Today, I am thankful for anal sphincters. As we learned in my Anatomy & Physiology class this week, we all have two of them–an internal and an external–and relaxation of both is [usually] required for defecation. The internal anal sphincter is made of smooth muscle and relaxes involuntarily in response to signals from the parasympathetic nervous system. Even if your brain decides it’s time to poop, you won’t until you consciously relax the skeletal muscle of the external anal sphincter. Since potty training, we’ve all relied on this two-step method to keep us tidy. And boy, do we take it for granted!
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has this bit about a toothache, how when you have a toothache, happiness = not having a toothache. But during all the other moments in our lives, when we do not have a toothache, do we equate this state with happiness?
At 5 AM this morning, I came to appreciate Hanh’s wisdom in a new way, when I awoke with tremendous intestinal distress. I never realized the beauty of those little sphincters and the happiness I enjoy when everything works flawlessly. What a flood they can contain!
Until they can’t.
This morning I shit my own bed. Just a little, but still. It was awful and humiliating and just a fraction of the malevolence my body experienced in the grip of this…food poisoning, norovirus, or whatever. I will never take those sphincters for granted again.
I ended up spending Thanksgiving Day in bed with my dog. It made me sad, watching friends post photos of Turkey Trots and get-togethers on Facebook. I was supposed to be at my sister’s house, where the presence of her fun in-laws would have provided a buffer for our usual family nonsense. And I wanted to hang with my niece, who has finally become a consistent and loving part of my life now that she’s old enough for me to communicate with directly. I eat all but a handful of meals alone every month, and I was really looking forward to a collective dinner experience. Plus I’m a shit cook, so I was psyched about eating a really great meal.
Instead, my “Thanksgiving dinner” was an egg and some applesauce when I finally felt like I could keep something down. Or rather…in.
In some ways, though, I am grateful for the intestinal intervention. My sister terrifies me, and it was a virtual certainty that I would do or say, or not do or not say, something that would incur her wrath–if not now, then passive aggressively months in the future. I was nervous about the day going well, which probably did not help my digestion–or the terrible food choices I made yesterday, when I was stress eating. This GI situation was a blessing in disguise.
A very, very clever toilet-paper disguise.
I am acutely aware that, even with poop on my sheets, this year’s Thanksgiving was better than last year’s. Last year, in the middle of dinner, my nephew made a fat joke at my expense. His comment hurt less than the fact that it was met with stony silence from the four adults–his parents and my parents–who also heard it. Not one of them stood up for me or took him to task in any way. There was just a slight pause, then everyone went back to eating. When I consider how my sister and I were reared, and the emphasis our parents placed on manners and deference to adults, their silence was shocking. Essentially, the message delivered to my nephew that day was, “Even though you are a child, you are not obliged to respect your aunt. Say whatever cruel things you want, we don’t care. She does not have our respect, and she doesn’t merit yours.”
It was humiliating. More humiliating, even, than being sick and getting poop on my sheets and having no one to help me clean it up.
So, this Thanksgiving will not go down as the worst in my life, because there is more to holidays than dress-up clothes and savory dishes and white linen tablecloths.
Just like there is more to dignity than successfully containing your poop. Not much more, but more: I took care of myself, I took care of my dog, and I didn’t hurt anyone. I did the best I could in a shitty (!) situation, just like those little sphincters. We’ll bounce back, all of us, and contain the flood another day.
Today I finally awoke under my own roof, in my own bed, after a whirlwind series of emotional and travel adventures. This morning, I ventured outside to walk the dog, I made coffee, and then the three of us–me, the dog, and an enormous slab of wedding cake–promptly returned to bed, where we have been ever since. Yes, I know it’s a Tuesday. But after the ten days I just had, I am taking a Sunday instead.
