A Failure to Thrive

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Mac Clayton’s mother suffered for years from a condition that’s easy to acquire and terribly difficult to overcome.

I keep hearing my mother say, “I’m just so lonely.”

She said it to me only once, years ago, but I hear it over and over in my mind. I suppose I didn’t think there was much I could do about it at the time: that’s just the way it is with parents and kids living in different cities.

My father died when he and she were 50. She lived alone for 34 years. Late in her life she lived near me for 10 years. I hope she wasn’t lonely then, but I’m not sure.

Loneliness is a funny thing. It’s a kind of desperate longing. You can be in a crowd and be lonely. You can have casual friends and be lonely. Close family is usually an antidote, but even that remedy can sometimes be as bad as the sickness. Old thoughtless habits, old grievances.


There is no cure, I think. There are moments of respite — of remission, one might say — but once it has crept into your life, loneliness seems to persist despite everyone's best efforts to chase it away.

It’s a form of getting ready for death, I suppose, a gradual release of one’s hold on the world, and of it on you.

Mom died in a nursing home in another city, 2,000 miles away. I’ve been thinking about her lately because it was about this time of year that I flew with her to my brother’s hometown and helped her move into a nice place that could give her the 24-hour care she needed, and was affordable.

I visited as often as I could, but it wasn’t enough. When I came she always asked me to wheel her around to a cage of parakeets in a hallway. She loved their happy chatter and companionship.

A hospice nurse called me not long after my last visit to say that Mom had died. Not from anything in particular, the nurse said. She called it failure to thrive.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton

Mac Clayton is an author living in Palo Alto.