What Is It to Love What Is Dying?

I have been in England for the past few weeks arranging for my ninety-one-year old mother to move into a care home. She has early stage dementia and her brain slips into these strange ruts, where she loops around and around the same topic.

I often feel as if I am in a dream, surreal and occasionally frightening. It is painful to bear witness to her physical and mental deterioration, but there are moments of pure hilarity, too, when she seems to recognize the oddness of it all and we giggle like schoolgirls.

We are also singing and moving to music, everything from Ella Fitzgerald to 70s love songs. I am introducing her to “walker dancing” where she gets to tap her feet while hanging on to the steel frame so she doesn’t fall. (The photo is of Mum and me dancing at her 80th birthday party in The Gambia just over ten years ago.)

I admire Mum’s carers beyond words. It is hard to remain alert and loving when oftentimes my mother is aggressive and demanding. It’s like working with an unruly child, only one that’s more fragile and not always as cute. You cannot afford to let your focus drop for a moment.

I think of all this in terms of our love for Earth and the kind of care she demands from us now, which is no longer of the more passive, reciprocal sort, but is rather extreme care—with perhaps less given back in return. This care is rooted in a selfless love, which I am finding I can do, at least in spurts, but not easily by any means.

As I help my mother breathe into a bowl of steaming Vic’s to loosen her cough and listen to her hacking, as I see how easily she bruises and how off balance she is on her feet, I read about the fires in Brazil. Here, in London, we’ve just experienced the hottest late August Bank Holiday on record. At night, I listen to my mother moaning downstairs, dreaming she is in prison and that she wants to escape.

I have never had children. But in many ways the last few years with my mother has taught me something about the selfless love necessary to care for those who are vulnerable. We are getting to the point where the Earth will be so diminished, it will not be able to bounce back at will. The Amazon rain forests, once razed, will not flourish again on demand. There is no turning back the ecological clock.

My mother will never be young again. She will never step onto the dance floor in high heels, her legs strong, swishing to her favorite tune, “A Swinging Safari.” She will never cook another Sunday roast or play another hand of Bridge. She will never show off her shapely legs in a mini-skirt or be able to sunbathe under an African sun. She will never see my brother again.

So much of who she is being erased.

And yet, at her core something unassailable remains. The essence of “Barbie” – a woman who loves to party, who is gifted with making friends and having fun, and whose spine, however bent, remains strong.

I walk the London parks, the chestnut blight blotches the leaves of this sturdy tree, the ashes are under a two-pronged attack from fungus and beetles, the Elms are long gone.

And even so, there is all about me the essence of nature, as beautiful as ever.

If we are to continue to love and care for what is dying—it is to this that we shall have to look. Not to what is lost and irredeemable, but to the living, breathing heart of our still magnificent planet.