Old age forces you to let go of one damn thing after another! But as Susan Moon learns from her mother, it can also be a golden opportunity for poetry, friendship, and moderate amounts of wine.
I was having Cheerios and milk with my mother at the little table beside the window, in her retirement building in Chicago. Her sixth-floor apartment overlooked Lake Michigan, and one of my mother’s greatest pleasures was to sit in her favorite chair and watch the passing of ore boats and clouds.
This was the first morning of my visit, and my mother turned her attention from her lake to her daughter, saying, “Your hair is so wild! Can’t you do something to get it out of your face?”
“Why don’t you ever tell me when you like my hair?” I asked.
She tried to redeem herself that evening, lavishing compliments upon me when I put barrettes in my hair before we went downstairs to dinner. But again the next morning she looked at me over her bowl of cereal with her head cocked, and I felt it coming.
“You looked so beautiful last night,” she said, trying to be diplomatic. “I could hardly take my eyes off you.” I knew that was just the prelude. “But this morning…can’t you just brush it back?”
“Mom,” I said, “I’m sixty-three years old. I’m too old for you to be telling me how to wear my hair.” Apparently I wasn’t too old to mind.
“I just want you to know how nice it looks when you brush it back.”
“I know how you like it, Mom.”
“No, you don’t! That’s why I’m telling you.”
I thought: You’ve been talking to me about my hair for sixty years. Do you think I don’t know what pleases you? But I didn’t say it out loud. Anyway, I wasn’t in an entirely blameless position. A couple of years before, when my mother’s hair had been down to her shoulders and she sometimes wore it in pigtails, she asked me if I liked it that way. I said I didn’t think it was “age appropriate.” (If she hadn’t been my mother, I probably would have been charmed by her braids.) She pretended she thought that was a great witticism, and a couple of times I heard her say to friends, “Susan thinks my braids are not age appropriate!” But it hurt her feelings. Not long after, she cut her hair short, so that it floated soft and white around her face. And did I mention to her the next time I saw her how nice her hair looked? No, not until she asked me outright whether I thought her new haircut was age appropriate.
My mother was a generous woman, and she loved her children and grandchildren with unconditional love—almost. As the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said to his students as he was trying to explain buddhanature: “You’re all perfect exactly as you are, and you could use a little improvement.”
I rented a car for my weeklong visit so I could take my mother places. She had given up driving a couple of years before, after she drove into a parked car for no particular reason. Not driving was hard for her. And she couldn’t walk far because of her bad back, so the bus stop two blocks away was beyond her reach. A van from the building took residents shopping, but she found that walking around the enormous supermarket, even with a shopping cart to lean on, was a strain. And she hated not being able to choose when to go.
I did errands for her: I was glad to be able to take her to the eye doctor to get her cataracts looked at. Doctors’ appointments were an emotional issue for her, and the older she got the more of them there were. In a phone conversation not long before my visit she had spoken to me enviously of a friend in her retirement building.
“Janet’s daughter drives her to every doctor’s appointment. Oh, I wish one of you lived in Chicago!” My siblings and I tried to coordinate our visits with her doctors’ appointments, but we all lived far away and couldn’t be counted on on a regular basis. She went to most of them by taxi, and it was a long wait for a taxi.
One day that week I took her to an exhibit of Japanese prints at the Art Institute and pushed her through the galleries in the folding wheelchair she used for such excursions. Several times, when she wanted to look at a different picture than the one I was aiming for, she quite literally put her foot down, and suddenly the wheelchair wouldn’t go, like a locked shopping cart. It was annoying until I looked at it from her point of view and realized it was her way of reclaiming a little control over her own experience.
I tried to be helpful in other ways as well. My mother’s culinary needs were simple; the system in her building was that she ate her dinners downstairs in the community dining room and prepared her own breakfasts and lunches, which were minimal, in her tiny kitchen. So I cleaned out her refrigerator, bought cold cereals and little yogurts, and made a big pot of leek and potato soup and put some of it away in the freezer for future lunches.
Then there was her computer. I showed her a couple of things she always forgot between visits: how to change the margins in her word-processing program and how to send an email. This was rewarding for me, because my mother was the only person in the world who considered me a computer expert.
I admired my mother’s life. Chicago was her city; she had grown up there. She still had old friends whom she saw now and then, and she had a rich life in her building. This time I visited the weekly poetry class she had been leading there for many years. One of the residents, a descendant of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, brought several editions of his books to the class, and the assembled group, a mix of whites and African Americans, had a challenging discussion about writing in African American vernacular English.
I was impressed. I could almost imagine myself in a group like this, but I would have hated to be as cooped up as my mother was. Sometimes she didn’t leave the building for days and she only knew the temperature outside by how the people were dressed as they walked their dogs along the lakefront. She spent hours at her post by the window, swiveling her chair through the one hundred and eighty degrees of her view, looking through her binoculars at the ducks on the lake. I think she preferred to look at the weather—whatever it was—from her comfortable chair rather than to be out in it. I got restless in the small apartment, in spite of my years of Buddhist practice, but my mother, having to stay put, was getting good at staying still.
The day before I went back to California, it was snowing when I woke up. I slipped out of the apartment while my mother was still asleep. I took the pedestrian tunnel under the outer drive and walked in the little lakefront park right across from her building. There was no one else there; mine were the first footprints in the fresh snow. I could have been in the country, with the little white peaks on top of the fence posts, and the lake beside me that had no end because the falling snow blocked out the smokestacks of Indiana, and the squirrels dropping things from the branches. I could have been in the country except for the roar of traffic behind me. I thought:
I’ll visit her when it’s spring, when the snow is gone and the sun is out, and I’ll push her in her wheelchair through the park so she’ll be able to hear the birds and smell the willows. I turned to walk back and saw my mother’s building on the other side of the river of cars. I counted up six floors to pick out her window in the brick façade, and waved, just in case she’d gotten up and happened to be looking out.
