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

Reckoning Part 1

(I am posting this in two parts as after I finished it, it seemed too long.)

Of course everything changes. Since I’m here for ten days I figured the constant would be spending early mornings in this rocking chair by the bay, thinking and writing. When I was sitting here earlier it seemed money would be the thing today.  Then it all got twisted – phone calls from both last night and this morning haven’t changed the fact that I need to deal with money but have pissed me off so I’m not sure how to begin. And it pulls in so many situations, with so many people…the bay is still here, the clouds both harmless and threatening, I’m still rocking in my chair, trying to breathe. Serenity cannot be forced.

I’ve lots of fear around money which tells me I haven’t a whole lot of faith. I don’t mean the kind of faith that says “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.” Because my definition of “all right” in any given situation might not be what is so. That doesn’t mean the outcome was wrong, just different. If I insist only my way is correct I’m in for a world of sorrow, disappointment and rage. A better definition of faith is, “I will be able to handle this and there is help to ask for if I need it.” I’d do well to stick with that when it comes to money. Of course, that also requires my willingness to admit I need help and the humility to ask for it. I prefer to do things on my own. I have an attitude of “who needs you?” born from needing to take care of myself best as I could since I was a kid. Early example: first day of Kindergarten meant all us little ones were brought to the school cafeteria and assigned to tables based on who our new teacher was to be. I walked in happy and confident and looked around at the myriad of crying kids clinging to their parents. What babies, I thought. Who cries over their parents? I took my seat at the head of the table and never looked back.

By 5-years-old I’d learned the value of “not needing,” which was really a survival skill. It’s also a hindrance as no person is an island. Insisting that’s true requires denial and self-deception. But back to money, and to start with, Alzheimer’s. My mom’s Alzheimer’s has forced my brother and I to look at her finances. My mom has always been independent . My dad died nine year ago and she’s been living in their single family home since. She has a family friend who sees to any repairs that she might need. She has a car, so she comes and goes as she pleases.  My brother and I have never been on top of her finances but there was never a need to be. She’s got Social Security and a couple of pensions from my dad. She has my uncle M (her brother) who (we thought) she could rely on who lives close by, and another decades-old friend who’s an accountant who helps her pay her bills and file her taxes.

A friend of Maria’s here at the shore has met my mom and adores her. You probably would, too. You didn’t grow up with her. She’s a friendly old lady who looks terrific for her age and that has big cachet. But not as big as it drawbacks. Last April my mom spent $800 at her hairdresser, which doesn’t include the $200 gift certificate given her as a birthday present that month. That is an outrageous amount for someone on a small fixed income. She goes to her hairdresser every Friday – for all she forgets from Alzheimer’s, that she never does. I’m sure it’s because she’s been doing it for decades. I called her hairdresser to set limits. Then there’s her nails. We found out she’d been going two – three times a week to get tips put on at $80 a pop, going home and pulling them off, forgetting she did so and going back a day or two later and doing it again. My mom’s friend M reported this to me, and told me the woman at the nail salon kept trying to talk my mom into a simple and less expensive manicure but my mom became belligerent and insisted on her tips. I went to the salon and spoke to the owner myself, then had to tell my mom no more. She didn’t believe me, insisted she didn’t pull them off, insisted she wanted her tips.

My brother and I have since had to take her car away as both her GP and Neurologist say she can no longer drive. In case we needed proof, R pulled the car out of the garage a few weeks after we took her keys away and discovered a huge dent in the driver’s side fender that went from the top of the hood to under the bumper, along with a hole in the fender. She didn’t know it was there. And when R brought the car to the body shop to appraise the damage, the mechanic asked if we also wanted to fix the dent on the passenger side, the one we we hadn’t noticed. 

We’ve hired a companion who drives my mom around and who has instructions that she is only to get a manicure and only once a week. We’ve been working with a senior advisor to set up a trust so she can get Medicaid which will pay for home care in a way that her Medicare won’t. We are working to get her the VA benefits she’s entitled to since my dad was a veteran during the Korean War. We’ve had to look into her reverse mortgage which means her crazy expensive one-family-semi-attached-home-with-a-tiny-concrete-backyard is worth a fraction of its value to her since she spent most of what it’s worth. I don’t exactly understand reverse mortgages, don’t want to. All I know is money I thought would be available to take care of her in her old age should she need it is not there. Neither is what I also thought would be both my and my brother’s inheritance.

Talking about inheriting is embarrassing. When I think about it I automatically look at it from the outside in, meaning what it is you all (whoever “you-all” might be) will think of me. That I am callous and greedy. That my mom has Alzheimer’s and I am worrying about the wrong things. It doesn’t, of course, matter what anyone thinks. It matters that I look from the inside out, at what is driving the way I react. This is a tough one – a really, really tough one – because there is a lot of pain here, pain I’ve managed to put off dealing with because I never thought I’d be in the position of having to deal with my mother in this way. I come from what people call “good genes.” My family is pretty healthy and for whatever my uncles who’ve passed have died from, no one has gotten Alzheimer’s. I just assumed one day my mom would die, my brother and I would sell the house and split the money. And not that it would be a terribly lot of money, but enough that I could finally buy something for myself somewhere that I’d actually want to live.

Next, Part 2

© 2022 Denise Smyth