Living and Dying at Ninety…It Ain’t For Sissies

“I’m celebrating the 60th anniversary of my 30th birthday!”
Something my mother would have said if she was still saying these sorts of things.

There are at least two people cited with the “sissies” quote of the title—Bette Davis (of course), also Jerry Lewis (go figure)—but the most memorable person who said it (a lot) was my mother, Virginia Phyllis Amandes, who is turning 90-years-old today and incapable, anymore, of uttering that pithy phrase.

Nope. It ain’t for sissies.

Back in 2011, I wrote about the journey my mom and I set off on almost ten years ago when she came to Los Angeles for her last chapter. In its most recent version, The Mother of My Reinvention… our continuing journey, it tells the story of those early years, so I won’t reiterate here (though I hope you’ll click over and give it a read), but I do want to pick up a bit from there in acknowledgement of my mother’s persistence in staying alive. And to honor her on this, her 90th, birthday.

She doesn’t realize it’s her birthday. When my brother, Tom, mentioned to her recently that she was turning ninety, she looked at him with incredulity, her eyes wide in either stunned disbelief or because she had no idea what he was actually saying. We don’t know these days.

She speaks little now. If she does, it’s usually inexplicable and often incomprehensible. Most days she’s curled in her bed-like wheelchair or the bed she never got out of. Sleeping or staring. Usually sleeping. A woman who loved to laugh, and would regularly do so with boisterous abandon, she’s now locked in the labyrinth of her dementia, incapable of recognizing anything as complex as humor…though my brother and I still try. It’s possible we’re just not that funny. 🙂

He likes showing her photos of his grandkids, and on good days she responds, recently uttering “darling!” when gazing at one prancing around for proud parents in a video. The babies seem to strike a chord.

I sit with her watching “Fixer Upper”—there was nothing she loved better than rearranging the living room when we were kids— occasionally singing hits from our folksinging era, or Doris Day favorites. We still roll around the grounds from time to time, but, though this activity used to elicit exclamations about the bouncing squirrels or that tree groomed like a “gumdrop,” now it’s all silence all the time.

Which is strange for a woman who never stopped talking.

What can we say about this process of living and dying? I don’t know. I suppose it depends on your philosophical beliefs; your faith, your religion, your worldview. She always used to say, “the minute you’re born, you start dying,” which I always found to be a most depressing philosophy of life. But I’m not religious, nor is my brother, so without a subscription to the heaven/hell/God paradigm, one has to surrender to not knowing.

Sometimes I look at her and wonder why she’s holding on, why her frail, failing body hasn’t given up the ghost. Something in her is persistent in this urge to live, this instinct to stay alive, and who am I to presume she’s not having a good old time floating around the ethers, taking it all in with curiosity and appreciation? A medium actually told me that was exactly what she was doing, so I’m happy to let her fulfill whatever destiny is hers. But still…

One of her caregivers said the other day, “She looks good for ninety,” a statement I might take exception to, having known how lovely she was in her day, but maybe she does from their point of view. Maybe the part of her that still peeks out from time to time gives her a spark other 90-year-olds in their care don’t have.

This is one of my favorite pictures of the two of us. You can ignore the voluminous statement of my cheeks (was that much necessary?!) and focus, simply, on her beautiful, smiling face… Ginny, sparkling.

Time, ill-health, and dementia have taken that sparkle from her eyes, a fact that, when I recall her at her most ebullient, celebratory, and engaged, hits my heart like a punch. For someone who “lived out loud” (in ways good and, yes, sometimes less good), the silence of her current state is jarring. I used to say I could still find her in there, but that’s less and less these days. Sometimes we can’t even get her to open her eyes and I wonder: is she busy traipsing through some higher consciousness dream, or just unwilling to wake to a world in which she’s old and weak? I don’t know that either. But I still bring her M&Ms and sing “Que Sera Sera.”

And today we’ll celebrate her birthday milestone with verve and cake, because clearly, whatever her reasons, that’s what she wants… to keep stayin’ alive. So we keep marking the passage of her life. Keep coming, trying, talking, singing. Keep her company. Keep her in our thoughts. Keep her warm, fed, and cared for. Because she’s still here, still living her life… at whatever volume she has left.

Happy 90th, Mom.

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2 thoughts on “Living and Dying at Ninety…It Ain’t For Sissies

  1. Nancy Capers

    This brought many tears, L. I remember so clearly when I was falling apart out in the desert and both your mom and dad were so loving to me. She saved me. I’m certain she should have done stand-up.


    1. I love that memory you have of my mom…she was a stitch, that’s for sure, and a woman with a big, loving heart. I’m touched that your experience with her, with them, was so loving. Touches me.

      And in some ways, she did do stand-up… every day, whether we wanted it or not! 🙂


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