In her early 70’s, my mom, Rita Ann, who recently passed at age 94, had an ankle replacement. The doctor who pioneered the surgery traveled from Sweden to perform the operation himself. “Can you also make me tall and blonde?” mom quipped before the surgery. The doctor was charmed, but my mom’s walking continued to decline and the surgery was ultimately pronounced a failure.
I never questioned this until recently. Last May, Rita Ann who was then 93, fell and shattered her “good leg.” After six weeks at a top rehab facility in L.A. she was sent home because she was too frightened of falling to cooperate with the physical therapists or even get out of bed. It was then that I realized that all those years ago her ankle replacement was most likely a failure because she didn’t really work at regaining mobility. Knowing my mother, I am sure her physical therapy sessions were focused on discussing the personal issues of the physical therapist and my mother offering advice and support. Exercise and pushing themselves physically is not something that most women of that generation did. We boomers are much more fit than our mothers. At age 68, I go to the gym 5-6 times a week, take multiple classes, swim and walk at least six miles a day. By contrast, at my age my mom’s exercise regimen was mostly limited to her 5 p.m. stroll to the fridge to get the wine.
If my mom had been more inclined to exercise and to regain mobility, it certainly would have enhanced her later years. But in many ways her life was very rich and there is much to learn from her about successful aging. Her curiosity about other people and her genuine investment in them kept her engaged in life and surrounded by love.
Many people in their 80’s and 90’s are lonely because their friends are gone. But my mom continued to make friends throughout her life and had friends of all ages and walks of life. She approached everyone she met as if that person were a book recommended by the New York Times. Regardless of time, space, or setting, mom opened the hearts of all who crossed her path, appreciatively read a page or two, and left those hearts more loving of themselves for her appreciation.
The Harvard Grant Study of Adult Development, which has been ongoing for 8o years, has shown the value of relationships as a form of self-care. “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Beautiful and charismatic, my mother drew people to her. But her secret was not so much that she was dazzling but that she has always done the hard work of building relationships. This is something that any of us can do. When we display a genuine interest in others, that comes back to us.
Mom was always more interested in hearing about the happiness and woes in the lives of those around her than dwelling on her own difficulties. Even notorious curmudgeons fell under her spell. I have always benefited from this. Growing up, the grumpiest shopkeepers welcomed us because we were Mrs. Gold’s kids. Irritable, child-hating Doc Seltzer told mom she had a beautiful figure and told everyone else, “Don’t touch that Sis unless you’re going to buy it.”
Mom doubled her charm offensive when she felt someone was sad or bitter. Monosyllabic Mr. Peterson had the only bakery for miles in Manchester, Maine, and he drew customers who would wordlessly make their purchases and then escape. When my mom first exploded onto the scene, her ebullient greeting was met with something between a murmur and a growl. She continued to greet him warmly until eventually he chatted with her, sharing his concerns about being a single father raising daughters. Mom brought out the best in everyone by concentrating on them. She made people feel good about themselves, and that made her feel good, too.
My mother’s later years were brightened by her optimism and hope. Her certainty that life still held more for her motivated her to relocate to California at age 93. That hope also allowed her to continue after the loss of a son and two beloved husbands. As a widow in her early 60’s, she fell in love again and remarried. When she could no longer walk, she could still dance.
Being by my mom’s bedside at the end of her life, I spent a lot of time watching her sleep. I think the reason her face was still beautiful at 94 is that there was no bitterness reflected there. She had the glow of someone who has always chosen to see the best in life and in other people. Even at the end, in constant pain, unable to get out of bed and with her memory in shreds, letting go of life was unfathomable to her.
Rita Ann was always good about staying in touch with her wide network. When she no longer felt up to making phone calls, her phone continued to ring all the time. Nieces and nephews would call her and numerous others who thought of themselves as a niece or nephew. Several flew across the country to visit her. While almost all of mom’s friends are gone, their children became mom’s friends and they called her. So many wrote beautiful messages that they asked me to read to her, extolling her “joie de vivre” and “unstoppable life force.” I read her tributes such as “You have always been a bright light in my life.” I hoped that hearing how she had impacted so many over her lifetime would bring her comfort.
Listening to these messages of love and appreciation, my mom turned to me, my brother and sister and emphatically drew out her last word.. “Fantaaaaaastic!”