That evening, my last, my mother had a party before dinner for a group of friends she called “the mothers of daughters.” All of the women had faraway daughters who visited them there—like me, from Berkeley. Before the party, I brushed my hair and clipped it back as neatly as I could.
Six women traveled by elevator to my mother’s apartment for wine and those little goldfish-shaped crackers. I didn’t have to take their coats when they arrived, because they had all come from inside the building, but I took two walkers and put them aside. My mother was happy to see them—she always said she liked to show off her children to her friends. They settled in a semicircle facing the big window. The day’s light was fading to gray over the lake, and the snow was already dirty at the edge of the road below.
The only woman I hadn’t met before said, “You look just like your mother!” Even in old age my mother was an attractive woman, but does any daughter want to be told she looks just like her mother? It wasn’t so much that I minded if there was a resemblance, but I did want to look younger than my mother. In fact, whenever I rode in the elevator without her, I had a horror of being mistaken for one of the residents. I was almost sixty-five—officially old enough to live there.
I was moved by this group of women—all of them lively and warmhearted, all of them dealing with the ruinations of old age. Betty, the eldest of the group, was in her nineties. The others were in their eighties. Betty was robust and always laughing. A few years before, she and my mother had ridden the trans-Siberian railroad together, but after that she had begun to suffer from dizzy spells and had had to give up traveling. One of the guests couldn’t hear a thing, and another, whether she was sitting or standing, was bent into the letter C. Jane, who had been my mother’s friend since childhood, had advanced mouth cancer. She had lost her teeth and had an artificial palate. She didn’t go down to the dining room for dinner because, as she told my mother, she was afraid it would spoil her tablemates’ appetites to see her eating. It even hurt to talk, and her speech was slightly impaired, but she was a woman of remarkable fortitude and she still joined in the conversation.
When it turned to the popular topic of visits from adult children, she remarked wryly, “A son is a son till he gets him a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life.”
All these women were widows, including my mother. I couldn’t know how hard it was to become a widow after sharing your life with another person for fifty years. Nor could I know what a relief it might be, after the last long years of caretaking.
When you look at old women from the outside, not identifying with them, you don’t think how lonely they might be, or how much patience it takes to get the walker in and out of the elevator. You forget that they didn’t used to be like that, that they used to go canoeing in the Minnesota woods or waltz until the wee hours, that they knew another kind of life outside this building. You think they came into the world wrinkled and deaf.
I passed the crackers, like a good daughter. I offered wine, red or white, in my mother’s pretty blue Mexican glasses. Her youthful cat, Sigo (for Significant Other: my mother adopted her after my stepfather died), lay on her back and pawed the air, wanting to be played with. My mother held a wire with a fluff ball on the end and dangled it in front of Sigo, who hunkered down, moving nothing but the tip of her tail, and then leapt straight up so suddenly that we all laughed.
Betty said to me, “I hear you were just on a long Zen meditation retreat. Did it make you calm?”
As a Buddhist, I was slightly exotic there. That afternoon my mother had introduced me to two of her fellow residents in the elevator, where a lot of her social interactions took place. “This is my Buddhist daughter from California!” she had said proudly. They wanted to know all about Buddhism, and whether I believed in reincarnation, but I didn’t really have time to explain between the sixth floor and the first.
Now I responded to Betty’s question. “You’re not supposed to try to accomplish anything at all, not even calmness,” I said. “The idea is to let go of gaining mind. Let go of your attachments.”
“Well, I can see that I don’t need Zen meditation,” said Betty. “Getting old forces you to let go of one damn thing after another!” The others laughed in agreement.
“I like Zen,” my mother said, “because it says you should be in the present. That’s important in old age. I’m losing interest in my past—it was so long ago! And it’s pointless to think about the future—what future? But the present! There’s plenty going on right now, I tell myself.”
I offered more wine but there was only one taker, and I wondered if they had always practiced such moderation.
The conversation moved on to the new cook in the kitchen downstairs and a dangerously creamy mushroom sauce he had used on the chicken. As the women talked and laughed, as they passed around the bowl of crackers with shaky hands, I studied them. I saw how they paid attention to each other. They were accomplished people: scholars, artists, social workers, poets, raisers of families. Now in old age, they were accomplishing friendship, accomplishing community.
My mother was only twenty years ahead of me, and at the rate things were going, I would be her age in no time. She was scouting the territory for me, and it behooved me to observe carefully.
It was 5:30 p.m.—time, in that establishment, to go down to dinner. After I fetched the two walkers from the corner of the room, the seven mothers of daughters and the one daughter—me—started down the long hall to the elevator.
My mother rode in her wheelchair, making it go by walking her feet along the floor in front of her, like a toddler on a riding toy. This was how she liked to do it when she was on her home turf. She said she got her best exercise in her wheelchair. People assumed she was in a wheelchair because her legs didn’t work, but it was her back that hurt if she walked more than about fifty paces.
Sometimes, on a good back day, she walked to the elevator with a cane. Her cane had a handle that flipped down sideways and became a tiny seat, allowing her to stop and rest. She ordered those canes from England. If you were looking at her from the front and she was sitting on her cane, it was startling, because you couldn’t see the cane and she appeared to be doing a strenuous yoga posture—her knees partly bent, pretending to sit in a chair that wasn’t there. But today was a wheelchair day.
Our ragtag band moved down the corridor, and I had to make a conscious effort to go slow. Betty, walking beside me, said, “You have such beautiful hair, Susan.” My mother looked up at me from her wheelchair and we grinned at each other.
Excerpted from This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging With Dignity, by Susan Moon. © 2010 by Susan Moon. Reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.