As my previous post indicated, my dad’s “routine” eye surgery resulted in a catastrophic outcome that took two ophthalmologic surgeons and an anesthesiologist totally by surprise. It was like driving to the grocery store and running over an IED–devastation, horror, and total shock. Suddenly, my mother’s primary caretaker was both physically incapacitated and emotionally devastated, though he was too stoic to show it overtly. My mother is slightly more demonstrative (sarcasm!), and she swung violently between compassion for my dad, fear at an uncertain future , and indiscriminate anger at various people–me, my sister, even my dad–for various infractions–patronizing her, being disrespectful, taking the front seat of the car. That last perpetrator was my dad! Returning home after two days in the hospital as a newly one-eyed man, he had the audacity to try to take the front passenger seat. (He is 6’3″ and she is 5’3″, so where she gets the idea that she should sit up front like the Queen of France, I do not know.) My mother was so focused on her own victimhood, and also having to pee (despite my sister begging her to go before she got in the car), that she completely forgot the nature of the task at hand: driving my dad home from the hospital.
It took days for the New Reality to sink into her memory, and even now she routinely forgets that my father only has sight in one eye. He can’t bend over due to concerns about the pressure in his eye. He can’t see out of one eye, so his depth perception is fucked up, undermining his ability to perform routine tasks. His meds have been changed, and his tremor is worse, so sometimes he can barely feed himself. He can’t drive. He is in pain. And for days, his eyelid and surrounding tissues were swollen and black. Not the red and purple people mean when they say “a black eye,” but LITERALLY black. The sclera (white of the eye) is still cherry red, and he literally weeps blood. And my mother looks him right in the face, without recognition of any of this, and chastises him for not being able to help her pick specks of dog food off the carpet or go to the store to get her the right kind of cereal.
Fuck you, Alzheimer’s!
My dad’s surgery was on a Thursday nearly two weeks ago. My sister called with The News about 3 PM, and it’s been crazy ever since. I packed myself in 10 minutes, drove across town to drop the dog at my parents’ apartment, then pushed on to the hospital, where I stayed with my mother until 10 PM that night. The next day, we were back at the hospital by 9:30 AM, an epic feat considering that Alzheimer’s has completely ruined my mother’s executive function. She cannot plan and complete a task, so the simple request that she dress herself and eat some cereal drifted into efforts to clean the apartment, organize a cabinet, and repair a tear to the newspaper. It’s like having a toddler, but a toddler who weighs 130 pounds, knows they are legally an adult, and can push your buttons like nobody’s business.
We took my dad home that night, and I stayed over to attend to him. The next day, my sister and I worked in shifts, which enabled me to escape for a bit. I went to my friend’s bridal fitting, and then we visited a mall to buy makeup like Fancy Ladies. We are bad at malls, and I will write about this excursion at some other point. $260 worth of makeup later (WTF!), I headed back to the loony bin to spend another night with my folks.
I spent Monday & Tuesday grinding out a big project, Wednesday I got caught up on the anatomy of the heart and blood vessels for the class I’m taking, and Thursday I had an all-day meeting in the city. Thursday night I went back to my folks’, stayed over, then left Friday morning at the crack of dawn to fly to New England for my cousin’s funeral. Two days of celebrating my cousin’s life, crying at his grave, and catching up with extended family, then back on the plane to fly home. (More on this later.) I went straight from the airport to my friend’s open house on the eve of her wedding. Then back to my parents’ apartment, where I had stashed the dog but was also supervising my dad’s care. This brings us to Sunday.
My friend married the love of her life two days ago, and it was a wonderful day from start to finish. I had some drama with my parents in the morning but was finally able to extract myself around noon and head to my friend’s house to help with wedding prep. It was a day of firsts–I made my first bridal bouquet and my first groom’s boutonnière, and I did my first-ever bridal up-do. It all came together beautifully, though thankfully the bride’s aesthetic was “you tried hard, and it will look good from a distance.” The party went late, as all good parties do, and I finally arrived back at my parents’ apartment at 2 AM yesterday. I awoke about two hours later in extreme pain. The booze I consumed at the wedding must have anesthetized me from feeling the damage I was doing to my body by being on my feet in peep toe stilettos for 8 straight hours. My toes looked like sausages, my feet and ankles were swollen and sore, and I felt like I was 150 years old. As of today, the swelling is down in all but two toes, but those little piggies remain completely numb.
