01 January 2011

Christmas Curmudgeon

I'm on Frontier Flight 790, flying from Portland to Denver on Christmas Day. It’s remarkably quiet and peaceful, and my row mate, her infant son and I have as a gift that rarest of modern travel situations, an empty middle seat. The air is remarkably smooth, and the snow-covered Sawtooth Range below me is a beautiful sight. I’m returning home to Mr. Gunn and the Dauphin, Tick Tock bin Trouble after a bittersweet visit with my mother – not because there was any particular flaw, fault, or fight – but because it’s painfully clear that with each day, a little bit more of what made Virginia Jean Kuehner Cory so special is lost to her, to me, and to the world.

For as much as we live in a material world, most of what matters to me is intellect, experience and memory. Thirty years ago, I rather spectacularly celebrated Christmas by buying my mother a stereo so we could listen to classical music for Christmas (never mind that I bought it out of money that I neither had, nor had any right to expect – but that’s a different story). Mom has used that stereo off and on for the last thirty years, happily pushing the analog buttons and turning the weighted tuning and volume knobs to pull classical and jazz music, and news out of the turntable, tuner, and CD player.

So watching her punch vainly at the buttons of the television and DVD remote, and seeing her increasing agitation with its failure to effect a desired response from the old stereo equipment was painful beyond words. My mother’s loss of what seemed to be an almost intuitive skill shocked me. I’ve long been accustomed (if disconcerted) to her memory lapses, her increasing repetition, her agitation at the new or unexpected. But this, this was completely other – every bit as disconcerting as her reaction to anesthesia after her most recent knee surgery. Here was something she had known and used for 30 years – 30! – and she was incapable of understanding that the modern remote would not work on her vintage stereo.

So much of what I’ve shared with my parents has been experience. That I can’t share that with my mother any longer is a cruel gift to receive. Was she happy I was with her, and that we shared a few simple meals, a couple of games of Scrabble, and some simple kindnesses? Yes, without doubt or question. Was I happy to be with her? Of course; and yet not one moment spent with her was without an underlying sadness and questions. How much more of her is there to loose? How long will she be able to live independently, as she does now? How pained is she by her loss?

I’m grateful that I spent four days with her, and that we shared some of our cherished holiday traditions – decorating the tree, shopping for clothes (for me – she wasn’t interested in shopping for herself), eating ridiculous Belgian chocolates – which seemed to bring her real happiness.

The greatest gift to her, however, will be peace: to sleep, perchance to dream, and to gently leave this life. I can’t offer that gift – but I hope and pray that she soon finds it.

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