House of Mirrors

Somewhere in the recesses of childhood memory is a trip through the House of Mirrors at some fair. Everywhere you turn you meet yourself. The accompanists keep changing as other people drift by, sometimes walking with you, other times walking into the distance. But always you are there, the constant as you try find your way through the maze.

The past week has been one crashing dead-end after another. The mirrors are cracked. I am fractured.

This was then:

Last Wednesday, three days after Rebecca and I took Mama to visit the assisted living facility we were hoping to move her to, one of the Adult Family Homes called. They have an opening. We dropped everything and went to see it. We were impressed. And conflicted.

Some things about it we think would be better, resolving our primary concern about the larger facility—namely the 6 to 2 resident to caregiver ratio vs. 60 to 2. Rebecca and I had both been envisioning Mama sitting alone in her studio apartment waiting for someone to come to help—or entertain—her. Maybe thinking she has pushed her call button when she hasn’t. Or her call for help being ignored. Or her constant neediness becoming a wolf cry as she monopolizes the time of busy aides.

But the bedrooms at the AFH are small, and she values her privacy. The hallway—though, unlike our home, wide—is short. Mama likes to move. The large facility has an endlessly looping hallway to push the walker she may or may not be able to use again.

Two days later we took Mama to visit the AFH. She hated it. With the help of our friends at Hospice, though, my sister and I decided the AFH is the only choice. It’s what she needs now as her broken arm heals and she works to regain strength. It’s what she will need again as she continues her normal decline. The decision can’t be made on a hypothetical and short-lived return to some degree of independence.

Mama is conflicted too, and trying to make the decision hers, though I believe it is not. She isn’t rationally able to take all her needs into account.

“I could get “live-in” help,” she says to Rebecca. (She does not discuss with me, which is fine; I need to distance my conflict-of-interest self.) Of course she has live-in help, but she is aware the toll it’s taking on me, and to a lesser degree on Rebecca—we have not hesitated to tell her. She has asked all of her five caregivers if they can still work for her after she moves. They have all said yes. I let her think it for now. I don’t know what she thinks they will do, or considers the cost. But if it gets her across the bridge to believe the familiarity (though she has only know three of them for a month) will be on the other side, that’s okay by me; we’ll deal with it later. I wonder if she thinks Rebecca and I are going to abandon her. Or maybe she wants to abandon us. We’ve not been very patient lately.

I left for Seattle in the dark Monday morning, confident that Mama would be moving next week. That we would figure it out.

This is now:

I returned from Seattle last night to the news that Mama is refusing to move. She wants 24-hour care at home. She is using a need for exercise as her reason, and her belief that she can only get that at home. The fact that she wants to die being in conflict with exercise is not something she can rationally think about. Any more than the fact that she can’t exercise in this house or get outside safely, even with help, because of steps.

Oh, yes, and in the two days I was away she started using her walker again. My 100-year-old mother is going to come back from a broken shoulder.

I am sad for her. I know it has nothing to do with exercise. She doesn’t want to leave her home of more than five decades. But that is emotional, and she doesn’t do emotional, hence the other obsessions. We address the stated reasons because we have no idea how to resolve the real issue. We have told her we’ll bring her back to the house often, that at least one of us will see her every day, that friends will visit. She is not into compromises; she is digging in her heels, telling Rebecca that she “will sell the house to pay for 24-hour care…in the house.” She can’t be rational, we can’t expect her to be. She is scared. She is chasing the reflections in the mirror.

The Virginia sister is coming this week, the dates scheduled to help with the transition. Now I don’t know if there will be a transition. The Hospice nurse is coming Saturday to facilitate a family meeting. Rebecca and Mama and I are partners in the Fun House. Every few days I sense Rebecca vacillating, one day standing with me in the mirror and Mama left behind; other days with Mama while I stand alone in the distance.

A dear friend reminds me this morning that Mama needs to understand—to the degree she is able—that she is part of a family, and in a family each member’s interests must be considered in all decisions and compromises. And even if she can’t understand that, my sisters and I must. I am clear: my time is up. I have been able to do one thing for the past four and a half years—three and a half years beyond my commitment. I know what I can do next. And what I can’t do. And where the compromises are. And where they are not.

And I need to heal the relationship with my mother to the extent that I can before it’s too late. Our relationship has become adversarial. I won’t get these next months back. I need to be her daughter.