Tucked in her lift chair, chilled and uneasy, she waits for tea and dry toast to calm her daily quarrel with queasiness and hunger. With a raised eyebrow and sardonic grin, she remarks, “It ain’t easy gettin’ old.” I commiserate, but she dismisses my empathy; tells me I’m too young to understand. I don’t bother to correct her.
She’s tired, though she’s been in bed since breakfast. It’s a long day by two o’clock, and not necessarily a good one. Though there are good ones: days when she plays Bingo, sings along with glee, or gets to video Mass in the community room. She still relishes her three squares and always brightens at the sight of chocolate. She’s now in a wheelchair full-time but loves a roll around the park. She’s almost eighty-seven, a widow for seventeen years, and a diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient for six-and-a-half.
She is my mother.
I left home—and her—a long time ago. I left hard and fast, no quibbling or weepy boomeranging. My mother refers to this as, “when you ran away,” which isn’t far from the truth. It had been a challenging childhood.
I am a third child, the third girl in a family of eleven children. My two older sisters and I, by virtue of gender and birth order, became “little mommies” for smaller, younger siblings while we were still smaller, younger siblings ourselves. And though being in charge of an infant at six-years-old is, perhaps, too steep a learning curve, the responsibility did promote skills found useful later in life. I not only learned to change diapers, feed babies, and wrangle toddlers, I became adept at making meals, doing laundry, and running interference for a mercurial and confounding mother. And that was before I got to high school.
By the time I did get to high school I was bone-weary of family, and desperate to fly. Somewhere. Anywhere. Graduation couldn’t come quick enough and my departure for college was so swift high school friends claim I never even said good-bye. I don’t remember; I was moving too fast. I came home the summer after freshman year, but by the next I was gone for good. My first apartment was a hideous ninety-dollar-a-month single with lousy furniture and a stuttering landlady, but it may as well have been heaven.
It wasn’t just the weight of trading too much childhood for “little mommy-hood.” It wasn’t just the burden of my parents’ religion with its restrictive view of human interaction (anything related to boys and sex). It wasn’t even that one-on-one time in a big family was too spare to be satisfying. It was that I couldn’t find an honest way to consistently and compassionately tolerate my mother.
She was a paradox. One minute clever and creative, the next enraged and irrational. She was impossible to predict and easy to trigger. She loved music, did a mean jitterbug, and had a wildly romantic relationship with the handsome Greek/American who was my father. She could make any day a holiday, taught us that fun was our birthright, and, oh, she loved with a passion. All this provided the good that pushed against the other. Her dark side. The turbulent state that came with frenzied tears, cold silences, or rages that scattered us like terrified animals.
She tried; I believe she sincerely tried, but she was undeniably overwhelmed by a family too large to manage, a husband often too detached to meet her emotional needs, and a psyche too fragile to offer the flexibility and endurance required by the job.
So when I left, I stayed away and kept her away. She and my father didn’t meet my husband until years after we eloped and I’d already given birth to a son. They were that distant and I was that intractable.
But life is surprising. You grow older and live longer. You stumble on expectations not met, cringe at the sharp pangs of disappointment and heartache, and you learn some things. You learn that not all dreams come true, not all promises are kept. Life humbles and sometimes softens you. You accrue compassion for things you might not have previously understood, and that expands your view.
It wasn’t until years after I became a parent that I saw my mother beyond the filter of a child’s eye. When I attached to my own child, and learned the frustrations, passions, and struggles of parenting, I gained perspective on what she’d experienced, many times over, in her own role as a mother. When my marriage met challenges or I felt distanced by a sometimes distant husband, I realized her anguish at the hands of her own husband’s penchant for the same. Simply put, I began to see the human behind the mother. And I had empathy.
She is a third child herself; a brother and sister preceded her. Her mother died shortly after her birth, and her father abandoned all three to be raised by her mother’s extended Irish family, who loved, took good care, and kept kegs flowing in the dining room. She claims it was a happy life—I’m sure much of it was—but when my father died many years after that childhood, she wailed that she’d been “abandoned” by all the men in her life, asking through tears how a father could leave his children without a look back. I had no answer for her. But it seems, regardless of her rosy, revisionist narrative, she’d suffered for it all.
She suffered for growing up without the intimacy and guidance of a mother’s love, or the constancy of a father’s. She suffered for the raging alcoholism in her family. She suffered for being an orphan whose need for love could hardly be filled. And now I, as an adult, mother, wife, and family survivor myself, was beginning to understand her story. It made me ache for her. It made my heart open.
