What does it take to reach 100 years old? Certainly, good genes help but many people with good genes don’t make it to that century mark. It also helps if you lead an active and healthy lifestyle. However, eating right and exercising wasn’t the ticket for my mom, Louise, who celebrated her 100th birthday on April 22nd of 2016. This is a lady who subscribes to the theory that life is short, so one should eat dessert first - and often - and maybe for breakfast. At family gatherings, she insists on having her favorite cocktail: a “Fuzzy Navel” which is a combination of peach schnapps and orange juice. What my mom does have going for her is an indomitable spirit.
Her spirit was tested over the Christmas holidays as she suffered a significant trauma. She was being assisted to get up in bed when she unexpectedly went limp and passed out. She was rushed to the hospital where the ER doctor discovered that she had a fracture on two of her neck vertebras. These fractures, which the doctor said were the most severe he had ever seen, were unstable and inoperable. At the time, it wasn’t clear if mom could be moved or if she could eat, drink or swallow. They put a neck brace on her and assessed that she could not eat or drink with it on and she could not survive with it off. The family was asked to decide if we should put in a feeding tube. It was a very dark moment for us all.
There is a happy ending to this story and a couple of real heroes who should be celebrated. My mom lives with one of my sisters outside of Philadelphia and just ten minutes away from another sister. My sisters are both highly successful business women and a force to be reckoned with when family is concerned. They thought mom’s problems were exacerbated by the fit of the neck brace the spinal surgeon prescribed. In the middle of the night, mom tried to take the brace off. One savvy nurse agreed with my sisters and directed her staff to scour the hospital to find a neck brace with a better fit. She switched the brace to a smaller one and told my sisters that when the doctor comes in and complains tell him “nurse Shirley did this because it was in the best interest of my patient.” The new brace seemed to be a significant improvement, but my sisters had to demand that the spinal surgeon come back in to assess the situation. He did and he was forced to agree that the original collar he ordered was inappropriate. He fitted her with a new one; one that seemed designed specifically to fit mom.
After two days in the hospital, mom could go home. One of the nurses who took care of her commented that given her age and all she has been through, she made a remarkable comeback. “She must be made of Titanium” said the nurse. The first day at home mom ate three meals, sang Christmas carols with my sisters and watched one of her favorite TV shows: Lawrence Welk.
When I called, I asked mom how she was doing. Her answer is a glimpse into her character. She responded “I’m great Michael, how are you?” I believed she felt great because I know she was responding from her true self, from the core of her being. In her soul, my mom is loving, gracious and wants to ensure that everyone around her is doing well.
I know this to be true because my mom has dementia; she has no short-term memory. It isn’t unusual for her to ask the same question multiple times in a ten-minute span. She lives moment to moment. And in the moment, she can be witty and happy. In the moment, we get to see the essence of her personality. There is no guile or pretense to her. What she says is what she thinks.
Thomas Keating tells us that “God and our true self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true self are the same thing.” I believe that in my mom’s dementia, I can see the face of a loving, gracious and indomitable soul; one that is not separate from God.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.