Through My Mother’s Dying Eyes
By Shira Nayman
I’ve just returned from a trip home to Australia to say goodbye to my mother, who is in the final stages of terminal cancer. The twenty-two hour flight has never seemed longer. And back in the US, on vacation in Ithaca, NY, I find that the world looks different: I feel as if I’m seeing everything for the last time, as if through my mother’s dying eyes—sunlight filtering through the trees, the lake ablaze in the late afternoon. Smells, too, and sensations of all kinds, coming at me in a rush of vital intensity, as if every mindfulness meditation I’ve ever done has taken roiling, permanent hold. It’s all too much: too bright, too loud, too beautiful, too there. And also, soaked in grief, whispering—no yelling—that it is all about to be swept away, heaving waves dragged by an undertow that is both life’s great, howling bellows, and also the final, crashing end.
I am prisoner of my mother’s dying: a hostage born of our deep connection. From the moment I could think, when my first memories were slicked into place, I was electrically attuned to her quicksilver moods–cyclings of passion and frustration, her own artistic strivings thwarted by the demands of motherhood and marriage.
Visiting her in the nursing home aroused the kinds of emotions I imagine most people feel in a similar situation—including disbelief that the powerful woman of my childhood memory would be reduced to this, to requiring help going to the bathroom, to struggling with her walker to get to the dining room, where this once superb chef and lover of fine cuisine now dutifully, gratefully, eats soggy vegetables, tasteless mashed potatoes, and every night the same desert of tinned fruit and store-brand ice cream.
But there was something else, something more existential. I was free to come and go, to return to the world of the goal-oriented jugglers of multiple demands, each adorned with an exclamation point: Career! Children! Marriage! Creative endeavors! Volunteering! The ongoing striving for success! Travel! Plans! Big and bigger plans! But now, out in that heady, jostling, accomplishing, forward-looking world, from which my mother, no-longer-fully-of-this-world in her infirmity, was now barred, I myself felt like the ghost–one of Wim Wenders angels from his film Wings of Desire, sent down from a gritty, earth-worn heaven, aware of the flimsiness of everything, tuned in to the cares and struggles and anguish, but most of all knowing that for me, at least, everything was already over.
I know rationally that it is my mother who is dying, not me, and yet emotionally, her story is simply my story; I find myself moving through the world as if I am myself looking through the window of her little room in the nursing home, no longer fully one of the living. We have always had an uncanny connection—not unusual between parent and child (I shudder to recognize this same kind of bond with my own children; work against it, an inner voice whispers, one day, when it is me dying, let them not feel “this”). My psyche has always had a parallel groove, her experience somehow silently sliding along within or beneath my own. Though the Pacific Ocean has separated us all my adult life, I have known when she was unwell or unhappy. I have startled awake many times, minutes before an urgent phone call came in; I have felt dogged by black clouds I knew were not my own, troubled by anguish that was hers. Though the ocean did not muffle the power of the psychic connection, it has served me well—the earth’s largest moat—allowing me peace enough to get on with my own life. Only now, when the coordinates of her life have shifted into that final, two-dimensional arrow, pointing to the grave, that parallel groove has taken over.
As the long-ago established holder of my mother’s psyche, I seem unable to push aside this crushing approach of death (and the fact that death awaits us all gives credibility to my experience). I feel it as a struggle for breath, aware that soon, the air will not move in and out of my mother’s lungs. I feel it as a panic that I’ve not appreciated life more (though I’ve appreciated it a great deal), that I’ve not given full flower to the many opportunities I was, by chance of my birth, accorded–not treasured every single second of motherhood myself, aghast in confronting that my own children are grown, or nearly so: that I’ve not fulfilled—I don’t know, the privilege of life itself, though I’m not sure what it would mean to fulfill this. I am staring, through my mother’s eyes, at the reality that life is almost forever over, the final wrist-slap of death itself.
My own voice booms in my ears: see this hand, typing on the computer keyboard? The hand that holds my lover, that once held my children, that clapped with joy or fluttered with despair, that makes a living, cooks meals, that reaches out for life, ever more life. This hand, my mother’s hand really, since it came from her, since it looks a bit like hers once looked, will soon be cold flesh in damp dirt. Thoughts that come from a life that is now filled with the approach of death.
And since I’ve looked for so long through the eyes of my mother, I suppose I can’t really imagine how the world will look when her eyes are no longer there to see. And now that she will never again see the beautiful lake I am looking at in upstate New York (she saw it once on a shared vacation long ago), I am channeling it back to her, trying, in some Twister-like contortion, to reverse the configuration—to have her see through my eyes, since hers, soon to be sightless, are confined to a space dominated by limitation, suffering, indignity.
I can’t help thinking about how the world will look when her funeral is underway and I am standing at her grave. Knowing the gaze that was the very first sight of my own blinking, newborn eyes, no longer exists: her beautiful eyes—loving, angry, delighting, rejecting, searching, aching, always alive, ever seeing—now inanimate beneath the earth. What will happen to the sunlight, when she is no longer there to see it? What will happen to the sight of my own eyes, which lay claim to the world, from the start, through hers?
Shira Nayman is a Clinical Psychologist and the author of three books, A Mind of Winter and The Listener, (novels) and Awake in the Dark (novella/stories). She has published fiction and nonfiction in The Atlantic Monthly, New England Review, Boulevard and elsewhere. She lives with her family in New Jersey.