Yes, I thought, “old age should burn and rage at close of day.” But Dylan Thomas knew something I didn’t, I think, even when he wrote those words. He was still a young man, but he knew something that becomes apparent with age: sometimes it’s time to hang up your hat and say goodbye. Evidently, he never showed the poem to his father. He wrote it for himself – the child pleading to, and for, the father. He knew, maybe, that what his dad wanted was to go peacefully and quietly.
Four weeks ago my mother, my remaining parent, died. I know in my sensible brain that it’s good that her death was quick and peaceful. But there’s another part of me that says no, you should have fought to stay, you can’t leave me.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, when you lose your final parent, you feel orphaned. What will you do without parents? Driving through our hometown, my brother tried to remember the name of people who used to live in a house near ours. “There’s nobody to ask now,” he realized, “I’m the one they’ll come to now for answers and I don’t know. Mom knew.”
You lose your family’s corporate memory when your parents die, all the little bits of information about whose house was whose, where the neighbours moved to, what their dog’s name was. Does it matter? Yes, in the history of a community or family. No, in the continued existence of that community or family. Other families become the old neighbours who moved away, the next generation become the family elders. But, like with photocopying, with each generation there’s a loss of the depth and colour of the original.
My mother had Alzheimer’s for the past few years. She still knew us but didn’t remember many other people. I hated the disease. I hated seeing her sharp mind shut down; cried, after leaving her, when she asked “who’s X?” when X was a family member. Cried even more when she stopped asking, stopped trying to figure out who people were.
However, as she accepted her dementia and came to terms with it, so did I. Often I’d wonder about something and think I’ll ask Mom, then would remember she wouldn’t know any longer. After her death, I caught myself taking pictures because “Mom will want to see this,” only to remember she was gone. But it wasn’t the huge shock to me that it would be if she’d had her mental faculties intact.
Maybe that’s a gift that Alzheimer’s gives survivors. You’ve had to come to terms with losing your loved one before she or he is actually gone from this life. It is a gradual process, thereby maybe gentler at the ultimate end. Maybe, as Dylan Thomas’ dad knew, that’s what we all wish for at the end, going gentle into that good night. My mother went gently, and for that I’m glad.