In the first part of this story, Sherri Lewis shares her journey of finding care for her aging parent Cookie, exploring how her experience of survival in the HIV epidemic prepared her for this new challenge. Here, we learn about what happened when she brought her mother back with her to Los Angeles.
It's such a painful decision to realize your parent needs assistance beyond what you can give her. And, though I have an older brother, I became her sole caregiver. I would be the one to make decisions on her behalf and her voice and her memory. It could be daunting. I would fight like hell to help her survive the bumps.
My experience surviving the AIDS epidemic taught me everything I needed to know, especially how to ask for help. Honestly, I didn't even know where seniors lived in Los Angeles, how they lived or what was available to them. It was a whole new world. When I was young, I fed my grandfather in a nursing home, sang in my grandmother's ear until her eyes sparkled a memory and played nurse with my plastic stethoscope and Pez dispenser! But my father was only sixty-five when he died. So, having an aging senior parent is a first for me.
I would stay up late and search on my laptop for assisted care, looking at the elderly people in the pictures and thinking, my mom isn't that old yet, is she? It was a time morph. I finally came across one that looked great, at least in the pictures, and began talking to the sales director and asking questions.
Still anxious about it all, I said, "I hope it really looks as nice as the pictures, and I'm not disappointed when we arrive like Private Benjamin looking for the condos!" He laughed and assured me the pictures were true to what we would see when we arrived. I showed my mom the photos, and she thought it was beautiful, too. I could live with myself making the decision to move her there.
After scenting her condo with vanilla (a trick another broker showed me), her home sold for full asking price, the highest price in her neighborhood, including a gift from the broker who waived her fee.
We Should All Have It So Good
February 20, 2013, was mom's 83rd birthday. After a celebration feast with her caregiver and broker, Cookie and I and my dog Romeo took the red-eye to California and waved goodbye to the Atlantic Ocean. I had arranged to be picked up by a limo and to have a red-carpet arrival at her assisted-care facility. The staff lined up to greet her with birthday wishes, balloons and a basket of fruit sent up to her little furnished apartment. This was my mom's entry to her new retirement life in California We should all have it so good. She calls it her spa. She has a new community of friends, gained weight and found her voice again.
Almost three years have gone by. I turned 62; my mom is now 86. We are both aging nicely and in good health.
Frequently, the fire trucks and ambulances come to her residence to take someone to the hospital, usually from a fall. Some return, some do not. But, once again, I'm reminded how fragile life is and how short our time is on this earth. As the light in their eyes dims and their memories fade, I fear I will forget my own story. So, I remember to remember to write things down and not to take anything for granted. I used to know that and almost forgot, until now.
The passage of time is like a comet in the sky. One day you're a kid playing with dolls, singing into a hairbrush with big dreams. The next it's all a memory, and you're present in your mother's golden years, grateful you're alive so you can be there for her.
Someone Always Survives the Unsurvivable
I was empowered during my most horrifying days. And, when I get scared, I remind myself, "Aren't you the girl that was handed a death sentence and survived?" Suddenly I'm not afraid anymore.
All too familiar are the wheelchairs and people suffering with dementia and portable oxygen tanks, reminding me of those early days of AIDS. I remember those young men and women who didn't make it this far or see this world. I still feel the rage and injustice of it all. They were not as fortunate as me or my mother -- or the seniors in their nineties living out their days, having survived as children of the Holocaust, now retired from careers with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
My father used to tell me, "Someone always survives the unsurvivable."
Several of the children from the Holocaust learned to live with their memories and scars, some with bullets still lodged in their bodies. Proof of another resilient people, they are my people too.
One of my bigger fears when I was diagnosed was dying before my mother and leaving her the burden of such a loss. Her baby sister died at two years old from what they thought was polio. The tragedy and sadness devoured her childhood as my grandmother lost her mind from grief. My mom said her mother was never the same after that. But, with life lining up in the correct order, I now will likely, one dreaded day, bury my mother.
Each of us has our personal Torah, our book of life. Before we forget and our memories fade, we need to share them and to forgive the unforgivable -- not to condone the harms done, but to live free to love more deeply. Live with grace like a ballerina, whose beauty outweighs the pain in her feet as she flies through the air. Find peace of mind in the stillness of your breath and love with every beat of your broken heart. Know that god is in everything or nothing. I have gotten uncomfortably comfortable with my own aging now. In her new home, I am a part of my mom's tribe of elderly kids. And, they are still kids at heart with better stories.
When I walk into their living room and the grand piano doesn't have a flower resting on top, it's a good day. It means no one died. I sit at the piano, play a song and sing for them as they gather around, ever mindful that this could be their last day and how blessed I am that I can do my part to make it a sweet one. I am reminded that I have always gotten more than I have given, and that's why I'm still here, thriving, living and singing.