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Six blackberries in plastic wrap. Teabags used “only” once. A quarter block of frozen marzipan, best before February, 2014. My mother grew up during the war so she has always been a saver. Lately, though, I’ve noticed smaller and smaller things saved in her house.
It’s not just food. I’ve found a pipe cleaner my then-preschooler twisted into an unrecognizable shape she called a bunny. An empty baby food jar from when I was a baby. A coffee can from before Canada went metric. My dried-up umbilical stump.
For more than a month, I’ve been staying with my mother, trying to help her sell her house so she can move closer to where I live. In a lot of ways, it’s been terrible for both of us.
Not only is it overwhelming to go through all her stuff, I know my mom isn’t thrilled about the idea of leaving the three-bedroom house she’s lived in for 40 years and moving to an apartment on the other side of the country. I’m tearing her away from close friends, from roads she knows, from activities she participates in, from my father’s grave. It’s my fault for having moved away years ago and we both know it.
It’s not easy for me either. I’m on leave from my job, away from my husband and, for the past little while, away from my young kids. As my mom and I excavate the detritus of our family’s past, especially now that it’s just the two of us, in some ways it’s been all too easy to fall into the patterns of my adolescence. My mom does my laundry without telling me. I snap at her too easily and retreat to my room to be moody alone.
In other ways, although, we’re forging a new relationship. I say “forging” because it’s being shaped through heavy whacks. These days, I often have to parent my mother. And it hurts.
I hated having to make my mom a list of tasks to accomplish at the bank – then checking to make sure everything got completed. I hated going through her myriad belongings with her, item by item, to determine what to keep. I hated it even more when I asked her to go through her underwear on her own, only to find she couldn’t do it without me.
I know a lot of families have it worse. My mother doesn’t technically have dementia. She has what the gerontologist called mild cognitive impairment. Though MCI does put her at higher risk for developing dementia, she is for now capable of living more or less independently – which is good, because she’s adamant she doesn’t want to live with us. She still cooks, gardens and paints. She keeps her house clean, is fit for her age and has no trouble recognizing her friends and family.
If anything, I’m the one having problems recognizing my mother. How can my mom be the woman who muses about buying my husband beer for his upcoming visit when he already came and went, taking the kids with him? Who is this old lady who seems so tired? My mom used to be renowned in her circle for her indefatigability, so it’s unnerving to see her nodding off in the middle of the day as she sometimes does now.
There are times when my mom seems totally back to her old self. It takes me off my guard, so when things slip without warning, I react as though she’s doing it on purpose or through willful carelessness.
I know it’s unfair of me to get mad at my mom for losing important papers, for rehashing conversations we just had, for forgetting to do things she said she’d do. My anger is really against age, dying neurons, fate, the universe or something like that. But without a definable target, I too often speak harshly to my mom. Then I feel guilty and apologize. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Despite her outwardly meek demeanour, I grew up knowing there was steel at my mom’s core. She immigrated to a foreign country – twice. In adulthood, she learned English, learned to shovel snow, learned to drive. She studied and became quite an expert at many forms of art. And when she unexpectedly got pregnant at an age when some of her friends were becoming grandmothers, she swore she’d keep me even if my father left (he didn’t).
Now, the woman who shuttled me all over town has given up driving, not because she had to but because the seniors’ assessment she was referred to sounded like too much trouble. The mother who taught me the value of continuing education now has trouble learning simple card games my kids try to teach her. Like the packets of food in her fridge, her world is shrinking. And I’m making it shrink to apartment size.
I don’t always feel certain I’m doing the right thing. When I encourage her to let go of some of her dishes and knickknacks, I don’t know if she’ll end up missing them and blaming me. I don’t know if her house will sell for a decent enough price to secure her financial future. I don’t know if I’ll manage to find movers who’ll treat her things with care.
There are so many unknowns, the biggest of which is her health and how it may change. But over all, my mom and I agree – at least most of the time – that moving her to my neighbourhood is the least bad option for her foreseeable future and now is the time to do it.
With the move, my family and I will be able to see my mom multiple times a week instead of once or twice a year. I’ll be able to take her to the doctor, supermarket, bank or any other place she needs help navigating. My kids will hear their heritage language more regularly, so maybe they’ll make more effort to respond in kind. Even if they don’t, their emotional closeness to their grandma should increase.
Moving is hard, especially for someone my mom’s age. I don’t know if the unfamiliar environment will result in greater confusion or depression. But I hope it results in many more years of used teabags on the counter in her new place. And if I find tiny packets of berries in her fridge, I hope I’ll have enough grace to gently remind her to eat them before they go bad but not judge her if they do.
Karen MacKay lives in Kitchener, Ont.