This week, First Person features the joys and the sorrows of mothering.
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My mom is 102 years old. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given weeks to live, maybe months. She moved into my one-bedroom apartment to spend her final days under my care.
That was seven years ago.
Recently, a friend of mine lamented that I was lucky to still have her given that her own mother died at 60. I’ve had other friends share the same sentiment with me.
But, here’s the thing – I too miss my mom. I miss the mother I had at 60, 70, 80, even 90. I miss the days before dentures and adult diapers. I miss the smell of fresh-baked cookies, strong hugs, quick wit, even a comforting bowl of soup. It’s been years since my mom has been in a kitchen. She can’t let go of her walker long enough to open a fridge. She’s also lost some of the cognitive function needed to follow a recipe.
She’s not the mother my friends look back on with longing. Nor is she the mother I look back on with longing. She’s the remarkable woman I have now. I love her. I respect her. I’m privileged and honoured that I’ve been entrusted with this important responsibility. But I’m not lucky. At least not in that romanticized, wistful way.
I miss our restaurant outings and her martinis with “extra olives” that she’d order – and actually send back – if her drink wasn’t made with vermouth. The last time we went to a restaurant was to celebrate my birthday. We arrived at 4 p.m., hoping to have an early dinner. We were gone by 4:30. I had one glass of wine. She had one Shirley Temple. But the effort it took to get my mom to the restaurant wiped her out. I took her home, made her dinner and helped her to bed. I ate later. That was my big night out. Not quite the experience my friends reminisce about.
We don’t sit around chatting over drinks like we used to, either. She can’t tolerate alcohol. I once sent her a sympathy card about it for fun. But, the day after receiving the card, she forgot she couldn’t drink any more. So, I served her white grape juice and told her it was wine. I’ve been doing that ever since. I’m not trying to trick her. I just want her to keep enjoying the experience.
My friends tell me they miss their mother and daughter talks. Guess what? I do, too. Here’s how ours play out not once, not twice, but several times a day: “One, two, three, up. Do you feel safe? Okay then walk. Hold onto your walker. Stay with your walker. Put your hand here, put the other hand there. Do you feel safe? Okay, I’m lowering your underwear. Now you can sit. Here’s the toilet paper, here are the hand wipes. Are you finished? Did you wipe? Okay, one, two, three. Wait until I have your underwear up. Okay, hold onto your walker.”
That repetition sucks the life from my brain. Yet it doesn’t even take into account the repetition I listen to. I changed the brand of bread my mom eats a couple months ago. Every single day since, sometimes twice a day, she’s told me how good this new bread is, every single day, twice a day, multiplied by 60 days.
There was a period where she spoke frequently about her stepmother (who was horrible) and the memories would cause her pain all over again. But could I get her off the subject? Never. For some reason, her brain locks onto a thought and doesn’t let go.
My mom’s mind is remarkable, but it is 102 years old. She can contribute to, and keep up with, simple conversations. She also has a terrific sense of humour. People are always amazed at how sharp she is for 102 years old. What’s interesting is that people don’t realize how much they, themselves, are doing the talking and then walk away marvelling at my mom’s mental acuity. People automatically compensate for her without even realizing it. It’s pretty sweet.
I’ve had people ask if I ever thought of putting my mom in a home. Well, yes, I have thought of the obvious. But if a caregiver hasn’t done that then there are reasons. In my case, my mom was never expected to live this long. Right now, she has true quality of life. She’s happy. She feels safe and loved. She has beaten all the odds. There’s no way that I want to break her heart at this stage of her life. So, I choose not to.
I’ve also been asked if I can get help. Yes, I can. But good help? That’s hard to come by. Fortunately I do have a really good helper. Unfortunately, she’s so good that she has a lot of other clients.
But I am not lucky, so stop saying that. When I hear it, I feel annoyed, resentful and, mostly, I feel lonely. My constant companion is one whose needs far eclipse mine. I’m rarely given a second thought.
Recently, we were out when my mom fell. As people helped her up and made sure she was okay, someone put a hand on my back and rubbed it. It restored me. Someone remembered that I, too, matter.
The deepest loneliness comes from hearing how lucky I am. When you say that, you’re grieving your loss while denying me mine. I’ve lost paid work and, with it, all the social, intellectual and creative stimulation it afforded me. I’ve lost friends who can’t navigate my schedule. I’ve lost my time. I’ve lost the freedom to plan for my future.
Every morning I open the door to Mom’s room and sniff to make sure she didn’t die overnight. Then I walk over to her and check her breathing just in case she died in the last few minutes.
I live with the internal conflict of wanting this to be over, done, finished, while at the same time, never wanting it to end. I don’t want her to die. Once this journey is over, I’ll not only go through the grief of a daughter who lost her beautiful mother, but I'll also have to face caregiver’s grief.
So feel free to tell me about your mom and share how much you miss her. But stop telling me I’m lucky. Stop denying my loss and romanticizing my reality.
Katherine Houston lives in Vancouver.