heroism is: finding the strength to do what needs to be done, even when one doesn’t have it to hand? My mom has that in spades.
Nonetheless, there is a time to let go, a time when our tone poem has reached its finale, and the quality of life is no longer commensurate with the effort. There is no way of knowing, really, if she has reached that point. Although she experiences more and more seeming dementia, we cannot know what is happening inside. She may be writing her own masterpiece yet, and simply no longer be able to allow it out to inspire the rest of us.
Let us hope…believe…that she is hearing the sweetest music possible, and that her finale is appropriate to the hero’s life that she has led.