Bad at malls, also bad at high heels!
A few more hours of fitful sleep, and then I was up and out, Ubering to retrieve my car across town, running errands for my folks, assembling post-wedding flower bouquets for display at my parents’ retirement home, walking their neighbor’s dog, and then finally
driving myself and my pup HOME.
As an introvert, I need a lot of downtime after being around people in emotionally charged situations, whether they are sad or angry or exuberant and joyful. I have had all of these in the last ten days, and I am spent. The list of creatures I can stand to deal with is currently counted on one hand: my dog, a few dear friends, and another piece of wedding cake.
I was so worried about the possible return of my dad’s melanoma (biopsy result: negative) that I never saw it coming: the routine, outpatient cataract surgery.
It’s never good when your sister calls, and the first thing she says is, “Dad is still alive.” Because if that’s the metric by which you’re measuring good news, then the news is gonna suck.
My dad is a cardiac patient–never had a heart attack, but his brother has had two. My dad takes a blood thinner, blood pressure medication, and a statin for cholesterol. I learned recently that he walks around with nitroglycerin pills. A doctor I went on a first-date with described my dad’s complex of pathologies as a “ticking time bomb.”
The bomb didn’t go off, but it did start hissing and steaming right on the operating table. My dad’s BP spiked partway through the procedure, and a blood vessel burst in the back of his eye, forcing the eyeball forward and causing a bunch of delicate tissues to shift and collapse. The surgeon did something, and then he did something else, and then he had to snip some teeny ligament and stitch his eyelid closed. I can’t quite recall all the details. They packed the eye with gauze and put a big clear plastic bandage over it, like a window, so you can see the swelling and bruising peeking out behind the gauze. As I rushed to the hospital (I was on second shift, supposed to spend the night with my parents and drive them to the routine followup appointment tomorrow), I texted my sister to see if she’d seen him and find out how he looked.
“Like hell,” was her answer. She was not exaggerating.
They admitted him, and he slept most of the day. While he was sleeping, my sister mentioned that she thought no one had actually told him his prognosis. She had been there since 6:30 AM, so she left after about 13 hours, and I did the late shift with my mom. She had a million questions, and every time we told her, it was emotionally wrenching because the Alzheimer’s wiped her memory clean every goddam time.
And then my dad finally woke up, and I fed him grapes and jello, and he started asking questions too.
Today I had to tell my father that he is very likely blind in one eye and may never drive a car again. I only had to tell him once. I must have told my mom 20 times.
This is my new baseline for a shitty day, I think.
J* told me once that hospitals are full of families who never thought they would be there when they woke up that morning. Today that family was us. I am grateful my dad is cognitively ok, that he did not have a heart attack or stroke, and that he still has one good eye. That is not the standard by which I originally planned to measure this day, but I suppose it’s good enough going forward.
Plans are firming up to take my mom to my cousin’s memorial service next month. My father gets a pass, because he will be recovering from cataract surgery. So our party will consist of me, my sister, her two children, my mother, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which is so intrusive, it needs its own suitcase.
Last night, I went over the plan with my parents–well, with my dad while my mom looked on:
The dog and I will stay overnight with them and help my mom pack in the evening.
The next morning, the dog will stay with my dad, and I will drive my mom & I to an out-of-town airport (cheaper flight) at the asscrack of dawn.
We will meet my sister and her two children at the airport and fly to a city close to the rural memorial service.
We will get in about 9:30 AM, rent two cars, and drive to the beach. (My mom loves the ocean and doesn’t get to see it much.)
Burial service that afternoon, memorial service the next day.
We are all staying in an Air BnB, along with my weird uncle.
My mom really struggled with the rental-house concept. “I don’t want to stay in someone’s house,” she said initially. Later, it became clear that she understood the concept of “rooms” only in the context of “hotel rooms,” and she became confused and angry at the thought of my nephew sleeping on a couch.
