Departments: Family: Doesn’t Mom Look Great?

But the reality is, she’s 85. And it’s time to have a conversation about dying, and death — the talk none of us wants to have

Mom remembers being stuck in bed on Osborne Avenue with scarlet fever in 1932, and as night fell, hearing newsboys running through the streets yelling: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped!” Lord, she’s lived a long time.

At the cemetery, I say I have something I want to tell her. It’s something I’ve never said, and when I do, my mother cries behind big round sunglasses that always remind me of Jackie Kennedy.

I tell her she has been a wonderful spitfire of a mother to me.

“It’s not death I fear,” Mom told me one day recently. “It’s getting there.”

She means, of course, that she’s afraid of pain and suffering. Aren’t we all. As things between my mother and me have abruptly shifted, I have a revelation on why I sat around, for a few years there, more or less believing that my mother would live on forever, more or less ignoring her: because I didn’t want to acknowledge being next in line. Once your parents are gone — my dad’s been dead 16 years — you’re it. I don’t mean that I’m afraid of dying, either, because I’m like most red-blooded Americans. I’ll concede that I’m probably not going to live forever, but the end is nowhere in sight (only 56!). Being the last man standing, that’s lonely. Painfully so. Which is just the sort of thinking that — not to put too fine a point on it — made me a child in how I avoided my mother.

Another theory: My story is a microcosm of our national paranoia over death.

Baby boomers like me, and the alphabet generations following mine, have had a very slow introduction into becoming true adults. We’re coddled, and endlessly optimistic. As Tom Cole, an expert on aging at the University of Texas, put it to me: “We do live our lives pretty well anesthetized against death. And more and more, we see aging as a disease we can conquer.”

Well — no. We can’t. And knowing that, really knowing that, is a good thing.

Because, finally, it’s not lost on me that my new understanding of how dear my mother is to me comes with the grandest irony: It arrived by way of considering her demise.

These days, I’m checking in on Mom every other day or so. Pennswood has her in physical therapy, since she strained her back when she blacked out and fell. “Once they’ve got their fingers in you,” she says of medical people, “they never let go.”

Ah yes — she and I know better than doctors, don’t we. We share a good dry laugh over that.

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  • Sally

    Bob Huber has done such a wonderful service to adult children who need to have this conversation with their parents. Betty was the perfect person to interview!