An Ancient Cousin Fades

posted in: Mother, Family | 2

You could tell my mother was fading because she became pale. She no longer remembered visitors’ names as she walked the porch across her South Carolina house. She slept and slept.

Eleonora, my 94-year-old second cousin, is fading too. But she is not “going gentle into that good night.” As Dylan Thomas wrote, she is “raging against the dying of the light.”

Since I see her twice a year at best, I’ve been aware of this more through the sound of her voice than how she looks. What used to be clear and lilting is now gravelly and somewhat labored.

She is also shaky sometimes, reports her closest friend, a woman who met her and her sister Sadie twenty years ago when they lived in Maryland. Now retired, Jo has come to Dover, Delaware, to live in the same senior apartment/assisted living/nursing home complex where Eleonora and Sadie moved in the late 90s.

Odd and unpredictable how we move through various life stages. My mother, who was feisty and even mean as a middle-aged, older adult, became gentle and appreciative after a bout of shingles reduced her to needing daily help. Eleonora who was full of laughter and sympathy can now muster those qualities only for visitors–or so I’m told. Soon I’ll find out firsthand.

Is this change in part because she’s cut her daily dose of anti-depressants in half? And refuses, even when the doctor (prodded by Jo) recommends she return to the full dose? I’ve never taken anti-depressants but I can imagine a complex of self-defeating thoughts that might do me in: “I’m no good anymore. No one cares about me. Nothing is going the way it should. They’re speaking so low because they don’t want me to hear. They’re being curt with me. They have no idea how hard this is…” Soon the face lowers into a scowl. Criticism becomes second nature. Everything looks bleak.

So begins a self-fulfilling prophecy. When one resists and complains; others respond in kind. Soon the air is filled with resentment. Love scurries into the shadows and cowers there, persona non grata.

For someone like Eleonora who has been the mainstay of her family–working for years as a nurse in the federal government and along with her sister Sadie, maintaining a home for their mother, the adorable Aunt Jo–retirement, finally giving up her car, losing her sister and now her own obvious decline–must be maddening in the most obvious ways. Crazy-making, infuriating. We, who are younger and apparently will outlive her, we who in caring for her are most aware of her debility, become the enemy!

Preparing to see her in a few weeks, I muse on this conundrum, on how to maintain my affection against what will surely be jabs and scowls. How to honor her wish to “go to the Lord,” yet point out that taking anti-depressants will not slow that process down. But will merely make the way less bumpy, a little more filled with light.

I promise an update.

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Margot,
    I alwsys enjoy hearing about Eleanora. I’ll share a story. We went to Sioux Falls this week for my mother’s 94th birthday. We flew Michael home at some expense because she hadn’t seen him for four years. Mark couldn’t get away because of his work. Mom had been having some bad days. Lots of problems with her bowels. (very basic!) She told the person in charge of her assisted living complex that she wanted to go into hospice. Well, you can’t just do that, she was told. A doctor has to say you have a terminal illness and have less than 6 months to live. Mom said that she knows she has less than 6 months. I have a feeling that it may be true. But, when we were with her, she was doing well. Asked me to get groceries for her – ingredients for her to make postato soup for herself. And so it goes. She loves to cook but weighs only 75 pounds. Keeps losing weight. She gave Michael a gravy bowl to remember her by. He’s supposed to use it on Thanksgiving. She is the favorite one at her complex, but when she went to the doctor last week she told the nurse that people were being “mean” to her. I don’t know where that came from. Probably that hopeless depression that you speak of. I wonder how we can provide a little bit of joy to our fading Eleanora and Mom.

    • Margot Fortunato Galt

      Dear Barb, how I sympathize. It’s so hard when these friendly, sympathetic women who have plenty of marbles have to watch themselves decline. My update is that Eleanor has decided to go back on antidepressants. It will take a while for them to be in full force, but maybe when I see her (trip coming up) she will have already begun.

      My parents were both so out of it that they did not fight what happened. They simply gave way. More soon and you know you have my support. Margot

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