When you lose the generation of your parents, and you yourself become an elder, what are you to make of that?
As of today, my wife and I are officially elders in our immediate family. With the passing this afternoon of my mother-in-law, 93, whose moniker among her five kids and their kids is Racy Rita, the generation of parents that preceded us is no longer. Every life event, my experience tells me, is a call to grow evermore love. I’m not saying I know how it all works, or why, but that nevertheless is my sense of things. How could it not be inevitable, then, that some of those calls come dressed in irony, anguish and not a little bizarre humor?
Rita’s transition, a welcome release at the end of a nearly decade-long engagement with Alzheimer’s, occurred in the same week that my beloved, Rita’s youngest child, was diagnosed with what might be a life-ending condition. We’ll know whether she has cancer before I complete this essay. Meanwhile, my bride will be in the hospital, hopefully, alive and recovering from surgery but nonetheless absent, when her mother is buried next to her dad.
Whether in modes gruesome or playful, simple or profound, the universe, I find, is relentless in encouraging us to lighten our attachment to how we feel things ought to be. How we come to hear and follow that encouragement is the story of our life or lives, if you wish, over countless incarnations.
Since elders are among the touchstones by which we take the measure of our choices, it’s a privilege to know ones who have chosen to be fortified, rather than diminished, by adversity. In a way that was sometimes unsettling to observe, this is what Rita taught me, and others I’m sure, as she lost her mind.
As it is for most of us, losing her mind was among Rita’s biggest fears. She cherished academic achievement, the status of intellect, the power of will, the virtue of hard work, the passion to learn, and the guidance of Jesus to do the right thing. Yet, she also knew the fragility of both life and sanity.
Rita was in high school when the Depression hit, and not 20 when her dad, proprietor of a women’s haberdashery, died of heart failure, leaving a wife and five daughters. Somehow, Rita, daughter number two, completed college, the sole sibling to do so. She became a teacher, eventually teaching English to several generations of boys at St. Paul’s Choir School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite the scarcity of teaching positions during the Depression, one story goes that Rita landed her first job without even applying. A neighbor, a local school principal, looking out the window of his home, regularly observed Rita the college student at her bedroom desk burning the late-night oil. When the principal had a teaching position to fill, he knew just where to find a candidate with the dedication he desired.
Rita’s “guy,” as she called her husband, Bill, was cut from similar cloth. Both of Bill’s parents died within a couple of years of one another when Bill was in his teens, his older brother a student at Harvard, his younger sister at home.
So upon graduating from Boston Latin high school, Bill put aside his college aspirations to assume responsibility for supporting himself and his siblings. He went to work for the Boston Globe as a fifteen-dollar-a-week copy boy, retiring four decades later as one of the paper’s editors, and, in the process, starting a family with Rita and paying cash for the college education of each of their five children.
Bill’s brother never completed Harvard. Mental illness intervened, leaving him institutionalized for most of the rest of his life.
Bill himself, husband and father, wrestled with a condition that professionals today call bi-polar, one that is commonly treated with a pill but in Bill’s time led to the sort of electric shock therapy that caused many patients, Bill included, to lose their teeth. Meanwhile, for years, Bill arose at 4 a.m. to head off to the Globe. Rita fixed his breakfast, finished grading whatever of her students’ work she hadn’t completed the evening before, did a load of wash, made lunches and breakfasts for her children, then got them and herself off to school. At promptly 5:30 every weekday afternoon, she would serve her family a full-course dinner, which, fancy as it sounds, was nothing compared to the dinner she served every Sunday after mass.
As their families bloomed, Rita, her four sisters, Bill’s sister, and whatever respective spouses and kids there were, usually lived close enough to one another that someone could barely sneeze without the entire clan gathering to commemorate the event.
The home of Rita and Bill, to family, friends and all manner of guests who regularly crossed the threshold, was a home of ideas, opinions and lively tussles over the issues of the day, from the White House to the Red Sox. There was no greater compliment than to say that someone was smart. No life was more revered than the life of the mind.
“It’s all terrible right now.”
It was seven years ago-June first, 2000-when Rita began the nursing home phase of her life, the phase that ended today. A week earlier, the impending move weighing on Bill (Rita unaware for all intents), I spent a few days at their home as housekeeper and companion. Ordinarily, they both retired for the night at the same time. One evening, however, an hour earlier than usual, Rita announced that she was worn out and was off to bed. Bill and I sat at the kitchen table. He was grateful to share his feelings with Rita out of earshot. “It’s all terrible right now,” he said. We’d been talking maybe half-an-hour when Rita reappeared, agitated. She said she didn’t understand what people wanted from her, that she had been all ready to meet us on the corner, and why did we go off and do something while she was making supper, etcetera, etcetera.