One of the things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving is that we were able to celebrate it at home with all of us together around the dinner table instead of in the hospital. My elderly mother has gone through a triple laparoscopic hernia operation that has left her in incising pain, constipation, and a miserable attitude. I am thankful I have her near us, but the inevitability of her decline has left me without much appetite this year. Firstly because on rising early to prepare the turkey and all the trimmings I found her shivering in a bed soaking with cold urine and stinking with the piercing smell of ureaic acid. She has trouble containing herself ever since the massive surgeries on her intestines left her muscles weak and the one inch holes, five in total, they drilled into her to push through a snake scope with a roving camera lens at the tip of it. Then after the meal, because she was not able to relieve herself for over five days, I had to administer an enema. It would have worked instead she stubbornly insisted that she could not walk to the toilet so I had to wrap a black over-sized recycling bag under hear and wait until she had relieved herself of the pressure she said was like when you bear down to give birth.
It is the a day like Thanksgiving day when you must enumerate all the things you take for granted that are so incredibly precious to your well-being, like being able to take a normal poop without soiling your sheets and smelling like shit the entire day. Realizing that because people live longer you will have your elderly parents around longer. And because they live longer, you might have to witness their subtle or not so subtle decline. We have reversed roles: I bring her tea in the morning, I change her diapers, I admonish her to stop her whining. I have to carefully wipe away any traces of feces around her wrinkled haunches and sagging abdomen riddled with pock marks and black-and-blue blotches and ditches where the scalpel has ripped that most precious ground, the flesh that bore me once. It is like witnessing the desecration of a temple. Somehow this sort of thing should never have to happen to mothers, the sacred bearers of life in their most holiest of parts. But there it is—I’m baby wiping down my 74-year-old mother on Thanksgiving Day and feeling sorry for myself because from now on I am an emotional orphan as I play mother to my mother. But the big difference is while babies get better and stronger and more independent a little each passing day, elderly mothers get worse, more feeble, and more vulnerable the closer they get to their big day.
Sometimes I wish we could live life in reverse, just like that movie with Brad Pitt, where he starts off a wizened old man and lives backward until he becomes a child and then disappears as a fetus. George Carlin had the same joke:
“The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A Death! What’s that, a bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating …and you finish off as an orgasm.”
But it goes to show how the beginning of life and the end of life are full circle, one and the same. You are born toothless, cranky, vulnerable, without bowel control and wind up the same way when you are ready to enter the grave; from womb to tomb you are the same.
Witnessing your mother deteriorate before you makes you appreciate every little thing you take for granted—that you don’t need anyone to butter your roll or that you can hop in your car and drive to the mall or that you can even walk down the block to the CVS and buy yourself some aspirin.
And you appreciate that as a Greek family you keep your elders at home and not in some nursing/rehab home (unless really really necessary). So many Greeks I know keep their mothers and fathers at home close to them even when like Kiria Eleni’s mother could only walk on the tips of her shoes, needed to have her food mushed for her, and rock in the chair singing old Cretan ballads and farting. Or Steve’s great-grandmother who at 98 or 99, no one knew for sure how old she was because the village did not keep that accurate birth records, would escape from their two-family house and chase after traffic thinking cars were sheep she had to guide back into the manger. Steve had his mother, his grandmother and his great grandmother living under the same roof so he’d call his giagia “Mama” and her mother “giagia.” A child with three mothers in the house experiences a sense of family few kids can. In Greece, we don’t pack our elders away in some retirement home; we see them as our greatest receptacle of wisdom, culture, and knowledge so we sit them at the head of the table (even if they are feeble and cannot contain their bowels.) Even with the bittersweet sadness that a Thanksgiving dinner with a giagia in decline brings, I am grateful to have her at the head of the table. I am grateful to be Greek American. Where else can you have your turkey AND tzatziki and eat them too?