I Just Noticed My Mother Is Getting Old and I'm Terrified

I see her slowing a bit, looking less motherly and more matronly, and I realize mother and mortality are not terms I’ve ever truly considered together.
Publish date:
June 27, 2013
aging, mothers

My mother’s reading glasses are now thick, as are her hips and thighs. The latter, the indirect result of a full hysterectomy at 46, has been the case for quite a while and something she has struggled with even as we have all grown accustomed to her newer size. The former happened at some point over the last few years when I wasn’t looking, like the yellowing of my husband’s favorite basketball T-shirts or my jeans going up a size. All imperceptible signs of aging I had never really paid much attention to until, suddenly, they weren’t invisible at all.

I don’t even know when my mother started to age really.

As a kid, she was often questioned on how old she was when she was out with me and my two siblings, though I didn’t come along until she was 27. In high school, despite my tiny, barely pubescent size and her having borne 3 children, we could wear the same clothes.

After my parents’ divorce, some of my male friends decided it was an acceptable joke to argue over who would like to be my step-dad. While the well-pampered and sometimes younger parents of my rich classmates wore all the right clothes and spent their days perfecting their suspended youth, my mom worked all day, barely took care of herself and somehow still looked younger and fresher, frozen in some vaguely late twenty to early thirty-something appearance seemingly forever.

My mother still looks young, but at some point it moved from an absolute to a relative term. She is not young. She does not even look young. She just looks young for her age. And thinking that is when it hit me. She looks young for her age because my mother is actually getting old.

I know, I know -– age is just a number, it’s how you feel inside, people live longer now, blah, blah, blah. I get all that, but that’s supposed to be about other people, not my mom. I see her slowing a bit, looking less motherly and more matronly, and I realize mother and mortality are not terms I’ve ever truly considered together.

At this point, I should probably point out that I’m pregnant and so overwrought with hormones and thoughts of life cycles and generational chains. Regardless of the trigger, this is now a big deal to me. When a full night’s sleep is rare because a small being is regularly kickboxing on your ribs or your cervix, your mind really has time to simmer and stew.

Mothers, like superheroes, are an age -- a static age. They may have origin stories but they don’t have epilogues. There is no Clint Eastwood portrayed crotchety old Batman looking down on a now complacently peaceful Gotham, railing about sagging jeans and that hip hop mumbo jumbo that passes for music nowadays. Batman, like my mother, is always old enough to know but young enough to do.

They're supposed to be vital, powerful, strong. Batman delivers tough love and saves the day with a random assortment of unexpected tools, like my mother. And like my mother, can shut you down with a scathing glare while looking pretty good in slimming black. She is every bit the superhero Batman is.

My mother is one of seven sisters. She has nursed one sister back from cancer, one back from diabetes and has buried three others -– two to cancer and one to complications from diabetes. Seven sisters, just like the schools, except only if five of the seven campuses were hit with a zombie apocalypse and three of them went down from it.

My mother is, in those admittedly relative terms, very healthy. She made it through an abusive marriage, personal trauma and somehow seems to always fall on her feet despite an almost stubbornly childlike naïveté about anything I consider the standard parts of adulthood such as bill paying, saving money, planning for the future, and the like. I’ve never truly worried about my mother. I’ve been annoyed by what I view as her irresponsibility, but I’ve never really been worried about her. She has always landed on her feet. All evidence points to the fact that she’s a survivor.

What I hadn’t ever considered is that survivors get old. When the zombie movie ends and the credits roll on our youthful heroine, we don’t fast forward 50-odd years to her in a walker, perhaps living in the add-on of her daughter’s suburban home, cooking meals for her grandkids that they won't eat because she forgot they go to the neighbors after lacrosse practice on Thursdays.

We never see her lonely, semi-shut-in, looking back from a solitude of flannel housecoats, soap operas and freeze-dried coffee on that one time when she was young and vital and saved all of humanity.

I’m a planner, but in the abstract. I want to know things will be stable, that they’ll be okay. I’ve never really thought about the future, even as a child. I’m not the most imaginative person –- for me the future was always just more of the present, a mere tug and stretch of the time spectrum. Not a different place and time, just more of now but instead of today, it’s tomorrow, or next year, or my 40’s.

But now I’m starting to see I was wrong as I watch my mom, who, while still my mom, is turning into this other person entirely. This person who needs thick reading glasses to read menus in restaurants. This woman who will tell me a story twice because she thought the first time was to my sister. This person who forwards emails about how much better it was in the good old days and can’t distinguish her newsfeed from her wall on Facebook.

A woman I worry will get fragile and vulnerable, or worse, is already fragile and vulnerable.

This person, who despite her current vitality, I worry about being in her apartment on her own, a sepia version of that old commercial, and, after a fall, lying prone on the floor with no help on the way unless I get her one of those medic alert bracelets. But seriously, have you tried to suggest to someone that they should maybe have one? I’m assuming it would be awkward. So instead of trying that, I worry.

My mother traipses around the tri-state area for her small business, travels the world with her friends, and while single since her long ago divorce, has a more active social life than I do. None of this fear makes sense.

Yet, while my mother is giddily preparing for her next grandchild, my maternal instincts are on high and honed in on her. I want to preserve her in amber, wrap her in cotton muslin and moth balls, swaddle her, vital, strong and kicking, in the present. I want her around forever and I know one day I will be happy that she’s old, knowing what the obvious alternative is. I just don’t want to have to watch her get there.