I’ve about got the routine down. On Monday mornings, I leave my warm bed at 0’dark:ten and dress quickly. Smudge doesn’t mind missing her full morning scratch as long as I feed her. I say goodbye to my cat and go upstairs. Silently pushing open Mama’s bedroom door, I step into the sauna that is her sanctum at night and listen for her breathing. Hearing the snuffle that accompanies every fourth or fifth quiet intake of breath, I whisper “see you tomorrow,” and back out of the room, pulling the door shut. I pick up my overnight bag, the one my father gave my mother in 1940, at the front door and step out into the crisp autumn air, locking the door behind me.
I descend the hill into fog, and drive to my favorite of the many espresso kiosks downtown and pick up my low-fat, half-caff latte. They know my order by now. I’m ascending the on-ramp of I-5 at 5:45.
I roll along through the fog with the trucks, sipping my latte and listening to my recorded book. Across the prairie, the sky begins to lighten subtly. A few weeks ago the sun rose across the ground fog behind Mt. Rainier here, but now it’s mostly just dark and the fog reaches into the tops of the tall, ghostly firs. I’m looking forward to the brief return of light at this beautiful spot when the time changes. Traffic picks up through the curves in Tacoma and Fife and doesn’t really let up until I exit I-5 at Tukwila, switching to SR 99, where I can breathe again. I am not a fan of claustrophobic heavy interstate traffic. If there were any other way to get to Seattle efficiently, I would. Not that the interstate is efficient; the 85 miles take 2 hours and 15 minutes, most anytime other than Sunday mornings.
At 8:00 I arrive at my daughter and daughter-in-law’s apartment. Elliot is sitting on the quilt I made for him surrounded by toys. He looks up when the front door opens. His face breaks into the most amazing smile anyone has ever seen on a just-turned-8-month old. Perhaps I am biased. I put my suitcase down and swoop him up. He belly laughs.
Emma comes in with her breakfast and we chat a while. I play with Elli while she showers and dresses. Then it’s just my grandson and me for the day. I clean up the kitchen and work at my small paid job or on my writing project while Elliot takes his morning nap; its length less predictable than my morning commute. Then we play, eat, walk (to the library or the swings or the sweet grocery or nowhere in particular), eat, nap, play.
In the evening, I enjoy dinner and time with my girls; and Tuesday morning I’m there to play when Elliot gets up; until I take him to Wynne’s classroom after school lets out and I hit the interstate traffic again for the trip home. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Elliot’s Mondays seem like happy days and Tuesdays are fussy. I like to think he knows I’m leaving on Tuesday and is prematurely sad, as am I.
Mama looks up from her recliner when I unlock the front door and walk in, calling out “Is that Gretchen?” It always makes me think of Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark.” She is happy to see me. I reverse my Monday morning steps, going downstairs, dropping off my suitcase, feeding Smudge. Then go back upstairs to fix dinner, which Mama—already over being glad I’m back—will criticize as she tells me about her chronic constipation and dissatisfaction with her days (mostly about her paid morning caregiver) while I was away. She whines, I wine.
I am caregiving at both ends of life. Here is what Elliot taught me this week about my job. He fusses in complaint about the way things are for him at that moment. It is not about me. When Mama is critical or dissatisfied, she is expressing how things are for her in that moment. It is not about me any more than are Elliot’s tears. I am impatient with Mama, and that is my complaint about the way things are with me in that moment. And it is not about her. I choose to hear her complaints as about me; and my sarcasm, anger, or frustration in response is my attempt to make it about her. I have not disappointed her, she is just disappointed. If I choose to believe that, maybe I can change my response. Maybe Elliot can teach me to feel as good about myself in relationship to my mother as I do about care of him.
As I walk hand in hand with my mother and hand in hand with my grandson, the little babe shall lead.