Toward the end of my mother’s life I went home for a while to take care of her and found myself fighting a silent battle every evening. Books no longer held her attention and she liked to watch television. She turned the volume up very loud because she didn’t like to wear her hearing aid (or could not find it). I sat beside her because I knew how much she treasured my company but I had no interest in the antics being displayed on the screen and I was trying to work on my writing. I could have gone to sit in my bedroom but then she would have felt snubbed. Still, it was hard for me to sit there with all that noise. I had often told her that I like silence but she didn’t believe me. From time to time she asked if I would like the television turned off, and I said that it was fine as long as she watched it and allowed me to work. But every minute or two she made a comment and demanded a response from me: “Look at that woman’s hair! See the beautiful flowers. Isn’t this an old film?” and when I kept silent, she asked whether I had heard her. I would explain that I was fine with her watching and me working. It’s just that she wanted to involve me in her activity and I found this infuriating.
I was able to ignore the flickering and chattering of the tv, but I could not ignore her voice. She would promise to be quiet and not interrupt me again, but she suffered from short-term memory loss. Looked at in one way, this is a blessing: She had reached a state that many of us are still aiming for in that she was more often than not in the present moment and did not refer back to the past. Still, for those around her it did test the extent of their patience. As I remarked to my brother, she was more ecologically conscious than the rest of us and she recycled her conversation every minute or so. Before I could get to the end of another sentence, she would be asking me innocently to look at the tv again. Why did I find it so hard to give her this time? There was probably little of it left. I was trying to deny her my attention—the one thing that it was in my power to give, but which I was selfishly withholding. Much of what she said and did was no longer under her control. I was ashamed of my lack of generosity and resolved not to tussle with her that way again. What on earth did I think I was achieving by punishing her in this way?
Gradually I became aware that it was simpler (and kinder, of course) to say yes to what was happening and let it be, to “suffer” it, in the real sense of the word. After that it was not nearly so hard to sit in the living room with her hour after hour, joining her in her activity rather than attempting to flee in my mind. After all, I had traveled three thousand miles to be with her. What was the point of wishing myself somewhere else?