Elderly woman's hands

Photo: ABBphoto/Thinkstock

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Still Here!
Thomas Mallon on the very long goodbye.

I could always tell which nursing home staffers had a gift for eldercare when they remarked to me on how pretty my mother was. Now ravaged by Parkinson's, she had often, in her 20s, been taken for Ingrid Bergman. So I felt reassured when one of the underpaid people attending to her displayed the imagination to peel away the years, and the disease, and see my mother the way she'd been before losing the ability to walk, to dress or feed herself, to speak above a whisper.

She remained remarkably cheerful in the nursing home—free from the rage that beset a number of the other residents. But for all her adaptive goodwill, she was beleaguered, and I began to wish that the ordeal would come to a peaceful end. I also, however guiltily, wanted it to be over for me. I was tired of witnessing her decrepitude, of seeing my own future decline prefigured, weary of smelling disinfectant and single-serve pudding cups, no longer amused by the genial male nurse's holiday reindeer antlers. I'd even had it with the weekly pet visits called "Touch and Cuddle," a phrase that I, horrified, took to mean something else entirely when I first saw it on the activities schedule in the lobby.

One night, a friend told a story of how her sister, trying to ease their dying and hard-of-hearing father toward death, had wound up shouting at him: "IT'S OKAY TO LET GO, DADDY!" My partner suggested that on my next trip to the nursing home I try the same approach, albeit at a lower decibel level.

During that next visit I sat beside my mother, silently telling myself that surely—after years of immobility, dementia and hallucinations, with her weight hovering around 80 pounds—she would welcome my benign suggestion. But as I got ready to make it, I noticed her attempting, with a certain urgency, to tell me something. I leaned in to listen while she gathered the muscle strength to form the complete sentence she wanted me to hear: "I don't want to miss a thing!"

She wasn't kidding. I would go home and keep on visiting. She would go on living, at some mysterious level, on her own terms. The average nursing home stay for women is 31 months; hers lasted eight-and-a-half years.