aging in place, Caring for a parent, Dementia

Lessons from the Guy with the Finger

When I entered Interstate 5 in the dark at 5:40 Monday morning—the construction zone entrance with the short ramp—the middle finger of the passenger in a 1970s Chevy—junker, not vintage—hung out the fully open window as the car roared past me. I spent the next few minutes wondering what the hell I did. Perhaps the driver had to slow from 72-70 as he changed lanes behind the truck behind me. What entitled the guy to alter my day? (And no, I didn’t know for sure it was a male finger, but I honestly believe only men feel that entitlement—and would roll down the window on a cold morning to deliver it.)

Even after I decided all I had done was have the nerve to enter the freeway while other cars were on the road, I was still grumpy and disoriented in my skin—and on the road—for a few minutes. Then it came to me: How often do I (figuratively) give my mother the finger?

When I felt irritated enough Sunday morning by the large glass pot lid—the one that lives propped on its edge on the counter behind the toaster and clatters down whenever I breathe—to ask Mama if it could possibly live in a cupboard, how did the question benefit me? I know she no longer uses the pot without assistance from someone who could get the lid from the cupboard for her, but I have been irritated by it for two and a half years and never mentioned it. (I did put it in a cupboard once, but it came back out and I let it go.) I also knew voicing my irritation with it would alter her day; but I probably wasn’t thinking of that in the moment, and I stuck my finger out the window.

You may be saying, “But, Gretchen, you were just asking a question. And a perfectly reasonable one at that.” It was a reasonable question to ask a younger person, but I was asking Mama to change something she had been doing for years. At her age, she can’t do change; and I KNOW THAT. I was telling her the way she did something was wrong. Was it any more wrong than the way I entered the freeway? She had to come up with a reason the lid needed to be there, just as I tried to justify being on the freeway when I was. Although hers was an irrational reason, I said “okay.” She, and many/most/all of the old-old have to fill in the blanks in their reasoning ability. They can’t admit there is no rational reason, so they make something up.

For the next ten minutes, Mama continued to dwell on it; and I continued to assure her it was a question asked and answered and the lid could stay right where it was; sorry, then, I had mentioned it. Her only crime was to do what she’s always done—put the lid where she could see it and reach it, even though it was no longer necessary. And I gave her the finger.

As I continued whizzing up the interstate, the guy in the Chevy long gone to give the finger to other unsuspecting motorists, I realized my bad mood over the lid had nothing to do with the lid. On Saturday, I took Mama to another memorial service: a woman I remembered from my childhood, who once taught Sunday school with my mother and with whom she once served as a Deacon in the Presbyterian Church.  It made me happy she could visit with several people she knew; and that I had talked her into letting me take her. Three women asked her if she is still living at home. To each of them she gave the same answer: “Yes. Gretchen lives in the basement.” Not Yes, thanks to my daughter who irreversibly altered her life to make it possible. She even told one person that her daughters won’t let her leave. Hell yes, it put me in a bad mood!

But she is doing the best she can. She has always done the best she can. That it has never felt like quite enough to me, doesn’t change her efforts to get through the days and years however she can. And I am doing the best I can, too; and it never seems quite good enough.

And what of the guy in the car? He didn’t know I was driving from caring for my 98-year-old mother to my caregiving gig with my 10-month-old grandson. Maybe he would have been kinder had he known. And I don’t know his story. But maybe telling me his true feelings were just that—his feelings. Not his feelings about me—though he undoubtedly thought that was what he was expressing—but the acknowledgement that his life was in the toilet, and taking it out on me was the best he could do. The finger was about him, not about me.

By the time I was halfway to Olympia, I had an inkling of a lesson about giving the finger to my mother (I hesitate to say I have learned it). It is about me and my momentary inability to cope. And the dude gave me a blog post topic for this week! Thank you, Finger. I’m sorry you’re having a bad day, Man behind the Finger.

On that drive to Seattle, I finished listening to Anne Lamott’s book Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Three-quarters of the way to Olympia, her voice on the CD said (paraphrased): “Anger is like a caterpillar borrowing in the dark underground, then springing up and out into the light of day to munch on a leaf.” There it was: the man and his finger munching at me, me and the pot lid munching at Mama. I hope I have turned his finger into a butterfly.


3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Guy with the Finger”

  1. “Yes, Gretchen lives in the basement ”

    Good gawd, this makes me laugh !

    I can almost imagine your expression upon hearing those words. I love that you can keep your great sense of humor *


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