Barefoot in the Himalayas

Carolyn Piper
Copyright December 2002

"I'm sorry, mom," I said as I stood looking down at her still warm body.

Mom and I had just completed a five-year journey through the thickets of Alzheimer's, a roadblock of a fractured hip, and had finally run head on into the wall of her refusal to eat. Now she was gone. I didn't know how I would feel when the time came. I had hoped to be with her. But mom chose her own time, and breathed her last alone at 2 AM. Driving through a snowstorm, I got there by five. Pausing in the hall, my hand on the doorknob of her room, I gathered myself-fearful of what lay within.

When at last I opened the door, I saw her lying peacefully on the bed, clad in a Johnny, arms crossed on her chest. At rest. I stood there for a few minutes just taking it all in, and, putting feelings aside; I went to work on practicalities. Despite her wish for immediate cremation, I wanted her to have some ceremony, some recognition of the meticulous well-groomed proper lady she had always striven to be. So I washed her and dressed her and wrapped her in a quilt I had made for her years ago. And at the last, slipped the matching pillow beneath her carefully combed hair. Only then did I stand back and allow myself to feel. And those three words slipped out.

What was I sorry for? That she had died? No. At 88, and after a long illness, it was time. Of that I was sure. Just as sure as she had been in her refusal to eat. I sat in a nearby chair, staring out at the fast falling snow, shivering in the cold of the unheated room, to puzzle it out..

One of my favorite books on deafness, for it touches me deeply as it connects me with my own personal pain, is by Lou Ann Walker, a hearing child of Deaf parents. It is called, "A Loss of Words." In it she speaks of the pain deafness can cause an entire family. And as I sat there I remembered the last time I had read it. I was in Midas Muffler, and as I read I had begun to cry with the realization of the pain that my deafness had caused my own family. That day I understood, as I surreptitiously wiped the tears from my eyes, why I had always felt dogged by guilt.

But knowing something and laying it to rest are separate entities. And now, at the end of it all with my mother, I realized I was still apologizing for something that was not my fault, that I had no control over, and that I had done my best to learn to live with and accept. Looking down at mom's still form I became aware that our journey together was not yet finished, for most likely those three words would continue to echo through my life until the day I too lay motionless on my own deathbed with my sons looking down at my silent shape.

I don't know if this need be. We talk about assertiveness and pride in self so much these days. But can we really divorce ourselves from the weight that deafness, and other major differences, place on us in a world so worshipful of norms? Certainly deafness is not the worst thing that can befall someone, major life change though it may be. But still it affects us in varying ways --some beneficial and some not so good. And for me, that gnawing feeling of guilt is definitely in the not so good column. So strong, and so prevalent in its intensity that I felt the need to apologize to a mother beyond hearing.

In the weeks that followed, the feeling of culpability remained with me. I don't know if I will ever totally purge myself of it. I do know that part of my continued journey is to keep trying. Life has a way of calling things to our attention again and again and again until we "get" it and internalize behavior changes. Or, as Michael Paterniti notes in his thoughtful and rather off the wall book about driving across the country with the brain of Albert Einstein in the trunk of his car: "Life has a way of changing a simple outing to the store to buy milk into a lifelong, shoeless quest through the Himalayas for enlightenment."

My own lifelong shoeless quest, I suspect, is to learn to see things as they truly are: that I am a complete and whole person who need not apologize for being different. That all I can do is my best, and to deny the goodness of myself is to rob both others, and myself, of a bit of the compassion that the world is in sore need of.

Caring for others, I thought as I looked down at mom that morning, is easy in comparison to caring for ourselves. Without the second, the first is but half a job done, and is, in actuality, all but impossible.

In "Chapterhouse Dune," Frank Herbert wrote: " cannot suppress the wild thing, the uniqueness among humans." And that I understand now, or, at least am on my way to understanding, includes our differences. And it is only in the knocking our heads together over these differences, within our shared humanity, that we make any progress towards our true selves as enlightened fully developed beings. You are you and I am I, and together we make up the melody that is the completeness of life.

"Hey mom," I whispered as I kissed her for the last time, feeling her rapidly cooling skin against my lips, "Thank you." And putting on my coat, I turned off the light and closed the door.


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