The other day, when I went upstairs to start dinner, Mama was resting in her recliner. I sat down on the sofa beside her, took her hand, and acknowledged that she seemed low that day. In fact, she had seemed low for several days.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m depressed, I guess,” she said. It’s hardly unusual that she is depressed, but it isn’t like her to let those particular words out. I considered it a healthy development.
“Can you say what that’s about?” I asked.
“I can’t do anything.”
“That must be very disheartening,” I agreed. Then, in a stroke of what I thought was genius, hoping to encourage positive talk, I said brightly, “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?”
She thought a moment, then, with a droop in her mouth and a slight shrug, said, “Organize, I guess.”
I was speechless. Really. Nothing came out of my gaping mouth for a long moment. Finally I said, “I think doing nothing is as good an option as that! You wouldn’t want to go for a walk on a mountain?”
“Not this time of year!” she said, as if it were a ludicrous suggestion.
“What about on your mountain,” I said, not mentioning that season is immaterial when one is dreaming, “your hill that you live on?”
“Oh,” she said, without agreeing that would be nice, cutting off the conversation. So much for dreaming, so much for positivity. I slumped, deflated.
I read stories of family caregivers who feel lucky to have had time with a parent and honored to have been there to care for them. Are there any memoirs by those of us who find the work less than rewarding? Perhaps we are ashamed of ourselves for not being able to “do it better”; maybe we fear judgement. Most of us live by the notion that if we can’t say something nice, say nothing. I assume that’s why no one writes about it, not because I live on an island.
I have been judged by a few, but mostly I judge myself. After nearly three years, shouldn’t I be doing this better? Have I no compassion for what sadness and fear my mother at almost 99 and all but blind and deaf must be experiencing? On a good day, I tell myself I am doing it better than I was three years ago. I’m far from perfect, I wish I were better, but I’m still here walking with her. And I do have compassion. But all the compassion in the world can’t make her younger, can’t restore her eyesight, can’t make her happier, can’t make food taste good, can’t relieve her constipation.
On bad days, I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to make her happy; for not giving over every waking moment to trying. I know I am a good person, so why am I not like those beautiful, caring daughters who write memoirs and post on Facebook about this “amazing opportunity”? So here it is: I believe much (not all) of the difference is not with the caregiver, but rather with the person they care for. Some people bring out the best in us, some challenge us to the quick. My mother is who she has always been; her personality is dementia-magnified, but not altered. And I respond to her the way I always have: with frustration and dismissal. I am working to rise above that dynamic. My work is to fix me, not her.
But back to the inability to dream. I did a quick search of constipation as a behavior, not just a bowel condition, and found what I hypothesized: “Many constipated individuals are likely to be constipated in other areas of their lives. It may be in relationships, finances, fear, anxiety, and even spirituality.” Indeed, when Mama lets go of her poop, she is usually happier for a day or two, letting go of some emotional waste as well. But which constipation comes first?
I wonder if hoarders are constipated: they can’t let it go. Perhaps when Mama said she wanted to “organize,” she meant get rid of stuff, become less constipated in her living. Sadly, organizing to her rarely includes letting go of stuff; she mostly likes to move it around. “Put that over there, I’ll deal with it later,” she has told me when I try to help her. As I look around this house she and my father built 55 years ago, it is clear holding on has long been her MO, and constipation has become a chronic condition.
As I write this, I realize I didn’t meet her where she was when I asked my “what would you do” question. I clung to my expectation of what her response should have been. I needed my brilliant idea, to move her to happy thoughts, to work. I envisioned a conversation to follow, maybe about hikes she took in her Smoky Mountains with my father. Maybe my speechlessness was my own constipation: my own holding on to who I want her to be.
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FYI: I googled “constipated behavior” and a few days later know-it-all Facebook shared information with me about the proper position to poop. It seems the Tanzanian “choo” (squatting over a hole in the ground) has it right: legs bent with the knees at 90º is not conducive to expulsion. Prop feet on a stool for a 35° angle, the western equivalent of a squat. I wonder if I should share that with Mama.