Mom's 89th Birthday, December 2015

©Sandy Martyn, 2016

2015 was the year I said good-bye to my mother. She is still alive, mind you. And I do appreciate still having my mother at the age of 89, but it was a year to say good-bye nevertheless.

My mother was formidable. She was a presence. She dominated a room with her wit, her laugh, like a celebrity signing autographs. She was the center. When I was young, her opinions were forceful. “I hate violins—so screechy” or “You’re not wearing THAT shirt again, are you?”   I noticed the screechiness of violins and was always running upstairs to change my shirt.

Still, she was a caring mom and liked to listen to us. She knew our friends and asked us about school. She paid attention. After raising five children my mother’s opinions also became more relevant to the times she lived in. She became a local politician. She was elected to her hometown city council three times and served for twelve years; ran for Congress as the Democratic party candidate (though she didn’t win that) and was on a national social justice committee for the Presbyterian Church for 10 years. She made her mark.

Her retreat started almost twenty years ago after my sister died. My mother had already endured the loss of one child, a daughter at the age of two who died of pneumonia and the flu back in the fifties. When her 42-year-old daughter died of cancer she retreated just slightly. She was not quite as present; she had a fake laugh—like she couldn’t really summon up the heart to laugh for real.

My parents spent the subsequent 10 years paying for trips for our diminished family. We all went to Hawaii 3 times. They took my nuclear family to England and Scotland. They visited France with my sister’s family and New Zealand with my brother and his wife. They took my other brother and his family to New York City for a whirlwind tour of Broadway shows. My parents were conscious of not taking the time left with their remaining children for granted

At the end of 2007 my mother’s sister died at the age of 82. Her death was earthshattering to my mother who was very close to her sister. They were born on the same day just one year apart and had remained so close their whole lives that my aunt’s children, our cousins, felt almost like siblings to us. It was a shock to my mother to lose her sister who she had counted on her whole life. She struggled to recover and in many ways just couldn’t. Grief took a toll as it made its way into her like a worm into an apple.

The final blow was my brother Tom’s death in 2010 of colon cancer. This was the son that stayed close to home, that dropped in to watch “Seinfeld” or “Friends” episodes on an unplanned weeknight and would play basketball with my father in the backyard while my mother made dinner for them. Of all my parent’s kids, it was my brother Tom who stayed close enough to home to make them feel like he had never left. The rest of us showed up happily for Christmas and the 4th of July. But all those months in between were filled with random and spontaneous visits from Tommy.

My mother began to decline rapidly after he died. She was using a cane within months, then a walker, then an electric wheelchair. She became increasingly forgetful and confused. The macular degeneration in her eyes got worse diminishing her eyesight precipitously. It was as if she no longer had the will to remain so present in this world.

This past December of 2015, I flew down to Southern California to help my father bring my mother up to my house in Oakland for the Christmas holiday. (My surviving brother and sister both live in Northern California, as do their families and we have celebrated Christmas up here with the whole family since my parents sold their family home and moved to a retirement community in 2003). I packed up my mother’s suitcase, rented a car to take us to the airport and generally made it easier for them to come. Once here, it was all hands on deck to take care of my mother. Even though she has stayed at our house many times it was now “scary”. She struggled with the four stairs she had to walk up to the master bedroom where my parents slept. The bathrooms didn’t have handrails and the floors without carpeting were “too slippery”. She couldn’t get out of any chair by herself, so my wife and I boosted her up. We helped her to the bathroom. We helped her out of the bathroom. We helped her take a bath. We helped her get dressed and undressed and into bed at night.

Yet she was thrilled to be in our house and professed to love having a break from the assisted living place where my parents now live. She sat in a chair in the living room and petted our golden retriever “Rusty” while saying over and over that his collar was too tight. (It isn’t). Her brain is such now that she asks the same questions again and again. The collar issue was just one of them. “Where’s Dad?” (“I’m right here Claire”, he would answer from across the room). “When’s lunch?” (“We just had breakfast, Mom”) “Is today Christmas?” (“No Mom, today’s Monday, we have to wait until Friday”) “Can we just stay here and not go back?”

This last question was the hardest for me and it came frequently. I felt guilty for not being the perfect daughter and not wanting to have my mother full time. We were so relieved to get through the 10 day visit with no falls or other disasters and besides my father remains relatively happy in their retirement community where he is in the choir, has a book group and runs a weekly church breakfast. He is 91, but remains mobile, has sharp acuity and is very much connected to his world. We were glad to give him a break from her questions. But he has help with her care where they live and in general they are doing fairly well for an elderly couple.

I can’t imagine that my mother will ever visit my house again. I don’t think she will be able to manage it physically if she is still with us a year from now. It is poignant and sad to contemplate. And though she is not the same person she once was, I seem to still be running upstairs to change my shirt.

©Alison McDonald, 2016

Alison McDonald, TC 1994,  is semi-retired from 40 years in public education as a teacher and administrator.  She is currently working on her dissertation (long postponed because of work) and doing part-time coaching and facilitation around issues of equity in schools.  She lives in Oakland. She can be reached at:

One Response to “2015 Was The Year by Alison McDonald”

  1. Alison, this is beautiful. Especially, “Can we just stay here and not go back?”

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