The Mama Chronicles.4
Last night, Christmas evening, my husband overheard my mother on the phone with her sister saying that she’d “worked very hard” to get us to bring her home from the nursing home.
She lasted 2 months. I wish I could tell you that it was 2 months of relative peace for her and/or us. Nope. It was 2 months of an unrelenting assault involving every manipulative tactic at her disposable (a rather more considerable arsenal than I had realized she had, and I knew she had one). Some of what went on is probably attributable to her increasing dementia, but one of the un-joys of dementia is that it’s really hard to untangle what’s purely physical/chemical brain stuff from what’s been uncovered by the disintegration of walls, and in the case of someone whose dementia is patchwork, what’s being used as a weapon by what’s left of the highly intelligent Southern Princess my beloved Mama has always sort of been. And, heaven knows women of her generation and class (or, probably more to the point, my grandfather’s daughters) were trained to not have negative feelings, or not speak them aloud, so she has quite a backlog to work with.
She hated her roommate (but you should have seen them crying in each other’s arms when we were leaving). She hated having a roommate. She hated the other inhabitants (except for the friends she made very quickly). She didn’t trust the staff (I found them consistently trustworthy). She Hated everything. Mostly she hated me. She saw to it that my life was significantly more miserable with her out of my house than with her here.
I’ve talked about some of the complexities of my relationship to my mother before. I discovered a number of new ones, mostly having to do with the depth and power of my programming where she’s concerned. Not pretty.
Mostly, she managed to not display any of the worst behaviors when my daughters were around, but, toward the end, as she became more eaten with rage, they both saw it come at me. They’d known and seen the stress I was experiencing, but hadn’t fully understood. Both were pretty gobsmacked.
All of that would eventually have settled, in some sense. But it became increasingly clear that our almost-4-year old grandson was suffering because of all the ambient stress/distress. He and his great-grandmother have a kind of Vulcan-mind-meld thing that has been one of the radiant points in both their lives since the first moment they saw each other. And he was clearly suffering.
So we did a sort of math that went this way: Mother in Newark Manor = all of us miserable. Mother home = 2 of us not miserable. We brought her home the Monday after Thanksgiving—as soon as I was able to arrange for 7 hours (in 3 intervals a day), seven days a week of aides from Home Instead to come take care of nearly all her needs.
There is a universe out there in which one does not say mean things about 80-year old disabled ladies who happen to be one’s mother. I could go on at some length about how sanctifying the elderly de-humanizes and infantilizes them, but we’ll skip the lengthy philosophical discussion. My mother gutted me with a grapefruit spoon every time I walked into her room—sometimes unintentionally, but mostly it was the “work” she spoke to her sister about (my daughters, who love their grandmother lots and lots—and for good reasons—are inclined to think I’m cutting her too much slack). It’s not good that I heard that.
I’m nearly 60 years old and I feel like a battered child. Yippee skippy. This is mildly embarrassing for someone with a lot of good therapy under her belt.
In order to have her here I have made a bunch of really pretty unattractive contracts with the universe about what happens or doesn’t happen with my mother downstairs in her apartment when her aides aren’t here. I can’t get her one of those I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up necklaces because she’d take it off and never learn to push the button in the first place. She hasn’t learned where the volume button is on her phone in the 5 years she’s had it and not infrequently tries to answer the tv remote. I’m petrified that this “if she falls, she falls—I can only control for so much” attitude/peace-pact I’ve made with her being back here is a function of my own rage/sense of betrayal. But it’s the pact I’ve got going, so it’s the one I’m living with, even if I have learned that she believes she can make toast in the microwave and nearly burnt the house down recently trying to do so (we now unplug it). The toaster’s been on a shelf she can’t reach for months.
And my grandson’s back to being his lovely, lit-from-within self. Which is, frankly, worth pretty much anything.
I’m left, in the meantime with the interesting work of learning a new kind of love. I love my mother, but these days it is expressed almost entirely in things like making sure all her Christmas decorations were up before she came home and that her supply of Hagen Daz doesn’t get too low, taking her with us on our annual family trip to Longwood Gardens Christmas display, and being pretty nice to her in front of her aides. In doing. I am taken aback considerably by the extent to which I do not want to be in the same room with her, ever. I am taken aback by the depth and power of my own anger and hurt, even as I am aware that it was clearly matched by the depth and power of hers, even though she, several times, and in clearly lucid hours, consented to being moved. But the emotional tornado/hurricane/nor’easter of the past year in which she broke a rib, had septic pneumonia, c-dif, plain old pneumonia, and then made it non-viable for me to have her in some place where I could be clear that she was safe all the time has left me almost neurasthenic. I’ve felt, pretty strongly, that she survived much of this by virtue of a sort of psychic vampirism—a situation that I’ve realized has been going on pretty much my whole life. I am absolutely certain that this is unintentional—that she’d never have wished us to be linked this complexly, un-untangle-ably. That she’d never have chosen to hard-wire me this way. I know enough about her upbringing to know that she was profoundly un-equipped to deal with marriage to my father. And I had a front row seat for the drama of their two massive insecurities banging against each other. All of which is by way of saying that I get it, in so far as one human can “get” the mysteries of another. I get it and do not feel like my life has been bent or crippled by all of it. But right now, I am having a great deal of trouble locating anything that feels like affection for my mother, and this pretty much stinks. Including the fact that I resent the hell out of how all the mama-drama impeded my ability to completely feel the joy of the birth of my granddaughter (in between the septic pneumonia and the c-dif).
My entirely remarkable red-headed baby-woman granddaughter has, I swear, understood all this on some cellular level and not infrequently leans into me especially hard, as if to offer comfort. This is not just grandmotherly excess here—she really is the most weirdly communicative baby person I (or her pediatrician) have ever seen.
I know life doesn’t happen the way we plan it. Duh. But I do think it’s maybe a trifle unusual to have this sort of brute destruction of a relationship at this stage. Or maybe it’s not. One probably good thing that has come out of this all is that I have located some new pockets of humility.
All things considered, though, I’d rather locate some new pockets of love.
The Mama Chronicles by Devon Miller-Duggan
The Mama Chronicles.4
oh the D word. it is so painful and difficult. thanks for your honesty in telling your story.
I love your honesty. Every word you write evokes another memory. I thought my mother was the only one who telephoned friends using the tv remote and those occasional moments of lucidity are real mind fucks. My mother lived with me for 4 yrs. as dementia took over both our lives. She was like a 3 yr. old with just enough autonomy to be truly irritating. I resented the time I no longer had to be with my grandchildren, usually because I was too tired. I found myself at 60 thinking and sometimes behaving like snotty 14 yr. old. Your posts are important because this is in essence a very solitary journey and it’s comforting for me to know someone else gets it.