My parents are both in their 70’s (my mom would kill me if I revealed her true age here). They are considered relatively “young” among senior citizens. Dad is typical for his age in that he is beginning to confuse his memories, often mixing up myself and my oldest daughter in the context of the past. He catches himself, or recognizes his error when we point it out to him, and moves on. My mom, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to deal with…..
Mom, Lily, and Me
Mom has many physical ailments: 2 different kinds of arthritis, fibromyalgia, trouble absorbing nutrients as the result of a previous gastric bypass surgery, a thyroid condition, and necrotic bones in both feet. All of these conditions are difficult enough to deal with alone, but when you put them together it becomes one giant medical nightmare. The number of pills she takes on a daily basis is astonishing. She also has monthly infusion therapy for her arthritis, and a shot to help ward off osteoporosis. She has appointments with doctors of various specialties near constantly. She has always been on top of things with her own medical care, seeking second opinions when necessary, and always keeping us informed. But about three years ago, my brother and I noticed that she seemed to be “off her game” a bit. As we watched, the steady decline became more noticeable. We were worried. In what can only be described as an intervention, my brother and I insisted that she have neuro-psychological testing completed. If she was beginning to show signs of Dementia or Alzheimer’s, we wanted to know right away. And if she wasn’t, we knew a baseline test would be helpful in assessing changes later on. After much insisting, and yelling and crying, and with little assistance from my father, Mom was tested.
Testing revealed a deficit in the prefrontal cortex. This is the frontal lobe area of the brain involved in complex behaviors, specifically involving planning. Mom’s issue was in “sequencing.” She has trouble giving directions or following a recipe, for example. This was a deficit, but considered “within normal range.” No official diagnosis of Dementia or Alzheimer’s, but I was worried. Mom was tested again 18 months later after suffering a series of seizures caused by a medication (ironically enough, it was a medication that is often used to treat seizures). This revealed a steady decline in the same area, but nothing that was outside of the normal range.
This doesn’t sound that bad, right? Except that my mother is of above average intelligence. That alone is enough to make the situation way worse than it seems. How, you ask? Because she’s smart enough to know how to cover it all up. She has the strength and fortitude to pull it together in front of friends and family and physicians. When I insisted that I attend certain doctors appointments and spoke of my concerns about her, most people looked at me like I was crazy. Clearly the woman I was referring to was a weak, feeble, shell of a person and not the picture of robustness and resilience that I was sitting next to in the exam room. The frustration I felt was beyond description. My mother led the brigade against me. She told me I was worried for absolutely no reason, she mocked me and called me “warden,” or “mother.” I cannot tell you how much this stung, and still does. This was the woman I looked up to, the woman who told me I could do anything I set my mind to, who helped me in my darkest hours to overcome setbacks that I thought would kill me. She is a “Brooklyn girl” through and through. She swore to me when I moved to Staten Island that she would NEVER follow me. But when I was widowed in 2003 with two very young girls, she swallowed her pride and moved to Staten Island to be closer to me, to help me raise her granddaughters. So now here I was, a woman of the same hardiness and resilience, trying to return the favor, and she basically called me crazy. My knee jerk reaction to this was to pull back. Fine, you’re in control? Go for it. Mess it up on your own. Or, as a true “Brooklyn girl” would say, FUCK HER! But once my boiling Sicilian blood simmered down, I realized I couldn’t do this. This is my mother. I have to help her. I have to make sure she’s being cared for appropriately. This, my friends and readers, has been an uphill battle. And it continues.
Mom and Dad have been married for 52 years. I say each year on their anniversary that I remain shocked that one of them is not currently serving time for the brutal murder of the other. On the outside, they don’t seem to like each other very much. They revel in catching the other one in a mistake – of any kind – and rubbing their noses in it, very much the way one might do to a dog that peed on the living room carpet. However, if you spend enough time with them (and God help you if you have to), you will see glimmers of genuine affection between them. Underneath all the bickering and nastiness, they really do love each other. Now with that being said, you would think that Dad would be a great ally here. As John McLaughlin would say (and I know I’m dating myself), WRONG!
