Well, my experience having my almost-89-year-old mother living with us has almost drawn to a close. For various reasons - her declining health and long distance from other elderly relatives are two major ones - my sister and I have decided to have Mama move back to the Memphis area, and in less than two weeks, one week after her 89th birthday, my husband Ed and I will be driving the long journey to take Mom back home.
So it is understandable that I take these last two weeks for reflection. When I am frequently asked for my thoughts on Mom leaving, I have consistently replied, “It’s bittersweet.” Like life itself, the experience/experiment was full of surprises, but the best description is still bittersweet. I thought I would take a couple of posts to blog about each half of that poignant word. So for today, I’ll focus on the bitter.
Anyone who says care-taking is a piece of cake...well, they’re eating a different dessert than I am. It is hard work. For the last year, in fact, our life has been turned upside down in ways I couldn’t imagine earlier. Ed, bless his soul, has been the care-taker during the day when I’m at the hospital. His day starts at 6 a.m. when he makes her breakfast and ends at 8:30 p.m. when he puts her to bed (I have to go to bed at 7 p.m.). I cannot praise him enough for his lovingkindness to Mom. He has put up with a lot, but he loves her like his own mother.
OK, so care-taking is hard. What has been the bitter for me? It’s run the emotional gamut....
Fear. As I’ve said before, looking at Mom is like looking into my possible future. How much of her medical problems are inheritable? Will I be engaged in nervous humming when I am her age? Will my bones be so deformed from arthritis? Will I get so disabled that I will depend on a walker or wheelchair to do the most basic ambulation? Will I end up living with one of my kids (Lord help them!)? Like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I recoil in horror at my intended fate, and wonder if the actions I take to preserve my health today can help me avoid all this or am I just doomed...
Regret. I guess we could have taken the car keys from Mom 4 years ago and she would never have been in that wreck, but how difficult that attempt would have been will always be unknown. In fact, every decision my sister and I make is fraught with anxiety and second-guessing. Should we have given away Mom’s dog? Should we have moved Mom up to Maine for a year? Is she prepared for the long car ride back? Is she functional enough for assisted living somewhere? Are we missing something important that should be checked out? There’s always anxiety in decision-making and all we can do is try to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.
Disappointment. I used to tease Mom on the phone: “You’ve got to come visit us in Maine, Mama! Ed and I already live like old people, ha ha! After supper we watch those old movies from the 1930s - those movies you love - and we have some nice places to go out to eat, and we can take you to see the grandkids, and we’d have a marvelous time!” Reality was quite different. Oh, Ed and I still watch our old movies, but the first time we excitedly sat down with Mom to do so, she was asleep in ten minutes. The only successful movie-watching we have done was around Christmas - we watched them during the day, and even then, I had to keep poking her to wake up. She won’t go out to eat anymore because she can’t eat most restaurant food and “it’s just too much trouble.” She certainly won’t ride to visit the kids; she has trouble getting in and out of the car. Her vision is getting worse and she can’t read much anymore. Every day I am reminded that there is unfortunately little I can do to bring pleasure into her life.
Anger. You knew it was coming, didn’t you? Of course anger is a part of it all. It stems from frustration. Why does she do the very thing we ask her not to do, and yet the simple things we know she can do, she balks? When did some important tasks become arbitrary? Why do I have to force her to do things that are good for her? Why do I end up making her cry? Why doesn’t she understand how hard she is making this?
Sadness. I have been plagued with an overwhelming sense of sadness. I have to watch Mama struggle physically and emotionally and it just devastates me. I wish I could take away her pain. I wish I could make her whole again. I wish I could bring back her function. She told me once that she agreed with what a friend had said - “It’s hell getting old.” I’m watching it firsthand and can do little about it. Some of the things I try to do to help her seem to end up making her suffer more.
Loss. This is the biggie. There has been a major relationship change, and though my Mom is alive and interactive, I have come to the realization that something important has made a dramatic shift. I suppose it’s been a long time coming, but it is only this year here in Maine that it finally dawned on me that I am now the Parent and she is the Child. For most of us, all our lives, our parents are our Solid Rocks. We depend on them. We count on them. We know that whatever life throws at us, they will be there for us, strong, sturdy, and will always take care of us. Then there comes a point where the shift insidiously begins, almost imperceptibly, especially if we live a distance away.
We had to buy a transport wheelchair for the trip back to Tennessee. For one thing, we might have to hurry her out of the heat, and for another, some parking spaces at rest stops are too far away from the door to have her use the walker and try to reach in her half-inch-at-a-time faltering gait. When we brought the wheelchair home, she cried. Her reaction, I have learned, is always according to her interpretation of the event. I remember when Rachel and I flew down to see her in the hospital after her accident, Mama cried. I asked her what was wrong. She said, “All of you coming down here - you think I’m not going to make it.” And thus it was with the wheelchair. Some part of her felt as if we were giving up on her, as if she were doomed to forever be nonambulatory. I explained why we wanted it for the trip, and she understood, but kept crying because she was so anxious about traveling, about moving back, about changing routines, about everything. I held her in my arms. I wiped away her tears and consoled her. I told her we would never let anything happen to her, there was no need to worry, we were there to take care of her, we will always be there for her. We were her Solid Rocks. She could depend on us. And then, all of a sudden, I started crying too. Because it was then I realized I had lost my Mama in a way that didn’t involve death or even dementia - because I had become the Parent and she the Child. I had had inklings of this when I tried to encourage her to do something she was afraid of doing, or when I forced her to take a shower or change her clothes or brush her teeth, or cut up her food into tiny chunks, or watched to make sure she didn’t fall, or helped her get dressed...I was just too afraid to admit that our roles had become totally and irrevocably reversed.
One of the poems I had to memorize in school was “My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth. I still remember it, and this week I am especially pondering one specific line - a line I didn’t understand in junior high but a line that resonates in my whole being today: “The child is father of the man.” Only it has become “The daughter is mother of the woman.” Life has become full circle. My sister and I are parents again - with all the anxiety, stress, and heavy responsibility that entails. God help us to be up to the task.
But, glory be, that is not the end of the story. The bitter is always followed by the sweet....