Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian fantasy and romance writer, wrote of her family’s coping with the aging and death of her mother in a wonderful memoir entitled The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Crosswicks, 1974). For decades, even as Ms. L’Engle’s own children grew older, her mother had been at the heart of summer-long gatherings at the family’s summer estate. That final summer, however, Great-Grandmother was slipping away from them as she weakened and her mind faded.
Even as the family members negotiated among themselves as to how they might care for their matriarch, in her heart Ms. L’Engle wrestled with a very special loss. As her mother grew more and more confused, Ms. L’Engle feared that she would lose her mother’s spirit, her ousia (or essence), as she called it. It was not just her mother’s death she feared. It was the disappearance of her lively wit and energy from the family circle that troubled Ms. L’Engle. Her mother’s spirit and their spirits were so intertwined that she felt the loss of Great Grandmother’s spirit as an existential threat to family life. How would the family go on? What would their personalities be, deprived of the force of hers?
At 96, my own mother, Mary, is pulling away from us. She has been diagnosed as suffering from moderate dementia. That may be the case some of the time. When she is weak from lack of sleep or an infection, she is likely to be confused. In the late afternoon, when she is weary, she shows signs of “sundowning,” the loss of mental acuity. But she is not always that way. Until 10 days ago or so, if I reached her by phone in the morning, she was sharp and alert. Later in the day, she would have trouble communicating.
Mom’s condition is complicated by near-blindness and impaired hearing. Though she has given up reading even large-print books, friends and I have occasionally found that she has been playing Boggle by herself. She can’t play for long, but she still applies herself. New hearing aids made a big difference for a week or two, and we could have short, cheery exchanges; but in her weakness and desire for rest she now seems to prefer them out. Both her sight and her hearing seem to be affected by her general level of energy. It helps, I find, with the impaired elderly, with stroke victims and others to be positive and patient. Then connection can be made and what seems confused can often come to make sense. One can see the ousia has not vanished. This is especially so when I bring Mom Communion and she springs upright in her wheelchair in a reverent pose.
When Mom is feeling stronger, we can still joke and laugh together. Joking was not something she often did, but in the last years, she began spontaneously to make humorous quips. In these years too, I saw a musical sensibility I had never seen before, with Mom tapping her foot to music and even shaking her bottom in rhythm as she worked around the kitchen. Now, when our visits can be more silence than talk, we can still communicate with food. For Thanksgiving, my always thoughtful sister-in-law, Lois, made one of Mom’s favorite dishes, a lemon pudding, and Mom wiped out two whole cups. Another day I prepared red peppers and pieces of provolone cheese, as she used to do for holiday antipastos, and though she had her eyes closed most of the time, she asked for more until every bite was gone.
The little glimpses of spirit I get may help allay any fear that may haunt me about losing Mom’s ousia. The faith she handed on to me helps too. Naturally, I am reluctant to let her go, but I know that time will come soon. The test of our shared faith will be whether I can release Mom with confidence into the Everlasting Arms.