Earlier this week I had the pleasure of spending two full days with my 94-year-old mother-in-law. Yes, you read that right; it was a pleasure. Most of what made it enjoyable was her attitude. She perceives her life as full, in spite of physical and (more recently) mental limitations.
My husband and I invited her to spend a few days with us. She hadn’t wanted to come during the peak of summer because we don’t have air conditioning and she doesn’t tolerate extreme heat and humidity well any more. We had a lot of that this summer. But she really looked forward to spending time sitting on the shore of the Schroon River, where we live, and that required good weather. Like many elderly people, her body doesn’t regulate temperature well any more. So anything outside a narrow comfort range leaves her unable to stay warm or with difficulty breathing in the heat. The forecast for Labor Day and the following day was perfect, and both my husband and I had the days off from work, so we jumped on it.
We had agreed that I would pick her up at 1pm Monday. That morning she called to ask when I was coming – yes, her memory is going. When I said 1pm she asked, “Isn’t that late for lunch?” We had originally agreed that she would have lunch before I arrived. “I’ll buy if you want to go out for lunch.” What could I say? I had a lot to do and didn’t want to lose an hour, but really, what’s one hour? There will be a time in the probably near future when she won’t be around, or won’t be capable of doing anything like this. Savor the times with your loved ones while they are here.
So I picked her up a little before noon.
“It’s a little early for lunch, isn’t it? I just had breakfast.” Well, she probably had had breakfast three hours ago, but what’s time in the mind of a ninety four year old woman?
“If you’re not hungry yet, I have a great idea. Let’s eat closer to home (we live almost an hour north of her). “
That worked for her. We chatted amiably as I drove. Well, there’s the challenge of her hearing limitations, which meant most things I said had to be repeated louder and slower numerous times. And the short term memory thing, so during the ride I heard the same stories multiple times, slightly changed each time. But she was so obviously enjoying herself, it made me feel good.
We had lunch at Lizzie Keays, a delightful restaurant carved out of an old factory building that pleasantly serves fresh and healthy foods at a very reasonable price. Mom has to choose soft foods on any menu because she’s lost most of her teeth. Somewhere along the line someone convinced her that it’s better to keep your own teeth than resort to dentures. Well, that’s indisputably true, but not when you’re down to so few teeth. But it’s her choice, and she seems to find plenty of foods she enjoys eating. Our lunch was no exception. Lizzie Keays has a sort of make-your-own-sandwich menu – you choose the ingredients from a generous list, one from this list, up to three from that, your choice of hearty breads, rolls or wraps and a dressing. We had the tomato bisque soup and half sandwich combo. Mom chose, not surprisingly, the egg salad. Between slowly chewed mouthfuls she raved about the food and the décor of the restaurant, and the beautiful sunny day outside. She was having a grand time. It took close to an hour, but she finished everything on her plate except for the whole grain tortilla chips and sighed with obvious satisfaction. And paid the bill with change back from her twenty. She’ll never remember the name of the restaurant, but she’ll remember that we had good food at a reasonable price.
Over lunch I had surprised her with a copy of my novel, Autumn Colors. She hadn’t known I was a writer, and she was so awed by holding a book with her daughter-in-law’s name on the front. She started listing all the people she had to tell. She may actually forget by the time she gets home, but it was fun to see her get so excited over it.
By the time we got home she was quite tired and a bit chilled. Rather than go down by the river, she requested that we sit by the fireplace and read for a while (which for her also means napping). I hadn’t planned a fire, but we don’t turn the heat on this early, and I didn’t want her to be uncomfortable. It actually was nice – we haven’t had fires all summer, of course, so the coziness of a fire on a cool September afternoon was rather nice.
Dinner was goulash, which I had made earlier – another soft menu choice. We had planned to eat on our screened porch, but she was already cool, making that unrealistic. My husband was home by then, so we discussed options and all agreed to having dinner while watching an old movie (which I had taped over the weekend).
Between the movie and food and warmth of the fire and activities of the day, we were all ready for an early turn-in. As I assisted her with getting ready for bed, she said repeatedly what a nice day it had been. We hadn’t done anything big, but she took such pleasure in just being able to do anything, and in having caring family around to do it with.
On Tuesday after breakfast we packed a picnic lunch and left to shop for a new cushion for her rocker. She’s had two hip replacements and is, well, old, so even though she’s still able to walk, it’s a very slow process. In the time it took for my husband to park the car and walk back to the store, we had barely made it halfway down the aisle where the cushions were displayed. Not surprisingly, the whole process took so long it was time for lunch as we left the store. We had decided to drive to the top of Prospect Mountain and have a picnic there. We couldn’t have pleased her more! She raved at the panoramic view of Lake George and the mountains beyond. Several times through lunch, between other conversation, she sighed happily and just stared out over the view.
If I haven’t made it clear up to now, let me point out that this woman, who can barely walk, has lost all of her important contemporaries, and has to rely on the kindness of others to go anywhere, repeatedly talks about how lucky she is. She doesn’t have a lot of money, but she feels rich – she revels in the fact that she can pay her bills and still have some money left over for whatever she wants to buy. She’s always lived a simple life, so those things she likes to buy are, for example, the $12 cushion she bought at Walmart that day. The fact that she can do that without sacrificing food or wondering if she’ll have enough for her rent brings her great satisfaction. She doesn’t need a lot, and she doesn’t need anything expensive. She’s happy with what she has and where she is in her life. Occasionally she’ll remark that she’s lived too long. But feeling ready to go is not synonymous with not enjoying life day to day. It’s an attitude we could all emulate, and I certainly hope if I live as long as her that I’ll still choose to see the little pleasures in life rather than dwell on my limitations.