“He’ll be all by himself?” she asked plaintively, over and over. I think maybe she was picturing him in a hotel lobby. Who knows.
The other problem with this plan is that we know–including the kids (ages 11 and 14)–that my cousin killed himself. But there are some relatives–we’re not sure which ones–who do not know. My cousin’s widow apparently wants to keep up the fiction that an athletic, 49 year old man with Crohn’s disease mysteriously dropped dead, out of the blue, in his own home. Among those who don’t know, and are not supposed to know, are a bunch of kids. So, we now have to have The Talk with my nephew, rather like Jewish parents do with their children about Santa: “You cannot say anything to the other kids.”
My niece is rock-solid, unswayed by peer pressure or a desire to impress. My nephew is more of a joiner, and I could see him divulging if he was trying to impress an older kid, but I think fear of punishment will keep him in check. The wildcard is my mom. She can’t remember anything, including, increasingly, my name. (She often cycles through several possibilities–dog, niece, sister–before remembering the name she gave to me.) She will undoubtedly ask, “What is this?” or “What are we doing here?” repeatedly (as in, every 2-5 minutes) while we are at the burial and memorial services. She will very likely forget that my cousin is dead and ask after him to his father and widow, at his funeral. (This happened at another funeral she attended. It is very awkward.) And she will likely announce, with a parrot-like vigor, “B* killed himself, right?”
She kept doing this last night, as though we were playing trivia, and she finally got an answer right.
“He’s dead, right?”
“And he killed himself, right?”
The show “Roseanne” (which I LOVE) got many things about family life exactly right, including what it is like to deal with elderly relatives in times of grief.
If you have this exchange more than a few times, all of the appropriate emotions–shock, horror, grief–get displaced by frustration, irritation, and a fervent desire to end the interaction. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has told my mother the circumstances of my cousin’s death: he shot himself with his own gun a few hours (not the next day, as I first thought) after being released from a psychiatric hospital. His wife found him when she got home from work.
(If you’re wondering what kind of psychiatric hospital releases an in-patient with suicidal thoughts into his own custody, without even notifying his spouse, when there is a gun in play, the possible answers are: A) The one my cousin was in hours before he shot himself; B) The one I hope his widow sues the fuck out of; C) Both A and B.)
When you really sit with it, the horror is breathtaking. Maybe I should thank Alzheimer’s for turning my cousin’s suicide into just another incidental detail, like who is running for president or what Mom needs at the drugstore. My mother writes information like this down on sticky notes, and we find them everywhere–on mirrors, lining every cabinet door, inside every pocket. There is no emotion with it, just cold information: “Cough drops, Shampoo, B*’s death. Suicide. Need paper towels.” And, just like a Post-It, none of it sticks.
If a tree commits suicide in a forest, and no one ever talks about it, did it really happen?
The irony here is that the silence and stigma surrounding my cousin’s suicide is mirrored perfectly by the silence and stigma surrounding my mother’s dementia. My cousin’s wife feels that it is disparaging of her husband’s memory to acknowledge that the pain of his depression and Crohn’s, braided one into the other, eventually became too much to bear. And my mother is mortified that she has committed the grave sin of contracting a fatal brain disease, while my father is in denial about her cognitive abilities. Just last night, he excoriated her for not knowing what kind of coffee–regular or decaf?–she put in the coffeemaker. Of all the things she cannot remember–who’s dead, where she lives, whether she has grandchildren–he thinks that’s information she’s got filed and ready for retrieval??? Regardless of the context, my mother’s condition is a Dirty Family Secret.
My sister is coming around to the idea that we should be more open, even with strangers, but she treads more lightly than me. I am pretty upfront about it, if my mom isn’t within earshot, because people are kinder and more helpful if they know what’s up. Like, for instance, the post-op nurse who kept giving instructions to my mom, but not also to me, about caring for my dad after his hernia surgery. Or the ladies we lunched with at a friend’s birthday party, who treated my mother like furniture because they didn’t know what to make of her inability to remember the finer details of the table’s smalltalk.
