Margaret, are you grieving?

September 2nd, 2008

Warning: this post is neither funny nor cheerful.  I’m not in that kind of mood.  Please skip if you’re not in the mood to be brought down.

Right now we’re dealing with a classic crisis for people of our age group: my husband’s mother has declined a lot, physically and mentally, in the last couple of months and so he and his brothers have brought her out to LA to live.  They spent the weekend searching for the perfect assisted living home for her here.  They think they’ve found one and with any luck she’ll be settled there very shortly.

Meanwhile, she’s staying with us right now and it hasn’t been easy.  (She stayed with one of my brothers-in-law far longer, so I’m not complaining.)   Anyone who’s dealt with an aging parent going through this kind of decline doesn’t need me to describe how incredibly hard it is, emotionally and physically, to care for her.  The routine act of taking a shower becomes an afternoon project, with a cast of several, props (it’s surprisingly hard to find a plastic, water-resistant chair once the summer has ended), and a lot of hard lifting. 

That was hard physically.  Emotionally, it’s hard when she doesn’t recognize her own grandchildren (her lucidity goes in and out) or suddenly says something that shows she doesn’t remember where she is or forgets how to do something as simple as flick a lightswitch on or off.

My mother-in-law has always been a loving mother and grandmother and that shows through in her willingness now to simple be with her family and allow them to care for her.  And her sons–my husband and his brothers (a daughter lives far away)–are the kind of good guys who’ll do what needs to be done without complaint, with kindness toward her and toward one another, and with an almost unfailing cheerfulness that only occasionally betrays the gut-wrenching sadness they’re all feeling.

Yesterday, my husband’s oldest brother had just helped his mother into the bathroom and was waiting in the hallway with me when an old photo of her caught his eye.  He picked it up and showed it to me: she was young and beautiful in it.  He said, “This is us, you know,” and I knew exactly what he meant.  And since then I can’t get the Gerard Manly Hopkins poem out of my head–the one that starts with “Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?”

It’s one of the great and greatly sad poems of all time.  A little girl named Margaret is mourning the end of the season and how the leaves are dying on the trees and the speaker, rather than consoling her, says–I’m paraphrasing here and maybe incorrectly so feel free to write in and correct me if you know the poem and think I’m wrong–“you’ll feel that sadness your whole life, but not for the trees–you’ll stop caring about them.  Instead you’ll be mourning your own aging and imminent death.”  Or, to put it in Hopkins far more beautiful and haunting words:

“It is the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for.”

(There is, by the way, a more religious interpretation of this poem, but this is the meaning that I always took from it.)

Watching someone decline this way, watching age and disease take its toll to this extent–it’s impossible to hold tight to the daily denial that keeps us going most of the time, the denial that lets us say, “Not us, never us,” because if it didn’t, we’d curl up in a fetal position and never move.  

Enough.  I don’t want to get more morbid or depressing.  It doesn’t do any of us any good and I suspect it won’t exactly help me sell my fun and sexy chicklit novels to go on in my blog about this kind of thing.

But the words “It is Margaret you mourn for” won’t get out of my head.

  • Bob says:

    Yeah, one of the great poems. Read it 45 years ago in undergraduate school, and it has stayed with me ever since, but gaining more resonance with each passing yeat. That and Fitzgerald’s The Crack UP.

  • Wynne says:

    I found your comment after looking at Daffodils, by Wordsworth. A dear friend is dying and I was looking for comfort. You phrased things so beautifully. This is a hard part of our aging and there is no avoiding it.

  • Claire says:

    Thanks. That poem just touches some chord, doesn’t it? It breaks my heart whenever I read it.

Comments are closed.