Friday, December 3, 2010

When A Person's Not A Person

This post is about my mother.

In October I visited her in an assisted living facility in Mobile, where she was recovering from encephalitis (which all the doctors thought would kill her) and a broken femur (which is supposed to do 92-year-old ladies in for good).

She was in a wheelchair and having all kinds of troubles, but she looked elegant in her beige jacket and ivory scarf and her white hair with, still, terrific body and wave.  The first thing she said to me was "Look at you!  So young!"  And when my sister, who is sixteen years younger than I, came to pick me up hours later, our mother said, looking at us standing at the foot of her bed, "What beauties!  You look thirty at the most!"

During the hours I spent with my mother in the next couple of days,  she grew progressively vaguer and more tired, but was still vibrating with emotion, and I found myself forcing her to take naps like a recalcitrant child, so I could have a rest. Otherwise, she talked non-stop:  about her mother and father, her sisters and brother, my father, his parents, my sister, my husband, my daughters, my grandchildren. And she recounted again how, toddling beside her on the way to my grandparents' barn, on a summer day long ago, I had asked "When everything was nothing, what was everything like?"

The very day I left she went back to the hospital, and then to a nursing home, chosen because it was run by nuns (who would give her spiritual sustenance) and had a homey atmosphere, with dogs and kittens running around, and a big aviary full of birds.

But my mother is indifferent to spiritual sustenance now, to nuns and dogs and cats and birds, and even to my sister.  "I'm supposed to be the light of her life," my sister says, "but when I walk in, hold her hand, pat her cheek, she stares right through me.  She doesn't care that I'm there.  She has no affect."

No affect?  Our mother was an affect professional, a virtuoso.  Even in the throes of encephalitis last spring, when her five doctors said she wasn't going to make it, she had affect.  Tons of it.
   
For better or worse, my sister and I had, from birth, been the recipients of our mother's torrential affect.  We complained about it--"Does everything have to be so earth-shaking?"  We devised strategies against it--"Just agree with her.  Don't engage.  Say 'M'hm, m'hm.'"  It made us crazy.  But we always expected it

And now it's gone.  So is everything else, except the ability to, very slowly, put food into her mouth...or into her juice glass.  Otherwise, her body is inert.  She cannot sit up or shift herself in bed.  Still, she could go on--her heart beating, gut digesting, lungs pumping--for quite a while.  She is her own life-support system.
But who is she?  If she doesn't recognize the friends who visit.  If she stares right through her own daughter.  If she shows neither pleasure nor distress, who is she?

People say "she's not herself anymore."  But if so, who is that stirring cole slaw into the cranberry juice?

All of which brings me back to the old catechism questions.  What makes a person a person?  What is the soul, and does it depart only when the grosser body apparatus quits?  Doesn't a soul need a mind to anchor it?  And when a person's not a person, what is a person like?

11 comments :

  1. It is all so deep and so scary a set of questions to ask, especially surrounding the very beginnings and ends of life/personhood.

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  2. I'd like to believe the soul is patiently waiting, being eternal, it has no hurry or worries. Residing and waiting for release...

    My heart goes out to you and yours. I have a father in law in much the same condition...all we can do is love them.

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  3. This is so hard, Lali. And those questions? In my opinion, they have no answers.

    I'm glad you saw your mother when you did.

    When my father was in the coma -- or whatever it was he was in those last few days -- my mom asked her pastor if perhaps his soul had already left. He said possibly.

    I felt his soul was there in the room with us, watching us grieve and comforting us as we sat and talked or cried or argued or worked (in my case) or just sat in silence.

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  4. Who'd have thought that the internet would enable us to contemplate the kind of questions that we don't often feel free to bring up at social gatherings? Thank you all for your heartfelt comments.

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  5. Driving to Manchester today, this was the very topic of the show "To the Best of Our Knowledge." Apparently they are doing a 5-part series called "Science and the Search for Meaning: Five Questions." Today was "Part Three: Does the 'Soul' Still Matter?" I didn't hear all of it, but if you can download it, you might find it interesting...

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  6. oh this is hard, and this has been much on my mind lately, too. sometimes longevity is a curse. doug's mother died too young last month, at only 80. my dad's cousin verne turns 90 next week, and is in much the same situation as your dear mother. these are such hard things to think about, let alone talk about. the answers get all bollixed up in emotion.
    but i'm with dona--glad you saw your mother when you did.

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  7. Indigo, I heard it too! (Driving back from Dorset.)

    Laurie, yes, 80 seems way too young, but the alternatives are sometimes harrowing. Makes it impossible to know what to wish for oneself.

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  8. Lali, I read this on Saturday, when my father would have turned 82, and it moved me. I've been trying to figure out what to say since then. I remember his last days, the days when he was convulsing and said hurtful things and not himself at all, the day a few days later when we thought he was no longer himself and yet he said something that was very much him - even though I'm not even sure if he knew who I was, the days when he was unable to say anything, and we thought he had gone, but we knew he could hear us. When he did go, it was unmistakeable. He was empty. When there's still something there, there's still something. Perhaps it's all just part of the process. I wish I knew.

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  9. "When there's still something there, there's still something." Amazing words, Mali. Thank you.

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  10. I am so sorry, Lali. I believe that one's soul abounds everywhere to those who knew and loved the person even after the body and mind are gone. As time moves on, you remember your parents' devotion to you and each other and their funny unique traits. It becomes a comfort to have inherited their spirit and traits -- their soul.

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  11. I remember your saying to me that when parents reach the end of life, the anger or resentment that children may have felt towards them fades away, and only the good feelings remain. That has already happened with me. And thanks, yet again, for the book "Final Gifts." It has been an enormous help.

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