Gate agents, flight attendants, waitstaff, funeral guests…together my mother and I will run a gantlet of socially awkward encounters perched always on the edge of rage. This trip is shaping up to be one of the longest, strangest weekends of my life. Only the walk on the beach will afford a moment’s rest and contemplation, when the sound of the waves drowns out the yammering questions brought forth by my mother’s disease.
And the brisk winds focus her attention on seashells and grandchildren and the gorgeous feeling of bare toes in wet sand.
And the vastness of the sea brings all our little tragedies down to size.
Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
The last 24 hours have been trying, to say the least.
Yesterday, my friend and neighbor Damon passed away suddenly–accidental overdose–at age 23. Damon lived two doors down from me, just 16 feet away. He died in his friend’s house, just five doors, or eighty feet, in the other direction. I have never seen so much grief confined in such a small space.
I am friends with Damon’s whole family, though it is complicated. His mother was my friend Ana, whom I wrote about in an early post, and whose death two years ago simply gutted me. Damon, her youngest son, struggled mightily after she died, though he had struggled long before that too. Damon’s father sexually assaulted me in February of last year, and I did not set foot in their home again until yesterday. Damon’s sisters, with whom I am friends, have no idea about the attack, though I know they became aware of their father’s obsession with me. We never talk about it. Their father leaves me alone, but I sometimes catch him staring at me. The look of hate in his eyes chills me to the bone.
And then there are the girls, three of them, and the little boy–ages 14, 11, 8, and 2. They are Damon’s nieces and nephew. They help me in my garden, I take them for walks, we do crafts and sing songs. I love them. My concern for them was a large part of why I never filed a police report. (I also was under the impression the father/grandfather was moving home to Central America.)
As I said, it’s complicated. And that made a terrible day all the more trying.
Yesterday I held a shuddering, sobbing 8 year old on the sidewalk and coached her into deep breaths and a happy memory of her uncle. Yesterday I listened to an 11 year old girl tell her friend about seeing her uncle’s lifeless form, all purple and swollen, because he died alone and no one found him for hours. Yesterday I heard a 2 year old boy, a child I have never heard utter a coherent sentence before, say “Damon dead” over and over and over to no one in particular. Yesterday I watched a solemn procession of family members, dozens of them, file past my house on their way home after watching this boy’s body get carted off by the coroner, a full six hours after 911 was called. And then last night, after midnight, I walked my dog and looked up at the house where Damon died. The front window was alit, shades up, revealing the homeowner–a woman in her 70s who still works full-time as a nurse to support the ne’er-do-well, 20-something grandchildren who sponge off of her–mopping the floor where Damon’s body had lay. Her grandson stood there watching her blankly, doing nothing to help.
It was a perfect snapshot of the whole, grim situation of drugs in my neighborhood: powerless young men, overwhelmed and numb, doing nothing while devastated women clean up their mess.
Yes, yesterday was an awful day. And today is not much better.
But, like a lot of awful days, it has provided clarity in three important areas:
1] In this midst of Damon’s tragic death, I am acutely aware that I am not a sociopath, and that I am not emotionally dead inside either. I was really starting to wonder. But no. I am heartbroken. And angry. Because addiction is a vicious disease.
2] I spoke with J* last night, and it was terrible. Something broke between us this summer, and I don’t know how to mend it. I still care for him, still want him in my life, but I find myself increasingly empowered to draw lines and limits, as does he. We’ve both set so many tripwires, there is no longer any safe ground to walk.
3] My family is seriously fucked up! I get confused sometimes into thinking that I’m the asshole and that they are just nice, normal people. And mostly they are. But they have… issues. Let’s call it “emotional rigidity.” Whatever it is, it’s fucked up!
