My mom turned 88 last week. Since she loves coffee and donuts, I stopped the morning of her birthday to get her coffee and a donut after I dropped Lily off at school. When I got to the window to pay, the cashier said, “The lady in front of you paid for your order.” I was so caught off guard and touched by this small gesture I almost cried. I have paid for other people’s orders but have never been the recipient of a random act of generosity like this. It hit me right in the feels.
Back to the birthday girl. My mom moved in with us shortly after my dad’s death in 2011 and has declined physically and mentally over the past 7 ½ years. When she first moved in, she was vital and independent. She drove and shopped and had lunch with friends. She paid bills and handled her money and made her own appointments.
But that’s changed.
She’s faced a broken hip, withdrawal from a decades-long Xanax addiction, an emotional breakdown, multiple back injuries, hospitalizations, stints in rehab, and loss of independence including giving up driving. I’ve faced my own set of emotional struggles around caring for my aging mom and watching her deterioration.
Mother-daughter relationships can be difficult even for the best moms. I know some exceptional moms who struggle in their relationships with their adult daughters. I work incredibly hard to be a great mom, and yet, my daughters have found me lacking — and other unflattering adjectives — at times.
Shortly after she moved in, I started writing about my often-difficult relationship with my mom. I hashed out some childhood issues, some adult issues, and some fundamental character flaws in her person, i.e., ways she is not like me. We are very different, and in a lot of the ways we are different, I found she — as they used to write on report cards back in the day — “Needs Improvement.”
I talk openly, and she prefers to sweep uncomfortable subjects under the rug.
I prefer honesty even when it’s uncomfortable, she prefers pleasantries even when it’s fake.
I prefer keeping it real; she prefers keeping secrets.
I prefer assertiveness; she prefers passive-aggressiveness.
I prefer authenticity, she prefers keeping up appearances.
In the past few years as dementia has smoothed out her rougher edges, my mom is mostly happy, simple and almost childlike in many ways. She is rarely critical, manipulative or any of the other unflattering adjectives I found her to be in the past. But, every once in a while, she says something that unearths a deeply buried wound, and suddenly I’m irrationally furious.
That happened recently.
Every Sunday, I pick up her sister (who is almost 90) and we — usually Brad — make a big dinner. They visit, we eat, my aunt nearly always chokes, it’s a great time. This past Sunday, when I walked into my mom’s living room carrying soup for them, they immediately stopped talking, looked at me, then each other, and started laughing hysterically.
You know how it feels when you walk into a room and that happens? Well, it’s not my first time experiencing it, and it’s incredibly triggering. I said, “Were you talking about me?” My mom retorted, “I just said maybe we should eat some crackers because I didn’t see any dinner preparations happening, and I didn’t know if you were planning to feed us.”
Maybe if these were just two random old ladies, that wouldn’t have felt personal. Maybe if there wasn’t a long history of my mom being extremely critical and two-faced, it wouldn’t have stung. Maybe if I didn’t feel that she is fundamentally ungrateful for the fact that she lives in my house, and I take complete care of her including feeding her three meals a day, I wouldn’t have wanted to throw the soup in her face. Maybe if I weren’t so tired of being a caretaker, I would have taken better care not to take it personally.
But it did sting, and I did get pissed, and it did feel really fucking personal.
Then, they ate, and laughed, and my mom asked me to “tune in her TV” so she could watch the news. In that moment, I remembered how helpless she is. I considered how debilitating it would feel to surrender your independence. I reminded myself that this 4’ tall 70 pound creature no longer exerts any power over me, and instead relies totally on me to care for her.
For years I struggled with the fact that my mom didn’t work on herself. I wanted her to own her shortcomings and strive to be better. I wanted her to tell me all the secrets and own up to all the lies. It’s my pattern to want people to live up to the lofty expectations that I have for them. It’s also not their job or mine. Keeping my mother safe, healthy, and happy and using these lessons to become a kinder, more loving person is my job.
Caring for an elderly parent, much like parenting a toddler, is predominately a thankless endeavor. It’s mostly feeding and cleaning up after someone, repeating yourself and having the same conversations over and over. It’s a lot of reminding and questioning and double-checking. It requires a ton of patience and is not for the weak of mind or heart.
Thank you to the sweet person in the white SUV in front of me for your unsolicited kindness. Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to make time for small gestures of kindness. And thank you for the coffee and donut that made my mom’s 88th birthday a little bit sweeter.