(This is an update of a post I wrote years before my mother died on 3/19/13.)
At the age of thirty-four, my mother found herself a widow with three children, one only three months old. Despite the sorrow that engulfed her, she was not afraid to ask for what she needed at this difficult time in her life.
With help from family members, she got a typing job that she could do at home. It allowed her to pay the bills and care for us. This was in the 1950s when the holy grail for all women was to be a stay-at-home-mom.
Once I heard her tell the story of a woman who came to my father’s funeral, suggesting that mom give my baby brother up for adoption. The answer to that—an immediate no! In her pain she made the right decision. Her life became raising her three children and though like every mother she had her hard days, she took great joy in her role. She has always been proud of how we turned out. She has always known how to accept changes in her life.
When my mother moved to an assisted-living facility at the age of ninety-one, she was very vertical—still standing tall.
“I’m the only person at my table who doesn’t need a walker,” she told me.
My mother has walked faster than most people all her life—to and from the train and then to her secretarial position at a downtown office. Her hard work at home paid off. But that first week in assisted living she walked so fast down the carpeted hallways, her rubber sole caught and she fell. She was okay.
“I never fell at my condo. It’s got to be this new place,” she said, throwing back to us that this new place wasn’t the greatest idea.
Adjusting was not easy for her. It wouldn’t be for anyone. It’s like high school—suddenly there are all these new faces and you are just one of the crowd until you can learn people’s names, create your own individual identity and make friends. It’s a challenge, especially when you have memory problems and are in your 90s. My mother’s solution: “We should wear name tags. It’s hard to remember so many names.”
That first year she walked briskly back and forth twice a day to an adjacent building to visit her sister Lucia. Then at 96 my aunt died. My brothers and I helped my mother plan the funeral and then we went back to our busy lives and mother went to her apartment to grieve. It was summer and she walked outside every day, straight and proud, until she fell again. This time an X-ray showed a broken rib and compressed vertebra. My mother was in pain, the pain of osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a thief in the night. It reverses pain’s usual course. When you have a broken bone, acute appendicitis, or even childbirth labor—that pain can come on like gangbusters. Then gradually the power of the healing body and medical care takes over and the pain recedes. But not with the disease osteoporosis. It’s a sleeper, a silent condition that gradually weakens the composition of your bones and you are not forewarned until they become so brittle they break or just collapse. It’s often a woman’s disease. Now it was forever my mother’s disease.
Where were the researchers and doctors when my mother was going through menopause? They didn’t know then the connection between that body change and osteoporosis. If they had they could have helped my mom and millions like her. Maybe you’ve wondered about your grandmother who was 5’5” and is now 5’2” because the vertebrae in her back have collapsed and she is gradually shrinking. Or maybe you have a story in your own family about an aunt who fell and broke her hip. After a while you learn that didn’t happen because she knocked into a stone wall or tripped over the dog. Instead one of the bones in her hip joint just suddenly gave way and broke and down she went. It’s scary and very painful.
Boomers are lucky. Mom didn’t know what we now know: you can fight the onset of osteoporosis or help control it by stressing your bones, lifting weights, eating calcium-rich foods. There are even medications you can take. I passed my first bone density test armed with this information. But what I now know cannot reverse the degeneration in my mother’s bones or get rid of her pain.
After the break, Mom had to leave assisted living and move to skilled nursing. She had to use a wheelchair. Her pride was hurt but her body was hurting even more. She followed all the rules and shrugged her shoulders when I told her she would have physical therapy twice a day. She did everything they told her to do and improved. But more and more I could see her back rounding, kyphosis or dowager hump, they call it. Again it’s osteoporosis—the spine no longer straight. One day the physical therapist mentioned a walker. Mom didn’t want one.
“Look on the bright side. You’ll get out of the wheel chair. The walker is for your safety. We’ll get you the cart-type with the wheels, like some of your friends have. You’ll have room for your purse or your newspaper. And if you tire, there’s a place for you to sit.”
She was silent. My fast-paced and independent mother had just had her wings clipped.
“I don’t want this to happen. I want to be like that other lady. I can’t remember her name. You know. The one with the pearls.”
She meant Lucy. A year younger than my mother, her body straight and tall, Lucy didn’t need a walker or a cane. She was a dynamo, blessed with good health, always smiling, greeting everyone—and she often wore a string of pearls.
“She knows everyone here,” my mother said. “She plays bridge. Everybody likes her.” Yes, just like high school. My mother was jealous, but I understood.
Mom moved back to her apartment and progressed. She continued with physical therapy until one day she just announced to the therapist, “I’m fine. Don’t come back.” Months passed. She used her walker most days. At the end of that summer, we had a family reunion in Michigan. We took a portrait of all of us, my mother sitting in a chair right in the middle of eighteen wonderful people, all gathered together because of her.
Mom remained stable for a while. On one visit to see her, we went to the dining room. Mom parked her walker just as Lucy came around the corner. We asked her to join us. That night we learned that Lucy had been an only child. There were tears in her eyes when she told us she had never married or had children, that she worked in a law office doing a job she loved, and then gave the rest of her time to care for her mother who died in her late eighties. That was Lucy’s life.
Back upstairs in her apartment Mom eased herself into her chair. I handed her the photo from the reunion. Her family. She smiled. She said something about all the blessings in her life. Maybe Mom was already thinking what I was thinking. Our lives often wear down and mark our mortal bodies. But it’s our souls and spirits that shine through weakness and aging. Lucy’s beauty was not her string of pearls or her ability to walk without an aid. It was her smile and generosity to her mother and to everyone she knew that made people want to be with her. My mother’s beauty was exactly the same, but not as easy to outwardly see because her body was now bent with osteoporosis and her memory of names failing her.
I suddenly asked her, “What would you do if you fell in the hallway, Mom? You know when I’m not here I worry about you.”
Again she smiled, a smile that revealed her deep and vital spirit. She fingered the safety button around her neck. “I’d push this to call for the nurse. I’d call for someone to help me. And I guess I’d hope that Lucy would be in the hall. Lucy would help me.”
(Mom and Lucy were separated when Mom moved to the Memory Unit. Lucy never suffered from dementia or osteoporosis, but Mom did outlive her by six months.)