Last night I received an email from my dad, of an email from my uncle, of an email from my cousin’s wife, explaining that my cousin is suicidal, he survived a previous suicide attempt, and he has been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. Over email, my sister and father decided that the “ethics” of how they learned about this situation superseded the urgent necessity of providing emotional support to my cousin and his wife. That is, they felt my uncle never should have told them, ergo they will pretend they do not know.
But wait, there’s more! In my email reply to my sister and dad, I wrote,
“It’s been a shitty day all around. My friend Damon died of a drug overdose today. He was 23. They don’t make greeting cards for this stuff, they really don’t.”
And both my sister and my father responded to this information… by not saying anything at all. Not “I’m sorry” or “that’s really sad.” Nothing. Not one word. *crickets*
What. The. Fuck.
I ignored my sister & dad’s “decision” that our family will pretend we don’t know about my cousin’s mental illness and wrote to his wife anyway. She has already replied with a hearty thanks: vindication. If Damon’s death points anywhere, it’s toward being relentless in reaching out to one another. I will regret that I did not do more to help him for the rest of my life.
In the midst of this, I am on a deadline for a relatively lucrative writing gig with a publishing house in London. I am behind, and on the brink of being fired. I got email from my editor today demanding, “Where is this? and “Where is that?” Today I wrote to Damon’s sisters, I wrote to my cousin’s wife, I hugged sobbing women, I raised money for funeral costs, I sat with a neighbor going through chemo. A young man lay on the sidewalk, weeping inconsolably, outside my house this morning.
It feels like there is a hole in the world, and all I have is words to fill it.
So I’m sorry, mean English editor lady. I’ll write for you tomorrow.
Its modern American founder, Anna Jarvis, campaigned to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in the 1910s, and she went so far as to trademark the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day” as she did so. The position of the apostrophe was quite deliberate. “Mothers Day” implies celebration of mothers en masse or the concept of motherhood in general. “Mothers’ Day” implies a day for mothers as a collective. Ms. Jarvis wanted a day on which individual families would convene to honor their individual mothers, giving the holiday a distinctly individualistic and personalized flavor.
It’s a lovely idea. But that apostrophe is also responsible for a lot of angst, especially in the age of social media.
While I have dedicated no shortage of space on this blog to complainingaboutmy mother (I know, it’s so original), I have always observed Mother’s Day with, at the very least, a card and a phone call. Since my parents moved nearby three years ago, I have also endeavored to give my mother meaningful experiences for Mother’s Day, whether she will remember them or not. (She doesn’t.) Today, for example, my sister, my niece, and I took my mother to a local botanical garden for a long walk in gorgeous weather, then out to lunch at a local market. I gave her a handmade card, and I spent $50 on Korean tacos. The only deficiency in this year’s observance was my failure to give her a handmade card from the dog. She didn’t notice, because she had the actual dog. At one point on the walk, they both laid down in warm grass with yellow flowers, and my mother laughed and laughed as the dog lolled beside her. It was nice to see her happy when she is in so much pain.
I have never minded performing these rituals, and I still don’t. What I mind is the public performance of Mother’s Day on social media, which has metastasized into two virulent strains of observance. I don’t know which one I find more upsetting.
First, there is the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that celebrate one’s own motherhood. At 44, I still have many friends and relatives who are in the early years of motherhood, and some of them feel the need to exclaim, loudly, about how it has shaped their lives. Goody for them! But attendant with these declarations is a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, conflation of womanhood with motherhood. Variations of “I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman until I became a mother” have saturated my Facebook newsfeed on Mother’s Day for the last few years.
From the perspective of the childless woman–whether due to infertility, the death of a child, not finding the right partner, or not wanting to be a mother–the only appropriate response to this pastel narcissism is, “Go fuck yourself.”
The other offending strain of Mother’s Day observance is entirely inoffensive, and yet, somehow more hurtful. It involves the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that declare one’s own mother to be thebest mother. Today, fully 95% of my Facebook newsfeed consists of photographs old and new, with declarations of love and thanks to mothers for what sound like magical childhoods. Profound sacrifices, shared confidences, shared adventures, unconditional love–these are the themes that animate my friends’ posts.
