The book I’m currently reading (well, one of them, I’m down to a low of two as of yesterday), compares old age to post-traumatic stress disorder. The author says the stories of the old are PTSD stories. “[They] don’t suddenly develop bad personalities; they are overwhelmed by events” (Mary Pipher, Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders).
As I listened to my mother talking to someone on the phone the other day, and heard told yet again the story of how “an overdose of medication in the hospital ruined her vision,” I thought about Pipher’s statement. It really doesn’t matter that four doctors have told her the med had no long term effect (and it was almost five months ago), it is her story of explanation for ongoing deterioration and she is sticking to it. If she needs an explanation and this is what she has chosen, who am I to disabuse her of it (and God knows I have tried, to no avail).
We have fallen back into the stomach issue the past few days (it is the reason she was in the hospital in September and before that in May). I fear crisis onset, my own PTSD kicking in. “Maybe it’s because of the Miralax”: either because she is taking it or because she is not taking it (which, no matter what I－or her doctor－say to encourage her to always take it and always in the same amount, she goes back and forth with and keeps changing the amount). Or the scallops we had at her request on Wednesday－she got sick on scallops several years ago. Or because we had meatloaf on Thursday, which she enthusiastically agreed to, but now casts aspersions on because she isn’t used to a lot of beef. Her “belly just doesn’t feel normal.” She gave a Mona Lisa smile when I asked what normal would feel like and admitted it hasn’t been normal for years－like 30 years. I saw no point in suggesting that maybe this is the new normal. I just said I was sorry.
She wanted soup last night, bland soup. And if there wasn’t any Campbell’s chicken broth she would use water. There wasn’t, but she finally agreed to the broth from free-range chickens in the cardboard carton, though questioning that it might have preservatives in it that Campbell’s wouldn’t have because it’s in a can. (She believes that she is “allergic” to preservatives.) She nearly rejected the rice that was in the freezer, because she had never frozen rice; and the chicken bits saved for soup that I brought up from the freezer because the chicken came ready-cooked from the grocery store and they put stuff on it when they roast it.
I have become desensitized to discussions of bowel movements: whether or not they are moving, where she is when they do, and the quality and quantity of the output. Even while standing in the kitchen preparing a meal. Or eating a meal. She talks about what she knows. Pipher says, “Illness is the battleground of old age. It is where we all make our last stand. It is the World War, the Great Depression,” the hurricane, the flood, the tornado. “Like all PTSD victims, the old are interested in trauma stories. They talk to work through the trauma. They talk because health issues are the fast-breaking disaster story. As [Bruno] Bettelheim said, ‘That which cannot be talked about cannot be put to rest.'” Would that talking about it would put it to rest.
Mama is far from home in an unfamiliar ocean on a sinking ship. What she is looking for is someone to get in the life raft with her. I suppose my arguing logic with her is tantamount to a refusal to join her in the raft. And so when she tells people on the phone about how the hospital took her vision from her she is looking for someone who will at least pretend to share her outrage, which tells her that they care, that they will get in the raft.
Pipher says that near the end, what the old need most is an intuitive listener who will help them make good decisions. Success in that goal, I think, means starting with where she is, however ridiculous. It is a learning and growing experience, for which I hope to emerge a better person. My family are the people in my boat; it is with them that I travel through life. The sea is not always smooth. Sometimes the sails are full and sometimes even the paddle goes overboard. What I can do is keep my eyes on the compass, pay attention to the map, and make adjustments when I stray off course.