by Nancy McDaniel

The saddest part to me is that she seems to be disappearing in front of my eyes. The woman whom I have loved for over 40 years, the woman who married my beloved Daddy and who became my sweet step mom, my dearest Ginny, is vanishing. In her frail old age, she is becoming a fragile piece of paper, a puff of smoke. She is diminishing daily and seems to be evaporating.

The Worst Christmas Ever
I knew that this Christmas would be a difficult one for me. The man I loved for the past year, whom I thought was my Mr. (W)right, abruptly told me in September that it was over, that there was someone else who he “needed to find out about”. He had always said that he didn’t love me but, foolishly, I thought it was more reticence to say he did or just a matter of time until he would. Silly me. It’s been a difficult couple of months. My heart aches without him. And I knew that Christmas and New Year’s would be especially empty. Last year was spent celebrating with him and his kids, looking forward to more holidays together. It felt like a solid beginning. This time I knew it was the empty, sad end.

Be A Snow Bird and Fly South
So I decided to go to Florida to be with my stepmother for a week. Her son and his wife, along with their grown children and spouses, were all off on a holiday trip to Mexico. I decided to fly to Florida to be with her so that she (and I) wouldn’t be all alone. Even in a retirement apartment complex, with lots of women in similar situations, I didn’t want her to be all by herself, with no family around. I hedged my bets by planning to fly back on Christmas Day in case “He” had a change of heart in October or November or December and decided we belonged together after all. He didn’t.

Sweetness Itself
My step mom Ginny is one of the sweetest, kindest people I know. She’s always been a bit of a Pollyanna, forever seeing the best in everyone and every situation. Sometimes that made me nuts but, at the same time, it made me love her even more. She was quietly enthusiastic, endlessly supportive, always accepting of people and their choices, even if she didn’t understand. She loved my dad like crazy. And he, her. He made her laugh and was so good to her. She made him happy. They had one of the best marriages I’ve ever seen. They were together over 20 years and then he died.

The Joys of Growing Old….Not
She has had a multitude of health problems over the past 10 years. Colon cancer was first, but it was caught early and the surgery was successful. Then the obscurely scary “cancer of the ampulla” and the dreaded “Whipple procedure,” a highly specialized and difficult surgery that’s often tough to recover from. Amazingly, she made it through that too, although she’s been painfully thin and unable to eat a full, robust diet ever since, as the surgery takes parts of organs that are critical to digestion. That slowed her down a lot, but she still kept on keeping on. I think of Virginia as every bit the Energizer Bunny. The last event, 15 months ago, was a fall coming out of the doctor’s office, where she broke her pelvic bone. At age 83, she endured another delicate surgery, putting pins in her that drive the airport security scanners wild. Her skinny body provided no cushion and few reserves. (I joked with her, that in this day and age of transplants, why couldn’t I give her some of my extra fat?) But she was a real trooper again. In a rehab facility for physical therapy, she kept on plugging away and working hard to walk again, but then she got nailed by emergency hernia surgery. She made it through that one too.

But ever since then, she seems to have really slowed down, both physically and mentally.

She still lives alone Up North, but has someone come in to help her bathe, dress and get around. She really could do those things herself, but it helps her a lot and the company is good for her. I think she really hates being alone. She no longer likes to cook for herself. Even a “TV dinner” in the microwave or prepared meals in the oven are too much work for her. Everything has turned into a big project. Paying bills can take days; getting ready for taxes takes weeks. Getting a passport – to go nowhere, but to have “just in case” – can overwhelm her. Packing for Florida was a three person job. Fortunately she can afford help. And her dear sister, her devoted niece and I are all close by to help too. But it so makes me realize how difficult old age can be, and how it can become too much for some people, especially those who are alone and without financial resources.

What A Pill!
She takes innumerable pills every day. You know those day to day pill holders? She has TWO of them, a huge one for morning and a smaller one for evening. I have never counted but I’ll bet she takes at least 25 pills a day. She has to take 5 pills with her food, just to help her digest it. And she can’t drink too much water because that exacerbates her low sodium problem. The pills are really getting to her. She hates taking them, but knows that she must. But they are really wearing her down. Fortunately, her excessive organization (I think she got that from my dad, as I also did. The McDaniel people are all list makers!) keeps her on top of all of the pills; her lists are detailed and endless. I wonder too how older people who forget or don’t make lists cope with all this.

Sparkle Plenty Is Gone
The joy seems to be gone out of her; the sparkle has disappeared from her eyes. Every once in a while, she will still make a little joke, but I think it is all for my benefit. Her lovely apartment in Florida is stifling hot. No windows open to the gentle southern breeze, just the heat on. It was so hot that I had to go into another room and close the door and open the window and turn the ceiling fan on. But I guess when you get old and thin, you are cold all the time too. It’s the same Up North; it’s too hot in her apartment for everyone but her. She seems always to be cold and always tired. I’m sure the dry heat makes her sleepier too.

She sits on the couch after breakfast and lunch and usually falls asleep sitting up. She is so terribly thin that when she falls asleep and her head falls down, I am startled to see her, and quietly tiptoe up to be sure that she is still breathing. At night, she alternates between sleeping on the couch and in her bed. I think it’s hard for her to get comfortable.

She and her friends eat dinner, usually in the complex dining room, around 5:30. Her evening food seldom “agrees with her”, no matter what it is. Happily, she still wants to be social and seems so much better when she is with her friends in the complex. They seem to perk her up. But when I drove her to a store to get them all little holiday remembrances, after an hour or so, she was exhausted and had to come back to rest.

It seems like she needs all the energy she can muster just to keep her breathing. There seems to be little energy left for living. She seems to have receded into herself. What keeps her going then? I think it’s the kids. She adores her six grandchildren and five great grandchildren. She proudly shows their pictures to her friends. Her elder son is rich and influential and “his people” watch out for her and do errands for her. Everyone cares about her as she is so sweet and kind. She is always appreciative and unfailingly thanks people for all their efforts. I know she adores me, the “interesting” (aka eccentric, Africa-loving, city-living, divorced, liberal, theater crazed) one. She is very close to her only sister and her only niece. Happily, she has many people who love her.

I do not know what to do. I do not know how to help. Though I am great with little children, I have discovered that I am not so good with elderly people. I think that it is a different skill set. She tries my patience. But I love her dearly and it breaks my heart to see the mother I love disappearing in front of my eyes. She is becoming a ghost, a slowly dancing slender puff of smoke that is vanishing in the wind.