Today cyberspace was abuzz with news of the death of poet Maya Angelou, whose fearless prose, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a work of autobiographical fiction, was a bright spot in my high school career.
When I heard about Maya’s death, remembering the title of her book immediately made me think of my mother, whom I saw last weekend at a mental hospital in Atlanta. The only thing harder than seeing her there, it turns out, was leaving her there, knowing that there is a better-than-average chance it was the last time. Her carotenoid artery 90% blocked on her right side, she is not in her right mind, yet her doctor refuses to do surgery because she is a “surgical risk.” And so, while we seek a second and even a third opinion, she waits in a ward with her “people,” a group of similarly old and confused patients.
Almost everything has been stripped away. Hospital policy prevents her from having her hardbound study Bible (only paperbacks allowed), or anything on the walls. Her life has been reduced to a few changes of clothing, a hospital bed, and one-hour visits from up to two family members a couple of times each week. She has lost 30 pounds, and there is no telling from one day to the next whether she will lash out, or reach out in a hug.
The one bright spot in the ward is a nurse I will call “Queen Winnie.” Magnificent and matronly, her close-cropped hair silvery against her ebony skin, she is kindness personified as she gently directs my mother to wherever she next needs to be. “She’s a good singer, your mother,” she told me on Sunday. “We were singing the old church hymns together before you go there.” Mom smiled and nodded.
At that moment, she wasn’t singing. “I want out of here,” she said plaintively. I want that, too.
Sometimes, though, no matter how much you want something, you have to let her go.
On the way home, I raged — feeling a little ashamed about the likelihood that I was adding to my father’s burden, but unable to contain the sense of injustice, that a woman who had spent her life in the service of others, was spending the last days so confined. And equally mad that the love of her life had been robbed of her presence long before her breath left her body.
A detachment of a most powerful and terrible kind. It is, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy,” the moment in an adult child’s life when you realize that you cannot fix what is wrong, and you cannot save them both. All you can do is hold on, and hope.
In the words of Ms. Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
Keep singing, Momma. And when it comes time to leap that fence, know you take a piece of me with you.