New Year’s Eve

She firmly believes that for at least half of the world, New Year’s Eve is a time when the heart is heavy with regret. She wants to pick up the phone but a mixture of anger and disappointment keeps her from doing so. She wonders what crime she has committed in her life to land her in this place of despair. Things were simpler when she was mad at Jenna. She thought the whole world was against her and she had to protect herself. As the anger slowly begins to subside, she is no longer too sure about herself. Overcome with doubt, it petrifies her to realize that she may have contributed to her own misery.

Jenna truly believes that she has made the right decision, but on New Year’s Eve her heart continues to be filled with regret. She wants to reach for the phone but a mixture of guilt and frustration is holding her back. She wonders what else she could have done to prevent the suffering of someone she is supposed to love. Things were simpler when she was taking care of business. She was told that time was running out and she had to keep her mother safe. As the line between obligation and love starts to blur, she tries in vain not to be too hard on herself. Swept by anxiety, it terrifies her to see that it may be too late to make amends.

When Jenna was a little girl, she always spent this time of the year with her mother. She might be spending the rest of the winter break with her grandmother or the neighbors, but her mother made sure it was just the two of them on New Year’s Eve. It was a special day. It was her birthday. Her mother was proud of her, her only child who couldn’t wait until the next year to be born. Of all the things her mother could be proud of, Jenna’s birthday was the only thing she chose to focus on. In her young mind, Jenna vowed to keep this day special. Before she left her mother for good, she never went out on a date on New Year’s Eve.

Her daughter is special. She is smart, perhaps too smart for her own good, but smart nonetheless. Jenna has inherited that radiant smile from her. Well, she is much more generous with it, except when she is with her. Even after Jenna walked away and broke her heart, even as they continue to drift apart, she never forgets to send a card every year on her birthday. The list of things she is thankful for has grown shorter and shorter over the past few years. As much as she hates to admit, her daughter is still Number 1 on that list.

They say that this is the best place to be before the next and final stop with a capital “H.” She knows it as well as her daughter does, but the more Jenna tries to emphasize that, the harder she wants to believe it. How can it be the best place when one is stuck in a room close to the end of the hallway with nothing but a roommate and a radio? She cannot even keep her paintings, those precious paintings she once was famous for. How can it be the best place when it is always scented with bleach and urine?

She was the one who taught Jenna to always look for the silver lining. Yet, she is now regarded as the mean old lady who finds fault in everything. They are probably right. Attention to detail can be a double-edged sword. If only she could fill every fault with silver paint. If only she could hear that ring of laughter from Jenna again, straight from the heart, without hesitation, like the ball that drops at Times Square. She smiles faintly at the memory of the first time Jenna was old enough to count down with her. How many years has it been since the last time she held her daughter in her arms on New Year’s Eve?

The idiots on the radio have been talking about the apocalypse again. Maybe it will be their last New Year’s Eve. Even if the world is not going to end in 2012, she knows she does not have much longer to live. These days, her body does not allow her to do much. The social worker stopped by a few evenings ago to ask if she would like to write Jenna a birthday card. She sent the thougtful young woman home. She is having trouble deciding which card to pick and what to write anyway. She cannot tell if her eyes or her hands are failing faster but she knows with much certainty her mind is slipping.

“Hey,” The CNA speaks softly into her ear as she looks up from her recliner, “your daughter is calling.”

She glances at the ugly pink clock on the wall. Five minutes till nine. It is almost past the daily calling/visiting hours. She picks up the black receiver with both hands and waits for the silence to go away. She wants to surprise her daughter with a bit of humor by saying, “Are you calling because you want to hear a Happy Birthday from your dear old mother?”

She is glowing with affection, yet she knows the moment she blurts that out Jenna is going to think that she is being sarcastic…

“Hi, Mom,” Beneath Jenna’s presumably cheerful voice, a sense of caution permeates. “How are you?”

Sometimes she wants to shake her. She wants to tell her daughter to stop acting as if one of them was a delicate doll that could break into a million pieces any time. Her attention is shifted to the common area, where her roommate’s family are burying themselves with laughter and hugs.

“I am fine. How are the kids?”

Has it not been that squeeze on the shoulder from her husband, Jenna would have dropped the phone and walked away. Strong, composed, and successful as she is in almost everything she does, it is tearing her apart trying to communicate with her mother. Her mother, whom on Jenna’s birthday, chooses to ask about her grandkids only.

“Everybody says ‘hi’ and sends their love,” Jenna lets her voice hang in the air.

“OK.” Her roommate’s precocious grandson comes over to blow her a kiss and whisper a Happy New Year into her ear before they leave.

“Well, I guess I will come see you next year, Mom.” Jenna tries to sound positive. She thinks she has become really good at that. Keep a distance, don’t get hurt again, she reminds herself.

“OK.” She pauses for a moment before she finally says, “Happy Birthday. I am sorry I didn’t send you a card this year.”

“It’s fine,” Jenna turns to her husband and sighs softly. “We’ve got to go now. Love you, Mom.”

She can hear the disappointment. She knows she has disappointed her daughter again.

“Love you too.” She waits until Jenna has hung up before she speaks quietly into the phone, “You know you are special. You are the most special thing that has ever happened to me.”

She cradles the phone in her chest as if holding a sleeping infant, until the CNA comes to take it away. Whatever is lining her eyes is not silver, but the room in front of her has slowly begun to glisten and melt away.

Things will be better next year, she sincerely hopes.

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About C

If you consider volunteering at a luncheon for older adults as my first exposure to the field, I have been in geropsychology for at least twenty years. As family, friend, volunteer, trainee, and professional, I have found myself in adult day care centers, senior centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, medical and psychiatric wards, hospice, and personal homes of older adults. Wherever I go, be it an orphanage, a museum, a prison, an airport, or a random corner in the neighborhood, issues related to aging and mental health often come to mind. I used to think that I could make a difference only if I became a top-notch researcher, educator, or clinician. As I continue to follow this meandering path, it dawns on me that as a nobody in the field, I can still add my light to the sum of light by sharing what I know. Over the years, I have "converted" a few very dedicated individuals to focus on aging-related work within their respective disciplines and encouraged a handful more to stay in this field despite its winding course. I believe by bringing aging and mental health issues to the foreground, we will amass a stronger force to promote advocacy, research, and quality care.
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