To-day I am feeling rather sad and it helps to listen to this song by Jacques Brel. Les Vieux is about extreme old age and the approach of death. As a youth, Brel’s acting troop performed in old age homes, but it was said that the inspiration for this heartbreaking song was Brel’s own mother and father. There is a side by side translation into English here.
Before my mother died twenty-five years ago, she asked me to take care of one of her neighbours. I promised.
Born in 1914, this woman was the only child of parents newly arrived from Britain, with no kin in North America. She was a war widow, having lost her husband as he served with the Canadian Forces in one of the last battles in Holland. They had very little time together before he went overseas and there were no children. She had a good job as well as her widow’s pension and lived alone in her own home. Although this lady had good health and a comfortable life, she never got over her grief. She was bitter and angry with life and everything in it, critical of everyone she met, bristling with resentment and hostility, insensitive to the problems others and envious of their happiness.
My mother had a very generous heart. This neighbour became an “honorary aunt”… at least as children that is how we addressed her… and part of all our family occasions. When we became old enough to feel the toxicity of her presence and asked mother why, oh why, we had to invite someone so crabby to join our Sunday dinners and holiday parties, mother would remind us of what we had, and what her friend had lost… what she had sacrificed for us!
She now lives in a luxurious retirement residence, in her own apartment, with a fine dining room and every amenity you can imagine. Today was her ninety-eighth birthday! My family all went over, even our little dog, taking a birthday cake and candles, a corsage, flowers from the garden and beautiful formal portraits of her as a young woman and of her handsome young husband.
It was so incredibly sad! She neither wanted any cake nor wanted us to share it with other residents who came over in the lobby to congratulate her. The portraits meant nothing… the memories are gone. That did surprise me, although she no longer remembers my mother, or who I am. Sometimes I think she regards me as an employee of the residence, someone who is paid to do her bidding, someone she can order about as rudely as she pleases and then dismiss. I must be patient, very patient!
Unfriendly and friendless, nearly blind and nearly deaf, she spends her days sitting in the lobby waiting for the dining room doors to open for the next meal. She is quite anxious about being even a minute late, constantly checking her talking watch, always wanting to be first in the dining room and first served. Yet she is determined to live to be a hundred, and as there are no physical illnesses, she may do so.
The residence is near my home, and I visit her frequently. Her life is a continuing reminder of the loneliness and sadness we all face, even if we have pensions good enough to support us in comfort, and health good enough to hang on day after day without pain.
Sometimes it feels desperately unfair that my mother died so young, while someone so alienated and unhappy lives on. At other times I am grateful that my mother never had to face this death by inches, that we never had to see her as she lost all connection with her past, with her future… to live only in the moment, a moment fiercely guarded but without hope or joy.
Besides listening to Jacques Brel, I picked up one of my quilting books for comfort and inspiration. Deirdre Scherer is an incredibly talented art quilter who works with finely detailed machine embroidery over pieced backgrounds. She has made a series of studies of extraordinarily realistic art quilts honoring elderly women and men. Do look up these amazing portraits…. No one else has done anything like this… the sensitivity and respect for her subjects is as wonderful as the artistry of her work. Heart and hands!