“What comes out when you squeeze an orange? Orange juice! What comes out when Life squeezes you? Whatever is inside you.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
The central tension that propels my story of parental caregiving is the one truth I don’t want to write and that we’ve never talked about in my family. Oh, there are lots of things we’ve never talked about, since we stopped talking about forty-odd years ago, but the most difficult one for me to admit publicly is that I have not much liked my Mom. She’s been an emotionally difficult person. That mattered less over the years, until the past few, when her mind – or accurately, her brain – started to fail. It stopped being able to override her mind and make her do the things it is patently obvious need to be done.
I note with awe some of the powerful ways the mind can go on functioning while the brain’s powers weaken. I have had plenty of time to run through my own iterations of reaction to what I see in my mother’s slow decline. There’s some law of nature here that has something to do with each phenomenon giving way to its opposite, if allowed to live its full course. That’s a fancy way of saying, I really didn’t like my Mom until one day I started to notice that I was feeling empathy for her, all while she was descending into this morass we call dementia.
Mom was always a ruminator, but now she is an expressive one. Each big or tiny item is verbalized as if for the first time, every time it arises. This I have done, in my most anxious, sleepless, buzzed times. The one thing she can focus on like a laser is herself and her story. She tells it to people she’s just met, establishing the facts before attempting to discuss other matters. It is as if, in order to follow anything she is about to say, you have to know this first. And in case you’ve forgotten, she’ll begin with that each time it’s her turn in the conversation. Doesn’t the wounded part of me want to craft the story just so, so the listener will understand, but more importantly, sympathize? Haven’t I relentlessly referenced myself during times when I felt it’s all I knew?
Mom’s likes and dislike have become reptilian and predictable. Likes: pretty things, crossword puzzles, ice cream. Dislikes: Food that isn’t blazing hot, place settings missing a utensil, sticky hands. Getting the hang of these, I find more oases when we are together, and there is considerably less hissing. Don’t I encourage my readers to claim and indulge their childlike cravings and whims?
There are startling violations of my boundaries when I inadvertently violate Mom’s internalized codes of conduct. She is the only person alive who reprimands me about manners, the only person who orders me to do this or that, including what to eat and wear. These garner sympathy from my friends (“She reserves a sharper tone just for you!”) I’m thankful that I can still choose inner peace over Supreme Judicial Righteousness. Still, she displays an agility that can only come when the immediate past is evaporating a little faster than you can move forward: The nerve with which she improvises when confronted by something she’s forgotten, misunderstood, or repeated like a chant, until we are all ready to enter (and win) the eye-rolling Olympics: “You think that just because I’m 80-whatever [“Stage girl! Give me my lines!”] that I’m incompetent…. After all, I am 80-whatever!”
And then came The Decision. I’m grateful that in this family drama, my brother reverted to his role as big brother. First, he called it. “We can’t just wait around for a disaster. It’s nuts. We have to do something!” Then, he and my sister-in-law found a wonderful place and made sure Mom was on the waiting list. My role will be that of most daughters: Housekeeping and Handling. Big Bro will do the books. His wife will play Encourager Extraordinaire, having lived this process with her parents and siblings a few years ago. Their offspring, the grandchildren, will remain the luminous beings they have always been, doing the thing that matters most to all of us watching them – having meaningful lives, doing good and fruitful things, being happy, having problems of their own.
Not that we aren’t doing real or meaningful things, of course. It’s that we are doing them from another perspective. Having ridden our trajectory away from our family of origin, we now find our orbit returning to its starting point. As in all space travel, the home we return to, while still recognizable, bears only a superficial resemblance to the one we left.
Come to think of it, our Mom must be feeling this way. She must be wondering what happened to her children that they have apparently ceased doing anything but bossing her around and poking their noses into her business. She must be fumbling around with the script looking for the place where “elderly woman remains sharp-witted” got scratched out and replaced with a new ending. You must be feeling that way, too, if you are having a “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” moment occurring in your life.
I’m taking a writing lesson from life at this moment. That lesson is, you can boil down your experiences to bulleted points, but every how-to and “X Easy Steps to ___” should be prefaced with a caveat: “Your actual life will not conform to these steps. You will need to create a way through that makes the most sense to you. Don’t think you’re doing it wrong if it doesn’t match what’s being presented on this page. It’s a good idea to discard some of these tips altogether.” Rather than focusing on how-to, I am going to take a preliminary step and identify my Big Why.
Here Come The Bullet Points
What gets me up in the morning is this:
- I care. I care about me, and I care about my family. It actually doesn’t matter any more whether I like Mom or not. If she can forget, then so can I. We’re all she has.
- I love life. I’m convinced that life on Earth as a human is an utterly unique experience in all the Universe, and I want to claim my front row seat.
- No matter how badly I may screw up, I haven’t put a substance into my body that harmed me more than it nourished me. I will not been derailed into a cul-de-sac of self-loathing and sabotage. I have actual choices and actual resources. I am loved.
Just because the seams of life have apparently split open and an overwhelming chaos has come tumbling out, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. It simply means I’m alive. And just because somebody else is writing the book doesn’t mean the ending is set in stone. I can still pick up my own pen, find a blank page, open my heart, and take myself into the next moment, knowing that there are others on this path who will read, sometimes following and sometimes showing the way.
by Phyllis Capanna © 2014 joyreport
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