Countless people I know are caring, or have cared, for aging parents. It’s a rite of passage and a task like no other, requiring a depth of dedication I’d rarely felt for my mother and wasn’t sure I could conjure into being if required. But ten years after my father died, my aging, rudderless mother was in need.
Her short-term memory was slipping away and she was often sick and in pain. Incapable of caring for herself responsibly, the family was running out of options. We needed a new plan and all eyes were on me. “Look away!” a voice hollered inside my head. “You don’t have to take it on. You left a lifetime ago for good reason; it’s not your job!” That voice was loud, but its mantra rang hollow. Because I knew, as clearly as I knew when it was time to leave home, that it was my turn. It was my job.
So I leapt, all-in. No turning back, no quibbling, no lack of conviction. Mother was coming to town. With the collaboration of my brilliant and indispensable brother, and our network of family and friends, I was going to manage the care and feeding of the woman I’d fled so many years ago. And so the Tour began.
But let’s be clear: I am not a saint. Far from it. Some days I suck at the job. Some days I hate it. I wake up and feel my teeth grinding, resentful that I have to debate faceless doctors who know little about her beyond her prescription protocol, or rifle through reams of redundant paperwork to get thorny insurance issues worked out. I don’t want to drive over to her facility to have the same conversations with the same people, listen to her ask “what’s new and exciting?” a hundred times, or play that infernal card game again. I sometimes feel real anger that I’m obligated to schedule my life around “care meetings” set at inconvenient times, or “run right out” to pick up items she’s lost or broken. I cringe when I see the name of the facility on my caller ID, wondering if she’s been taken to the hospital again, is being ornery with the night staff, or… God forbid… that call. And, yes, I sometimes feel, once again, like a “little mommy,” only this time the child I’m caring for is my mother. The irony is inescapable.
But there is another side to this: an awareness of some sprouting evolution, hers and mine. In her case, the dementia creeping into her personality has done a curious thing. It’s stripped away her anger and narcissism. It’s pared her down to the purest, most basic essence of who she is. A human being who can be grateful and appreciative, smile even through pain, or tell me how happy she is to see me walk through a door. A woman who can genuinely thank a son for a song played at the piano after lunch, or a daughter-in-law for a thoughtful gift. Who can find delight with grandsons who make her laugh or interview her for class projects. A person who can listen to and make note of someone in front of her… even if she can’t remember who they are or what they said moments later.
This is different woman. A different mother. And this different mother is allowing me to be a different daughter.
I look through photographs of her from time-to-time to remind myself that she was once as vibrant and appealing as any young girl finding her way in the world. She had sexy legs, a smashing sense of style, and an infectious grin. She was flirtatious and sought after, ultimately loved by a man who found her beautiful and exciting. She could laugh raucously (see left 🙂 ! ) and make others laugh as loud. I study those photographs and say to myself: “She was young once, just as you were. And you will become old, just as she is. We’re all in this together.”
And so my mother and I continue our Mutual Reinvention Tour. I have found patience; she’s become humble. I’m learning empathy, while gratitude is her new skill. The more of life she forgets, the more I’m there to remind her. We’re both evolving, transforming; that can’t be denied.
She looked at me recently and whispered, “I’m scared.” When I asked why, she said, “Because I’ve made so many mistakes in my life, especially with you kids.” She was concerned that, at the Gates of Heaven, she would be harshly judged, but mostly she wanted me to know she loved us all and was sorry for those mistakes.
I felt a tug. I’d been angry at her for so much of my life… the candor and vulnerability of the moment struck me. I took her hand and said, “Don’t worry, Mom; they say if you’re truly sorry, you’ve already been forgiven.”
And as I said it, I realized that, like St. Peter at the Gates and God in the Heavens, I, her third daughter, her runaway, her lost child, had forgiven her as well. And in the swirling eddy of emotions that accompanied that revelation, sweet and simple love could be found.
Precious and timely, as the Tour continues.
Happy Mother’s Day to all who nurture, love, and exude tenderness and compassion for those in their care… that would be almost everyone I know. ❤
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The original version of this piece was published in 2011 at The Huffington Post, but as my mother’s life evolves, and hoping to keep this the most current reflection of our continuing journey, I update it from time-to-time. One of the more recent installments was submitted to The Maine Review in 2015, where it placed second in their 2016 Rocky Coast Writing Contest. This weekend I’m posting the latest here again… in honor of Mother’s Day, in honor of mothers in general, and, very specifically, in honor of the mother in my own life… who helps me realize, year after year, the sweetness of this closing chapter we’re writing together.
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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.