Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. For years, my wife Vesna and I have been going to my brother Bob's home in Chatham, New Jersey for the holiday. My 95-year-old mother lives near by and there usually are about twenty family members and friends.
But this year, I decided not to go. I had just been there two weeks previously, and it seemed a little too much to head back so soon. I had gone to my mother's home in Denville where for the last ten years, she has lived in a lovely apartment at the Franciscan Oaks Continuing Care Community. For the past year, she has had what is called "concierge service." That means that there's one aide assigned to half a dozen apartments. But she's had some problems recently and she was told she would have to move to a room in assisted living in another part of the building.
That move came quickly, leaving us a month to clean out her apartment. Because he lives nearby, Bob shoulders more of the immediate duties than my other brother Ed and I do. As good and generous as Bob is, he made it clear that he wasn't going to be left to deal with a half-empty apartment. I got there Thursday evening, a day before Ed flew in from Los Angeles. Bob had already begun the work. He was right when he cautioned that us it would take longer than we thought. I would look at a picture of my dad as a little boy; my daughter's wedding picture; a letter my father wrote when he was teaching in Ethiopia; my mother's diploma from the University of Chicago; and a half hour later, I would be sitting there on the floor lost in memories.
Every few hours, I would walk down the hall and visit my mother in her bedroom. She had taken whatever of her furniture would fit in the room, and the walls were covered with pictures of her family. But it was a diminishing world.
Outside in the broad hallway sat many of the residents hours on end staring into space. My mother said that she had to eat at an assigned space, and the people next to her could not even have a conversation. I complained and was told the residents liked the certainty of always sitting in the same place, and my mother was with some of the more vital residents.
My mother never complains but I knew she was depressed. I did whatever I could do, played the cheerleader, told jokes, whatever. She is a member of the Christmas Card generation, and I went on the Internet to get her the hundred cards she needed for all her friends and family. My mom's handwriting isn't that good any longer, and she thought that would be a good idea to have a printed message. The words on the cards read, "I have much to give thanks for, my 95th birthday, my wonderful family and my friendship with you. Merry Christmas Helen."
I went down with Mom to dinner in the dining where for a decade she would have one meal a day. Now that she is in assisted living, she felt she wasn't welcome anymore. But the people with whom she had lived came up and greeted her with welcoming warmth. She's an excellent bridge player but she said she was so slow now that she was holding the game up and she had given up playing. I tried to be upbeat, which believe me is not my natural mode, but nothing worked. When she said she was an old 95, I laughed and said that was ridiculous. She was young and vital for her age.
"You don't understand what' it's like," she said. "I have a friend here who's 103. She says when she's out in public all she thinks about is whether she's going to mess her pants."
I left feeling distressed. I talk to my mother almost every day. I always ask her how she is doing, which is probably a stupid thing to ask. And she almost always says she is doing fine.
Happiness is a series of simple things, and slowly, happiness returned to my mother. She is a vociferous reader, and she told me that had picked up a large type book and was reading again. You don't need a dozen friends. You need at least one. When Mom was in her apartment, there was one aide, Sonya, who loved her and took such pleasure in her company. They were always laughing and gossiping. It made me joyous just to eavesdrop. Sonya was making a point when she had a break of zooming over to assisted living to talk to my mother. It wasn't that long. It wasn't that profound. But it was immeasurably important to my mother.
And then the management came to my mother and asked if she would be president of the assisted living resident council. She had been president of the council for the apartments for several years, and her picture hangs in the corridor along with the other former president. She said she wasn't sure if she would accept. She would first have to check her hearing to make sure it was good enough. But I feel that she will say yes. She was already telling me things she could do make life better.
"Mom, do you realize how great this is," I said. "You can really make a difference. It's so exciting."
I called my mother this morning and told her I was sorry I wouldn't be there for Thanksgiving.
"Oh, please, Larry, it's nothing," my mother said. "I have more attention than anybody here. I have a family like nobody else. I could cry about it."
And so sitting here in Florida I am having a great Thanksgiving because I have a great deal about which to be thankful.