The Dentist and The Mama by Devon Miller-Duggan

The Dentist and The Mama

It’s been a while since I wrote about the long road that is my/our care of my
mother. There hasn’t been much to talk about. She’s still here, still physically
sort of healthy, still drifting further into the wormhole of dementia. Still,
still, still. I’ve made some progress, behavior and neuroses-wise and am in a
state of improved patience and kindness, which feels good. It’s been hard being
the center of the world for someone who’s being gradually stripped away of all
of her most charming and engaging traits and left with all the lesser, more
passive-aggressive versions, but I have had several of things happen that have
made things easier on my heart and head. One is that I may have managed a bit of
growing up (still apparently possible at 61, thank God) courtesy of my
therapist, time, my daughters’ prodding and whatever mystery elements go into
whatever constitutes “peace” in a human heart. Another is that I had occasion to
watch a truly vile mother in action—someone actually pathological and
malicious—and it was a bit of a jolt to my self-pity. A third is probably that I
just ran through most of the anger. So I’m less dramatically fraught, which is a
relief to EVERYONE, except my mother who doesn’t actually register any
differences in my behavior since she sort has a goldfish memory these days.

Here she still is, all stubbornness, coy compensatory courtesy, and
I-have-to-tell-Devon-how-much-I-love-her-so-she-won’t-send-me-back-to-THAT-place.
Unless her great-grandson is around, at which point she’s close to alive, that’s
about it. Oh, and the truly terrible boredom. It’s awfully hard to alleviate the
boredom of someone who just can’t do so many of the things she used to
enjoy—really follow a narrative, walk on the beach, play cards, listen to music
(a couple of months ago, I put on “The Magic Flute” while I was working on
something in her apartment and she told me to “turn that shit off.” She used to
adore Mozart.) She is getting close to not being able to handle stairs at all,
and has taken to going outside onto the front walk 20 times some days to check
to see whether—well, I don’t exactly know what she’s checking on, but it’s a
little disconcerting how often she’s out there waiting when I get home from work
or errands.

Today we had to go to the dentist. My father was a dentist who worked on his own
family. The result of that is that we have phenomenal dental work and a bit of
PTSD (I use the term carefully) because being stuck in a dental chair with
someone who has gripes to grind while he does impeccable work on you is a weird
experience. A tooth he’d crowned about 40 years ago (he was pretty much the God
of Crown & Bridge, for those of you to whom that means anything) broke off above
the root, which, it turns out, has an abcess. So my mother, who has cared a
great deal about her appearance, is going to be without a lower front tooth,
because, at this stage, the major work involved in replacing that thing would be
much more traumatic than dealing with the bad root and letting the thing go.

Blah, blah, blah, teeth. I’m a dentist’s daughter. I could go on at much greater
length about this mess. It’s only relevant insofar as it will eat much of my
last week before the semester starts, especially when you fold in the podiatrist
appointment and the fact that she desperately needs new glasses. I have a pile
of want-to-do-it work and I am infinitely distractible, so this stuff eats much
bigger chunks out of my ability to focus than it should. The good news is that
I’m not mad (blessed progress). But I am wigged out by the thought of the
post-op antibiotics she’ll need—we’ve already been through one bout of C-Dif—and
by concern about how even the lightest of general anesthesias will muck with her
brain. So my not-angry-ness is manifesting itself in major grumbling about the
time, which is really grumbling about my not having any more control over this
shit than my mother does.

I read a sweet-natured meme on FB the other day that was a sort of how-to list
for communicating with Alzheimer’s patients. It boiled down to “never get
frustrated, never argue, never remind, never take anything personally.” All well
and good, and maybe useful for professional caregivers (many of whom are saints,
I swear), but it isn’t terribly realistic for caregivers who have histories with
the patients (in this case, only children on whom said parent has focused her
life rather more intently than is technically considered healthy). And it was
about Alzheimer’s, not whatever weird mix of age and long-term MS scarring my
mother is dealing with, which is different even if I couldn’t tell you how. I
know there are many people who find this stage in their parents’ lives contains
a kind of sacredness; people who can focus on the cycle-of-life parts and let
the grubby, infuriating parts slide beneath their armature of kindness and
generosity. I’m not that sort of human. Truth be told, I don’t even know if I
want to be, no matter how much I envy the serenity that would offer.

It’s not news to anyone that death, illness, family, and the infinite combos of
the three are one of the most emphatic and profound locations where we confront
our inability to control much of anything. Nor is it news that the only thing we
can control in these situations is our own behavior—when we’re lucky. It just
all sucks. For me, using the language of sacredness about it feels like a weird
form of denial. But then, I’m not the sort of person who uses terms like
“passed” for “died.” We bury the dead, properly, not our emotions and
experiences.

One thought on “The Dentist and The Mama by Devon Miller-Duggan

  1. A resounding Amen! Every aspect of your journey mirrors the last 2 years of living with and caregiving my mother. I share the fste of an enmeshed (hate that word but its visually accurate) only child and distaste for phrases like ‘passed away’. In my family we die and then are dead. A profound thank you for sharing your relentlessly honest self appraisal.

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