One of my many sources of guilt since my mother’s stroke revolves around my decision to move to Florida. If I had stayed in California, obviously, my mother would also have stayed. It isn’t that I think that she wouldn’t have had the stroke if we had stayed in California. It is just that she had a much more active, independent life when she lived in California. She drove. She ruled the docent world at the local reservoir like Glinda the Good Witch ruled Oz. She had friends. She worked full time for the school district during the summers. She had my brother living close by. I hate to think that my mother sacrificed what was to be her last relatively healthy year and a half of life to make sure I didn’t postpone creating the life I wanted in my retirement.
My original plan was to stay in California while my mother was still alive. I know my mother had no burning desire to move to Florida. I know she chose to embrace the move so that I would not put my life on hold. The irony is that neither one of us wanted the other to sacrifice. I guess that is a sign of a loving relationship, but it doesn’t preclude pain or guilt.
Of course, I struggled with the guilt born of the decision to move long before my mother had the stroke. I’ve argued to myself that my mother is a grown woman and she was the one who made the decision. I’ve tried to provide as much care, company, entertainment, and love as I could to compensate for the amusements and activities she left behind. I’ve acknowledged that there are many practical ways that her life improved when she moved to Florida.
If anything, these months since the stroke have shown the wisdom of the decision to move. If I had stayed in California, I would have been living over 150 miles round trip from my mother. Here in Florida, I was only 15 miles from her mobile home before the stroke and I am only 7 miles from the long-term care facility now. I don’t think I would have been able to do as much for her as I do now if we had stayed in California. That would have been a huge loss to both of us.
All that aside, I still wrestle with the guilt. It is always hard to know what the best answer would have been, even with the benefit of hindsight.
The other day, I was responding to an email from one of my mom’s California friends. I mentioned that I hoped that the benefits I provided in Florida compensated for the life my mom gave up in California. The friend replied with a reassuring message about how my mother had always talked about all the fun things we did in Florida. I decided to use that email as a starting point for a conversation with my mom. I read an edited version of the email from her friend. I said to my mom that I hoped she truly had enjoyed the activities and adventures we had together in our new home. She looked a bit bewildered, so I continued. I said that I sometimes wondered if I did the right thing moving to Florida because I worried that she gave up so much to move with me. A light went on behind her eyes and she sputtered, “no, no, no.” I forged ahead. Looking around at the nursing home room, I said, “This is no one’s idea of fun, I know….” She cut me off, insisting, “no, but HAPPY, HAPPY.”
I think my mother’s cognitive and communicative abilities are no longer anywhere near sophisticated enough for her to try to say the “right thing.” I have to assume she was genuine in telling me what she really feels.
It was a gift. It was especially a gift in that my mother could not have that same conversation today, just a few weeks later. The decline is so gradual and so ephemeral I don’t often realize it as it happens. However, when I compare her condition today to what it was a few weeks ago or even a few days ago, I see the disintegration. This ooze down the horribly rough road is so difficult to watch, it is hard for me to understand the “happy” response. She is so frail and weak and disconnected, I don’t know how she can be happy. Her life has become so small and limited, there doesn’t seem much left that could inspire happiness for most of us. On the other hand, my mother has always had a talent for happiness.
Maybe, when you boil happiness down to its very essence, loving and being loved can be enough to generate joy.
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Enjoy the quality of your life today!