Last August my mother came to visit for a week.
First of all, a week is too long. My children are older now and spend their free time lying on a beanbag with earbuds in their ears, or sprawled across the bed with a book propped on the pillow. When they do venture out of their rooms, it is to forage in the pantry or stand in front of the refrigerator letting all of the cold air out, lost in thought. That leaves me to entertain my mother who is 70, diabetic and overweight. She sits. And we have to talk.
I am uncomfortable with peopled silence. I can sit alone in silence for hours – writing, meditating, reading. But when others are around, I feel compelled to fill the air with conversation.
When I am with my mother, I talk for all of the years I took care of myself. I am compelled to prove how well I’ve turned out in spite of her neglect. For all the time she spent lying in her darkened room trying to forget and deny the life she chose, I have to shed light and throw open the doors by talking about my children and how I choose to parent them. I give examples of my presence in my girls’ lives, patting myself on the back for breaking the cycle of mothers and daughters in my family. Mothers who are too busy or too addicted to be mothers. Daughters who parent their parents.
By the second day of her visit, I knew something was wrong.
“Have you guys watched “The Amazing Race” this season? We are so disgusted with the way they treat each other this time around,” she is making conversation at the dinner table. The kids look at me, eyebrows furrowed. I have answered this question three times today already. Beyond that, I am annoyed that she is turning into such a stereotypically judgmental old person. She is disgusted with everything, getting more conservative by the minute.
I know that this is a reaction to her fear of getting older, more frail, less in control of her own life and body. But instead of compassion, what wells up inside me is this sardonic voice that says, ‘Well, if she had just paid more attention and taken better care of herself, she wouldn’t have diabetes and be overweight and have all of these health issues that cause her to lose control of her body.’
By the third day I find myself getting short with her. I can’t look her in the face, and I schedule outings to local tourist attractions, despite the fact that I know it will wear her out. I have to keep moving. Keep her out of the house. Keep her from reminding me that she is losing her mind.
The day she leaves I come home and cry deep, ugly sobs face down on my comforter. Glistening snot streaks criss-cross the pillow shams and damp spots make eye marks on the bed. Why do I hate her so much?
I don’t want to have to take care of her. The answer comes loud and clear, like a fire alarm in the night.
I once heard someone say that kids who were born in the 1970s are the “least parented generation.” I believe it. From the Easy Bake Oven my sister and I used to make Shrinky Dinks and melt Barbie heads to my brother’s woodburning kit that he threatened to use as a brand if we didn’t do his chores, we were seriously unsupervised. I can still remember the exhilarating freedom of being kicked out of the house right after breakfast on summer mornings and told to, “Stick together and be home before dark!”
And yet, even as I pushed into my teenage years and actively ignored my mom, I still wanted her there. I resented the hours that she worked, the way she let me shrug my shoulders and tell her I was okay without probing further. I made her feel stupid and unnecessary because I wanted to be independent, but I was also desperately hoping she would somehow force her way in from time to time. By the time I left for college, I had decided she never would and it would be best if I just gave up that notion.
As I walk the dog in the clear morning air the leaves are just beginning to turn. The sidewalk is littered with chestnut husks and I can hear recess happening at the elementary school a few blocks away. I think about those kids and their mothers. I feel that old familiar resentment start to rise and I kick a rock in my path, hard. Now that Mom’s mind is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, I have lost any last vestige of hope I might have had that she will be there for me as a sounding board, as a support, as a mother. When my oldest daughter was struggling with anxiety upon entering high school, I desperately wanted to call Mom and ask her what to do.
Or did I? Would I have actually done that? Would I really have considered her opinion or would I have told myself the same old story about her being a neglectful, absent mother and dismissed the notion out of hand? Now that she is unavailable to me, is it easier to rewrite history and pretend that I tried to let her in and she rejected me? When the girls were little, I certainly never asked her advice on anything and she knew better than to offer it. It had been years since I believed she knew anything I didn’t. I would have made some snotty comment about how I didn’t need her help.
The dog stops to pee and a lump forms in my throat. How many years did I waste being angry with her for not giving me the life I thought I wanted with a bonded, close mother-daughter relationship? I’m pretty sure she didn’t get the life she thought she wanted, either; this Catholic school girl who escaped her own parenting duties for her younger siblings by getting married and hoping to have a house full of kids only had two before the doctors told her she had to stop. Her first marriage ended in a fiery burst of anger after years of infidelity, the second one was built on a foundation of half-truths and slight of hand. She worked hard for years at a job that wouldn’t afford her a comfortable retirement, and was hit with Alzheimer’s before she reached her 70th birthday. Who the fuck am I to resent her at all? And how ridiculous is it to aspire to some fairy tale story of what our lives “ought” to have been when in reality, we find ourselves here, right now?
I feel hot shame flood through me and I’m glad for sunglasses to hide the tears that slide down my cheeks. I suck. Assuming she understands what is happening to her, she is probably scared to death and here I am pissed off that I might have to sit with her in awkward silence or tell her the same things over and over again as she struggles to place some frame around her life. Fortunately, my shame is quickly replaced by compassion. I will sit with her. I will feed her if she needs it. I will hold her hand. She is, after all, my mom.
Kari O’Driscoll is the mother of two teenage daughters and a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at The Writing Life and her work has appeared in anthologies on parenting, reproductive rights and in several online publications including The Feminist Wire and The Mid.
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