I’ve begun my gig of duo caregiving: adding weekly care of my grandson to care of my mother. I would wager a bet that not many people in this country are caring for both a 3-month-old and a 98-year-old family member, and it does feel surreal.
I left home at 6am last Thursday, picked up my trip latte, and drove the two hours in prime time commuter traffic to Seattle, accompanied only by my current recorded book and my thoughts. Kind of a ridiculous commute from one non-paying job to another, but it’s family, you know? And it was a beautiful morning as the sun came up behind Mt. Rainier and the ground mist loitered on the prairie in front of it. I left Mama alone to finish her night’s sleep and get her breakfast, and arrived at 8:00 to Elliot sleeping off his first breakfast, one mom having already left for work and the other ready to go.
Personality differences aside (and from what I know and what I have been told, Elliot, his mother, and her mother had much the same personalities: happy and easy-going), babies are not at all changed since mine were young, or since my mother’s were young for that matter. They eat, they sleep, they coo, they complain. Not that different from the old-old, now that I think about it. There are other similarities, too, but people who aren’t walking the walk often say it’s just the same. And maybe it is when the end-of-life person has regressed into dementia—those are caregiver shoes I haven’t walked in, so I don’t know. But here are some things that are monumentally different:
Elliot has a whole life ahead of him; he doesn’t know it, but I do. Mama has no idea how long she has, but she knows it’s limited. I don’t know if she thinks about that every day, but I do.
Elliot has no experience, everything is new and exciting. He is a happy participant in whatever comes his way. Mama thinks about what has gone before in everything I suggest we do and weighs risk with potential joy. If she says yes, she worries about all that could go badly and sabotages any chance of pleasure in the activity until it’s over. If nothing goes wrong, only in retrospect can she admit she enjoyed it.
Elliot has no prejudices about people, no knowledge of good and evil in the world, no regrets, no guilt, no fear. Mama has a lifetime of all the above, and it affects who she is and how she sees the world and herself in it.
Elliot is grateful for everything: milk, sleep, dry clothes, love. Of course he has no clue what gratitude is or of anything that is missing. Mama sees all that has been taken from her: vision, hearing, energy, the love of her partner, friendships, things to look forward to. She can’t see what she has because it is like an ant on a mountain.
Elliot knows no disappointment. He is content with whatever he has. And if, perchance, he is not, rectification comes swiftly. Mama is disappointed with just about everything. It is not what she remembered or what she expected. There is little room within her for satisfaction.
I think about all that Elliot and I will do together in the years to come and I can’t wait. I think about all that I can no longer do with Mama and wish for the release from feeling like I’m letting her down.
Walking with Mama in the winter of her life carries with it a truckload of baggage. Pulling all that weight is aging me before my time. I’m the daughter—the child—in this relationship; shouldn’t I feel young by comparison? I am Elliot’s grandmother; shouldn’t I feel old by comparison? I look at Mama and I see the end. I look at Elliot and I see the beginning. The old and the young dwell in my Gemini self now; and I’m grateful for the balance Elliot, in the spring of life, brings. Perhaps one day I can feel exactly my age again, which I used to think was a pretty darn good one.
Tomorrow, I will pick up my trip latte at 6am and head back to Seattle. My hours with Elliot will be dictated by his demands and needs, unlike my days with Mama that are relatively free of responsibility. But the emotional tension that holds me in a gloomy grip most days will dissipate and I will experience the world through Elliot’s optimistic and wonder-filled eyes.