Dad is the poster-child for the path of least resistance. After 52 years of marriage, he avoids “the fight.” I have the ability to say whatever I want to my mother. I say it and go home to my own house, without her. I don’t have to deal with any repercussions, any lingering attitude or resentment. Dad does. So he chooses not to engage. I can’t say I blame him too much there. But it does make my job that much harder. When my brother and I threw a fit because mom was still driving, Dad literally stood by and monitored our argument. The woman has necrotic bone (that means dead bone!) in her feet and has noticeable trouble following sequences – she should NOT be driving! Dad’s response: “Well, she doesn’t go far.” Great, she kill herself or someone else in an accident locally.
I find myself talking to Mom the way I do my 7 year old. Everything is a negotiation. Negotiating with a 7 year old, by the way, is like negotiating with a terrorist. I now possess a full and complete understanding as to why our government refuses to do this. Simply put, it’s futile. It’s a losing battle from the start. In return, Mom often behaves like a 7 year old. She’ll say yes to appease me, agree to things to get me to shut up and leave her alone, only to then go behind my back and do what she wants to anyway. Clearly this is where my stubborn streak comes from. It’s maddening. It’s frustrating. And, it’s hurtful. I’m trying to help and I often feel like I am being destroyed in the process. In a car ride recently, I was lamenting to Sam about the situation. I turned to her and said, “If I ever do this to you and your sisters, please just shoot me.” She smiled. Allie yelled at me,”MOOOMMM! Why would you say that to Sam? One day she’s just gonna shoot you and when we get upset she’ll say ‘What? Remember that time in the car when she said…’” Allie was exaggerating, but probably not by much 🙂
Anyway, this is my conundrum: how do I make sure that my mother is protected and taken care of, that her needs are being met, without humiliating or denigrating her, and also allowing her to fully participate in making decisions about her own life with the dignity and respect she deserves? In addition, I am going through a grieving process of sorts. The woman of strength and fortitude that I described is slowly but surely slipping away. The mother I knew, who would always try to swoop in and save the day, the woman who took care of her own children while also taking care of her dying mother-in-law, is all but gone. Lily will never know the “Grammie” that Allie and Sam knew. She will never have sleepovers with her grandmother or go shopping together in the mall, not the way Allie and Sam did. This makes me sad. The relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter is a special one. I had that kind of relationship with my grandmother, which is why I named Lily after her. There’s a meme I’ve seen on Facebook a lot, that says that no matter how old you are, you still need your mom. When I see that now, my heart sinks. I feel that way often. I just want my mom. I want to share my problems with her and have her tell me that everything will be fine. But it won’t happen. It can’t happen. My mom is less and less herself with every passing day. I feel alone and often unsupported. I find myself avoiding spending time with her, in order to avoid facing the reality of her existence. When this happens, I feel guilty. Today is the best she will ever be. And every “today” will be like that. I’m wasting precious time.
On Mother’s Day, this weighs heavily on my mind and my heart. I always spend the time around Mother’s Day reflecting on my own motherhood journey. This year I’m also reflecting on my role as a daughter. Am I a good daughter? Have I done enough for my mother? Have I missed something? I also imagine a conversation, way in the future, between my own girls. It goes something like this:
Sam: Mommy is insane. I can’t take it any more. Allie, you have to take her.
Allie: I always take her!
Sam: Let’s make Lily take her. Lily never takes her.
[Lily’s phone rings]
Lily: If I have to take her, I’m putting her in a home.
While slightly amusing, the thought of becoming a burden like this upsets me. I’m the mom. I’m supposed to take care of my kids, not the other way around. Which brings me back to my own mom. If I were in her position, would I have enough humility to admit that I was “slipping?” Would I deny what was going on or confront it head on? If I was, indeed “slipping,” how would I want my girls to handle it? Would I even know when something was wrong? If I didn’t, would I believe my children when they point it out to me? The answer to all of these questions is a completely honest, “I don’t know.” I’m not sure how I will react or behave. People have a tendency to believe that we know how we will react in certain situations. When we hear of someone else’s issues or problems, we say, “Well, if I were her, I would….” Sometimes we’re right. But most of the time we’re wrong. You won’t know until you get there. And, unfortunately, neither will I.
J.D. Salinger wrote, “Mothers are all slightly insane.” I know, for sure, that I am. For the sanity of my children, I hope to be able to recognize and confront decreases in my mental and physical capacities in the future. And if I don’t, they can always throw this blog entry in my face.