I am glad for them, that their mothers embodied the ideal. But I am left wondering, too. Are their mothers really that great? Or are my friends just better than I am at presenting a happy face to the world? Am I the asshole here?
Families are mysterious organisms, and because we spend our lives enclosed within perhaps just one or two, it is hard to know what is “normal.” Take violence, for example. What is an appropriate amount of violence within a parent-child relationship? All my life, I thought I knew. And then one day, when I was 28 years old, I learned that I had no idea.
Ellen was a new friend, but we hit it off so well that people who just met us assumed we had known each other for years. As new friends do, we spent a lot of time sharing our stories, including those of our families. I don’t remember what I was telling Ellen about my life growing up, but I will never forget the look on her face or the incredulity in her voice when I mentioned something about my mother’s discipline.
“Your mother hit you?” she asked, as though the concept was completely foreign to her.
I resented the implication that there was anything wrong with how I was raised, so I immediately sprang to my mom’s defense. “Well, no, she would just, you know, like, lose it. And then, WHAM”–I smashed my right hand through the air and tossed my head back to signal the impact–“right across the face.”
In my mind, I thought I was tempering the severity of the outbursts, which were frequent throughout my childhood but also totally unpredictable. My mother did not hit me as rational means of dispensing discipline, because there was no order or predictability to when she would lash out. She hit me when she needed to hit someone. And she only stopped hitting me when I got taller than her, in about 8th grade. One day she went to hit me, and I grabbed her wrist mid-smash. I held her arm firmly in the air, looked her dead in the eye, and said sternly, “If you ever hit me again, I will hit you back.” I was bluffing–I have never hit anyone, ever–but it worked. She never struck me again.
It took another 15 years for me to understand what that meant: there was nothing righteous about her anger towards me; she only hit me because she could not regulate her emotions; there was no perfect way I could behave that would not eventually incur her wrath; and the only way I could make her stop hitting me was to threaten her. My friend Ellen’s reaction helped me to untangle this.
“Your mother hit you in the face!?” Ellen exclaimed, even more aghast. What I thought was a mitigating detail was, for her, the final indictment. Not only had Ellen’s mother never struck her in the face, her mother had never struck her at all. Here, I was thinking my childhood was normal, but to Ellen, I might as well have grown up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. And to me, her childhood–and especially her relationship with her mother–seemed like a fantasy.
Actually, it seemed like a Hallmark card, one of those with the trifold and the florid script. And that’s why I tend to make my own Mother’s Day cards, because it is so hard to find a store-bought one that doesn’t force a bitter laugh.
I have no idea what is normal. I have no idea what goes on in other people’s families. I have no idea whether people who claim their mom is their best friend (whut?) or their biggest supporter or their greatest source of inspiration are really telling the truth. I hope so! But that’s not my situation. I haven’t spent much time alone with my mother since leaving for college. She is not my friend, and I have learned to carefully tailor the information I provide her about my life. She is sometimes a source of support, but just as often she has undermined my self-confidence and -esteem. She loves me, but not unconditionally.
Still, I am lucky. My mother worked hard to provide a nice life for our family. She taught me to be well-mannered and considerate of other people. She encouraged excellence in school and at work. She never abused alcohol or drugs, and she never hit me with anything other than her hands. She taught me how to take care of elderly parents. If it seems like I am damning with faint praise, it is because this is the unqualified list of traits I can offer. But still–I could have done worse. Much, much worse.
A long time ago, I visited a run-down community museum where schoolchildren’s poetry substituted for actual artistic and historic content. Elementary school students had obviously been asked to write poems about their mothers, and the little scraps of paper hanging on the museum’s walls were silly and touching, as you might expect. There was a line in one of the poems, though, that to this day stays with me, because it so elegantly captures the simplicity and ambivalence of Mother’s Day–and mothers–for people like me:
My mother is my mother
And I love her.
