No Heroic Measures

I call my mother at her dementia care home earlier this week. She hangs up. Like she does every time. I call back. Silence. More than usual. After a while, I start singing her favorite hymn. She’s forgotten the words. Last summer, we sang it together when we’d meet on the front porch of her care home, ten feet apart, masked and isolated. But with mom, a lot can change in six months. In six days. Even six minutes.

I’ve grown accustomed to the spaces between our words, as vast as the distance away we are from each other. And each time I call, her identity unravels a bit more.

Somehow, listening to her dementia is even worse than watching it.

Yesterday, another call. This time from her care home. “There’ve been some fairly significant changes with your mother this past week,” the director says, and part of me wants to pull a mom on her and hang up. Instead, I listen. Fever, infection, fluid retention, lab tests, chest x-ray, increased confusion, depression, inability to stand, walk, dress or eat on her own.

The pancreatic tumor is wreaking havoc on her physiological system and her dementia, not to be outdone, has decided to ramp up its misfiring neurons.

Already fragile and rail thin, my mother now requires increased monitoring and assistance, what is termed “end of life” care.

Her care home does this well. A small group home overlooking the sea, staffed by long-time and loving caregivers. She is in the right place, the best place. We all knew this time would come.

Barring any drastic changes, in three weeks I will travel to see her and hold her, through the miles and time zones and COVID vaccination timelines that divide us. The uncertainty surrounding our lives is as unbearable as the silence in our phone calls.

There will be no heroic measures taken. But in this story, there are heroes: the caregivers and my mother.


So many of the projects and hopes and dreams I’ve had these past six years are unfinished. A senior retirement community for elderly dogs. Heading up the pet insurance division at a local agency. Writing a dystopian trilogy. “Read and Run,” a combination running-and-bookstore. A novella written in weekly tweets.

And if I’m repeating my mother’s creative frenzy of a life with all its unfinished projects—her half-written manuscripts typed on onionskin paper; sketches stashed in a rusty file cabinet; index cards and notebooks filled with ideas—then, so what? I’m okay with it all.

Because I find comfort in not finishing, having something to work on, reflect upon, dream about.

Because finishing a project would move my chess piece closer to finishing another project.

“There is something about finishing that our culture is obsessed about, writes Devin Kelly in his article Out There: On Not Finishing. “Finish what you are doing so that you might find joy…So you might find something new to finish before you finish your life.”

My life is not finished yet, and neither are the dozens of writing projects I’m actively unfinishing. A Momoir of microessays. An article on lost dogs and unknown neighbors. Flash essays writing contests and dozens of short stories involving lakes and ghosts, mirrors and islands, dementia and death.

I have no writing legacy, no children to entrust with my projects, unfinished or not. No one to leave my legacy to but the ghost of my future self who prowls the stacks of my mother’s artwork and my unfinished stories.

We are, all of us, works-in-progress, our unfinished selves a measure of success. Sure, closure can provide gratification, but it often brings me sorrow as I bid farewell to another piece of my writer’s heart.

So, reader, I leave you with this: what if not finishing is simply enough?