Reckoning Part 2

I have a habit of thinking that death solves things. Mostly my own, because that would take are of it all. If asked, “what did Philip’s death solve?” my answer would be that is not what I’m talking about here. But the question intrigued me enough to forego listening to my usual podcast this morning during my walking and instead think about this. Soon as I the cross T’s and dot I’d on this mostly-finished post, that’s what I’ll write about next.

 Philip is my son, he is not, was not ever, something to be solved. He was something to live for because love is what there is to live for. I am not someone who particularly feels loved whether or not I am, and maybe that is why life has always felt too hard. But before I go down that road, I want to get back to my mom. Writing is the way I look at the thing instead of wishing it dead to avoid it.

It came as a surprise to both my brother and me to realize my mom’s financial situation. We had to consider if assisted living was something that might be necessary for her. There is no clear answer and since it’s unaffordable maybe there doesn’t have to be. Other than the fact that Alzheimer’s progresses, there is too much uncertainty about it. My mom’s short term memory is shot. But she isn’t doing things like leaving the oven on or getting up in the middle of the night and wandering around. She’s angry that we’ve taken her car away and is constantly berating me and my brother to others for doing this to her. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell her this is what her doctors want, how many times we ask what, exactly, is the advantage of this to me or my brother? She’s resentful – and who could blame her – that her independence is being eroded, that she’s paying someone to go to her house and keep her company three times a week. That’s what’s so hard about where she’s at right now – she’s enough in the disease to warrant attention, but not enough to make her forget what she’s losing. 

Assisted living sounds like a good idea – she’d be in her own apartment but have people around to help her as well as people to keep her company. My mom is alone most days. Before her diagnosis, I don’t know what she did, but she kept herself busy. I would go weeks without talking to her. I have a strained, difficult relationship with her, always have. The last time I tried to address it with her – to what end, I do not know – was a couple years ago, before Alzheimer’s. She looked at me and said, “What do you want from me? I am who I am, and I’m not going to change.”

That was the exact right question to ask me, and I still have not looked to find the answer.  

These last six months or so I’ve had to be in contact with her in a way I never have, especially since I moved out of her home forty years ago. I remind myself I do it for R, my brother, and M, my sister-in-law because it is not fair to leave this all the them. In terms of actually seeing her, they are more involved. They live closer to her and R works in Brooklyn and so can stop by at times after work. Plus neither of them are awash in resentment toward her. It’s the classic story of siblings being raised in the same house but each one having a different story to tell. It doesn’t help that I am four years older than my brother or that I went to public school, he went to Catholic. Our lives even then were separate. At the time, Catholic School was considered “better.” But I didn’t want to go school with nuns and uniforms so my parents let me go to public school. R didn’t have a choice and I have to wonder, looking back, what that says about my family. Certainly it strengthened my conviction I was an outsider, but in a way that made me feel I had some power. I got to go where I wanted, R could deal with the nuns and their disciplinary rulers (at the time word was if you didn’t behave the nuns would whack you on your backside with their rulers. True? Who knows?)

Being in contact with my mom is not pretty. It might, in part, be one of the many reasons I am finally able to write. Because what I am seeing is bringing up feelings so overpowering I don’t even know who to talk to about them, at least not in any kind of depth. Timed three-minute AA or AlAnon shares doesn’t do it, the culture I see at my small office is concerning, and I am trying too hard to to understand this to be distracted by anyone who might make some off-the-cuff suggestion that might too easily cause me to think that I am making a big deal out of nothing or that I need more compassion because my mom is elderly. It has been too long since I’ve been able to sit and face what is happening and while talking has its place, writing is how I discover.

My mom is a social creature. Before I hear, “we all are,” let’s agree there are degrees. I am introverted, my mother is not. When I was growing up, she used to work for my Uncle M at his lumberyard. Even after he closed it years ago there were still things she did for him, right up until a few months ago when we took her car away. I never thought much about what she did to keep herself busy, even after my dad died. We led separate lives in separate states and interactions with her were awkward if not painful. I never cut her out of my life, but I did keep it to a minimum. Having to be in contact more lately has given me a look into her life and it’s painful. I see now my mom kept herself busy shopping and meeting friends, getting her hair and nails done weekly. Other than watching TV, she has no interests, She doesn’t read nor does she have any hobbies. She takes great pride in her appearance and in discussing her mental deterioration with others who need to know what to look for, I have heard, ‘What are you talking about? She looks terrific!.”

Maybe this helps to answer the question my mother posed: What do you want from me? I want you to show me. How am I supposed to live? How do I love? What matters, what truly matters? How, at 64, how do I live a life that will make me understand it was worth it, that I figured out what matters? Because I am not going to find it in my hair or nails or the skin I resent for wrinkling. And I am not going to find it from my mom who has always been disappointed in me – my hair, my hands, my face, my feet, my choices. And now, rather than condescend to her because of what I consider her vapid choices – I am falling apart because even though people come and regularly take her out, even though she has more friends and contacts than I do, what she mostly does is watch TV and talk about how boring life is. Her biggest pleasure is being told how good she looks and is this really what it’s come down to for her? And what have I learned? Sure, I’m “different.” I’ve no interest in manicures or pedicures. I do love clothes, get my hair done every three or four months and yes, I love it when I’m told I look younger than my years. But what else? I spend my days working, then going home and reading. I love my daughter as much as I can, keep her in mind always, find ways to show her my love. But there are ways in life I’ve given up and there are things about the kind of life I want to live that I try not to think about, that I’m frightened to consider because I believe it’s not possible. Am I really no different than my mother?

© 2022 Denise Smyth