In a recent reflection on Robin Williams and his role in Mrs. Doubtfire, The Atlantic’s James Parker wrote, “Death, if we are loved at all in this world, is a centrifuge: at the moment of cessation, it throws our essence outward, and further outward, scattering us abroad with supernatural force and largesse. And in the hearts that receive these essential shards or sparks we are, for a short time, revealed –who we really were, what we really meant. For a short time….”
I love this idea of our essence being cast wide at death, if mostly for an intense period of remembrance, mourning, celebration. But as I watch beloved family and friends ageing, I have come to think that in the time before death, an opposite process seems to occur. My wise mother has for years observed that, as we age, “our moreso’s become moreso.” I believe that as our bodies begin to fail us, our essential selves draw inward, become distilled, and we become quintessentially who we are, in a stripped-down, more easily discernible way to those who know what to look for.
I am just returned from a family road trip to Christmas in my ancestral South Dakota home, having visited less than a week before to help manage what I have come to call “my parents’ near-complete medical meltdown.”
My former footballer father’s medical issue required a total left hip replacement, rounding out his surgical score to Knees: 2, Hips: 2, Back: 3. He is recovering, eager to put the most recent unendurable pre-surgical pain behind him.
But my mother, whose calm, understated, guiding intelligence has been a constant for all who know her, is not faring as well. At times, she is almost herself, as I have always known and loved her; we spent a glorious morning lying on my parents’ bed remembering childhood friends and family foibles for a lazy extra hour before entering the day, and her recollections were as sharp and nuanced as ever. But some tasks and decisions are clearly overwhelming to her now, including the crucial, neverending routine of testing her blood sugar, calculating her insulin needs, drawing and injecting the correct amount of two insulin types, and recording all this information. Watching the “speech” therapist test her memory, seeing her flounder at reproducing a sequence of five unrelated words, hearing the assessment of “moderate cognitive diminishment,” broke my heart.
At the same time, I am seeing her distilled to her pure, wonderful essence, and feel blessed anew to have been mothered so well by such a remarkably kind and truly selfless, in the best possible sense, woman: patient love beams from her eyes with even greater intensity; her drive to serve and comfort others, even in her frail and weakened state, has not failed her; her utter lack of judgment of others, and the generosity of heart that I l long ago understood would not be one of the ways in which I most resembled her, are fully intact, newly realized.
Each of us can only hope to be distilled to such a pure and positive essence in our final days, and to cast it abroad upon our leavetaking of this beloved, complicated existence.