Caring for a parent


Living with the old-old has a way of flinging you into your own old age at time-warp speed. And if the old-old is your mother, and you are living in your childhood home, it also hurls you back to childhood. I’m getting whiplash.

with mama
Mama and me.

Spending the days learning along with Mama how to navigate this swiftly flowing river, I cannot pretend that my boat is far behind hers. How long will I be able to do the things I love? Will I be so discouraged with what I can’t do that I don’t figure out what I can do? Will I put such a high premium on independence that I won’t ask for help when help could make my living easier? Will I be so stuck in the way I’ve always done it that I won’t try new ways when the old no longer work? Will I be deeper into dementia than my mother is, or have a less able body? Will I have the resources she has?

I know the answer to that last question: no. The rest is mystery.

Much about living with Mama can be compared to raising children. Whenever I sneak upstairs to my favorite corner chair in the window overlooking the sky and the valley to read or write or nap while she naps, I am flung to a bygone time. I did the same thing when my children napped; it was my much needed time for renewal. Nicholas was an especially light sleeper, so I didn’t make a sound in our tiny apartment when he slept. And when I heard him start to stir or whimper, especially if it hadn’t been very long, I would think, “I’m not ready, it wasn’t enough.” Truth is, it’s never enough. Then or now.

Trying to prepare meals Mama will eat. Taking time on errands to get her into and out of the car. And, oh God, repeating myself over and over. I find myself wanting to say, “See if you can remember what I said the other ten times you asked that question.” But of course I don’t; unlike a child, she would remember if she could.

And unlike children, old people “have long lives and thousands of experiences, accomplishments, habits and responsibilities behind them, and they’re loath to let go… Ancient mental patterns have worn deep grooves, and most people are stuck there” (Eleanor Cooney, Death in Slow Motion: My Mother’s Descent into Alzheimer’s). And of course my own ancient patterns butt up against hers and create fresh frustrations.

Family of four.

Why do I get so irritated when she goes to the store with Michelle and buys things we already have or that are on my list to get that same day at my weekly grocery trip? And why does my head, if not my mouth, go to sarcasm when she tells me what to cook for her irritated stomach, and always to cook it soft, and not dry? I think I know. Because she doesn’t trust me to “do it right.” Just like she never did. And because she still thinks her way is the only right way. And because I am still trying to please her. And I am acerbic (or sassy she would have called it) just like I always was because now she can’t send me to my room. It’s perversely satisfying to get away with it.

Cooney says, “You lose your memory, too. You develop a sort of amnesia… You can’t remember the whole person.” That one is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I forget that she has dementia because it isn’t as obvious as it is in some of the old-old, and I argue with her irrationality; and I try to solve problems and get irritated when they don’t stay solved. But it is pointless to argue, it may be pointless to try to fix things. The disease has limited her ability to see another way. On the other edge, as Cooney says, I forget that she wasn’t always like this; I forget the whole person. Did I ever know the whole person? It’s like that game we played on the lawn among the dandelions and bumble bees: freeze tag. My father was permanently tagged almost 18 years ago, his personality is frozen in my memory. His brief years of quiet decline nearly forgotten. My mother gets tagged and then unfrozen as a different person; then tagged and then unfrozen again, and again, and again. With each unfreezing she is a little less who she used to be.

with mama at Rainier
Family of five.

I was looking for a photo today and ran across some of my mother and me in years I don’t remember. The photos help me let her out from behind the dim looking glass just a little bit. I can see her, but I can’t quite get to her, the present is so in my face. Maybe these years will fade when she is gone and the glass into the past will be more clear. And there were lost years, too. The years, precious few of them, between when her children all left home and before she and my father started to decline. I was on the other side of the country raising my own children. What were those years like for her?

“Time doesn’t pass; time grows. Time doesn’t slip docilely behind you and vanish. It accumulates. Piles up somewhere, and waits for you to find it again. Maybe death is simply being reunited with the whole of one’s experience” (a novel I read recently).

3 thoughts on “Whiplash”

  1. Your musings and observations – and the lovely skill with which you write them – do such a wonderful job of naming the strange place we certain-aged ones now find ourselves with regard to parents. I don’t know how you find the strength and patience to live in it daily, but I admire you immensely for journeying with your mother as you are and I’m very glad you are sharing these reflections along the way. xo


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