Marc was the first boy I ever kissed. And he is my most forever friend. He suggested a book to me a few weeks ago; one I don’t think he has read, but thought the title would interest me.
When I Married My Mother, by Jo Maeder, is a memoir of a not-quite-50-year-old disk jockey who moves from New York City to “Greensbor(ing),” NC, relocating her hoarder mother from Richmond to live with her near her born-again older brother and his new southern-sweetness wife. She and her mother never had a relationship, Jo having abandoned Mama Jo as a child when she moved with her brother and father to Florida. Everything about her course adjustment stretched her far beyond her comfort zone.
What makes this book different from the many memoirs I have read on daughters caring for mothers is the author’s movement from non-relationship, to her mother becoming the love of her life. She discovered someone she never knew—a strong, funny, smart woman—because she opened herself to discovery. Other accounts of caring for aging parents have focused on how hard it is, how self-sacrificing, the relief when it’s over. They look at how society is failing the elderly, the financial and emotional challenges of incarceration in a care facility, and how frightening it is to grow old with nothing to look forward to. Those books have made me feel good about the sacrifice I am making; I am in good company. This one made me squirm.
From about midway into the book, I found myself acknowledging how very little I am doing to improve the quality of Mama’s life. I am making it possible for her to stay in her home and I am managing her life from behind the curtain—and that is huge—but I am not giving her anything to look forward to. I rationalize that although the elder Jo Maeder was farther into dementia and physical breakdown than Mama is, she could see, be outside in the sunlight, filter sound, and eat anything she wanted. I would like to let myself off the hook imagining that made it easier to engage her.
There are other differences, too, that I won’t enumerate. But a big one is that she was grateful for someone else to take care of the details (including getting her out of her House of Hoard) freeing up her flagging energy to go to Drag Queen Bingo. My mama clings tenaciously to control of everything. But does she insist on letting it consume her time because she has nothing else to fill it; exhaust her energy because she doesn’t need it for anything else?
Really, none of the differences matter. This is my one life, and my one mother. What is there I can do here in this time and place with the person my mother is, if I let go of selfish control of my time? Since I started reading the book—after the point where the author experiences a subtle shift from resentment that she has to do this, to letting go of her previous self and ultimately making the care and feeding of her mother her passion—I have noticed myself being kinder to Mama, and a teensy bit more patient.
I’m looking forward to finding ways to give a little more of myself. And to see it as enriching who I am rather than eating away at my identity. It also might make me feel less like a free-loading lazy bitch when the increasing number of people ask me if I’m “off work today” because I’m in their place of business mid-day. In fact, I think I will stop dodging that question with “I work from home,” and just say “I am walking with my 97-year-old mother these days.” (And I’m not truly ever off work.)
The first step to adjusting the course is to imagine it. Thank you for the story, Marc.
A world that embraces compassionate care of their elderly is a better world in general.