April 24, 2018
Every year, I reserve a date close to Wm. Shakespeare’s birthday to do a devotional prior to our day’s work in the State House. This year, I was planning on tying the prescience of Shakespeare and the demise of net neutrality — a big stretch, for sure, but it seemed workable in February. Instead, current family events resonated more deeply with the famous words of Jaques in “As You Like It.”
I have spent a lot of time over the past year in places that have, believe it or not, a higher average age per resident than the Vermont State House.
Nursing Homes. Or, more precisely, long term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, councils on aging.
They have us beat.
I was there with my mother. My mother is diminishing before my eyes, and the eyes of all five of her children.
I have a photo of her from two years ago, when she was merely forgetful, or in the throes of chemo brain, after treatment for colon cancer, and she is pretty vibrant. She’s standing with my brother Paul, and they are smiling, two peas in a pod.
And that’s no surprise, because my mother, starting back in 1965, committed her life to taking care of Paul, who has Down Syndrome. She fought like hell in the late 1960’s to make sure he was not institutionalized, and in the 1970’s she fought like hell to make sure he, and other developmentally disabled friends, were allowed to be mainstreamed in our public schools, and in the 1980’s and 1990’s she fought like hell to make sure Paul had the governmental services he needed to thrive in the community, and she fought like hell to make sure that the community had a spot for Paul.
I have another photo of my mother taken during her most recent hospital stay, when she was recovering from a fall, and from pneumonia, and from a UTI, and from the flu. She is not vibrant in this photo — she is clearly tired, ill, and somewhat empty, a preview of the weeks and months to come, as the Alzheimer’s takes her away from herself. More recently, the brightness has returned as she has recovered. It’s not a bluebird day brightness. More like one of those late afternoon breaks in the grey clouds, when the sun gives the landscape a soft, reddish glow artists call “the golden hour.”
We moved her to a long term facility this past weekend. She won’t be going home. I won’t quote from the lengthy, dense and FEMA-like Medicaid application we’ll need to fill out in order to care for her.
Instead, I’ll share with you the thoughts of William Shakespeare, whose birthday fell yesterday. I am so sorry that the language of Shakespeare is so dense and difficult to understand, because what I take when I read him, and read about him, is that the human conditions that we find difficult today: from poverty to extreme wealth, from liberty and personal privacy to limits and control, from hunger to gluttony, and from power of kings to the power of the people — all existed in his day and, frankly, has always existed.
In the case of my mother, the most pertinent text comes from “As You Like It”. Perhaps you know it: it’s famous speech given by the sentimentalist Jaques about how all the world is a stage, and how we’re all just players, and how there are seven ages in person’s life.
I remain privileged to serve in this body, and to serve my constituents, and while I work in this building, I get to see on a daily basis the seven stages:
I’ve seen infants being carried by their mothers and fathers.
I’ve seen young children here on tours with their classes.
I’ve seen older students, or young adults, as pages, or as activists standing up for their rights.
I’ve seen college graduates, young lawyers, social workers, advocates and young entrepreneurs, using their passion to shape their futures, and I’ve seen the established — wise and experienced, respected by his or her peers and anxious to share their secrets of success.
From there, we see people turn old, where they shrink and change and lose their influence in the world, and finally, we see our elders, or for some of us, our parents and siblings, getting old, forgetful, and heading toward their final exit.
And that’s what I saw this weekend, moving my mother into one these facilities. I saw part of her past, and her present. I didn’t see numbers, or theories, or policies. I saw my mother, and lot of other aged, frail and “forgetful” people experiencing a similar existence.
The other things we do are means to an end — providing safety and dignity to our citizens, our families, as we age — or, as Shakespeare put it, a means to get to the:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
…second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
This ageless reality, while sad for us individually, should allow us the strength, as we move toward the endgame of the session, to do our best work — not for our egos, but for the people we serve.