That’s really all there is to it. It’s not the individualized and personalized celebration of one’s own mother that Anna Jarvis envisioned when she slipped that apostrophe into Mother’s Day. But it is honest and sincere. Maybe next year I will post it on Facebook.
Last night I got the saddest, scariest email from my dad. My parents were dog-sitting a terrier named Oliver for some neighbors in their retirement community. Everything was going well. My mother took Oliver for a walk, and then she returned to the apartment…
I asked her where Oliver was and she did not know what I was talking about. I pressed her, and she vaguely recalled taking him out but did not know where he was or what she had done with him.
When I read this, my heart fell into my stomach. More precisely, I had three simultaneous reactions:
Terror: What the fuck did she do with the dog??? My parents frequently take care of my dog, who is often the only thing tethering me to this life. What is there to keep my mom from losing my dog too?
Vindication: Every time I visit my parents, there is a fight about this very issue. I will not let my mother walk my dog until she proves that she has her cell phone on her and that it is turned on. I am terrified that my mom will get lost and not be able to find her way back. At least if she has the phone…well, let’s be honest, it just means that a kindly stranger who searches her person might be able to call us, because my mom often looks at her phone like it’s a moon rock. Anyway, every time–Every. Single. Time.–it is a struggle to find the phone. We have a locator device for this purpose, but sometimes I have to search the pockets of a dozen sweaters and jackets in the closet before the phone turns up. Meanwhile, my mother becomes enraged at the implication that she is not capable of walking a dog without intervention. She hurls accusations–you think I’m a blithering idiot, you don’t respect me, you don’t love me–but, every time, I stand firm. And every time, I end up feeling like an asshole. Not anymore.
Sadness: Beyond sad. For my mom, for me, but mostly for my dad, who is losing his love of 50+ years one missing cell phone/purse/dog at a time. He sounds so defeated. When I asked him how he felt about her decline, he said, “Well, I guess it’s just part of the marriage deal.”
What happened? He thought she would be ok walking the dog by herself, and he just wanted 20 minutes alone to go to the dining room to fetch their dinner in peace.
I already cannot allow her to go to the dining room alone. She goes with a list that says buy A, B, and C but brings home X, Y, and Z. Or she becomes confused by the menu offerings or gets into an argument with the manager over whether or not corn is a vegetable. Her short-term memory loss seems to be escalating. Today she had no idea what to do with the trash or recycling. Her world is shrinking by the day.
And she knows it. That is the horror of Alzheimer’s Disease. Initially, at least, you know the totality of what you don’t know. It must be terrifying, like waking up stupid-hungover in a strange place with no idea how you got there–several times a day. Being around my mom is kind of like the movie “Groundhog Day,” except that her story doesn’t reset after 24 hours. It resets every couple of minutes, and when it does, she’s lost your dog.
I can’t tell which is the greater fear–that my mom will lose my dog or kill her altogether. My mom likes to sneak my dog people food as a form of rebellion against what she imagines to be my dictatorial rule. But we’re not talking about bits of cheese or meat, we’re talking about slabs of chocolate cake so large they would kill my 12-pound pup. Despite loving my dog immensely, my mom has also looked right at her and said, “Whose dog is that?” One time my mom tried to return my dog to a neighbor’s apartment, but thankfully my dad caught her in time. So, with good reason, I live in fear that I will lose my dog at my mother’s hand. And then I will lose my family, because I will never be able to forgive her for that.
It turns out that Oliver’s owners returned home while my mom was walking him, and they ran into each other outside. Oliver was surely glad to see his mommy and daddy, and my mom enthusiastically handed him over. Then she returned to her apartment–which is a goddam miracle in and of itself, because at some undetermined point in the future, she won’t be able to find it anymore. By the time she rode the elevator one floor and walked perhaps 60 paces to her front door, she forgot not only that she had returned Oliver, but that he had ever existed in the first place.
As far as my mom was concerned, the world was born the moment she walked in the door.