Last weekend I took Mama to visit her friend in the assisted living residence where Mama might be living had I not come home. The highway interchange on the route has been under construction for some time and has been different every time we’ve visited. Mama can’t see it, but it feels unfamiliar and she has questions about it each time. Finally completed on this visit, the route to the Residence is not changed, other than having two traffic lights within a few feet of each other.
“Is this the route to the hospital?” Mama asks.
“Yeeesss,” I say, drawing out the syllable, in a legato of exasperation, as if I am an adolescent speaking to an obtuse parent. The hospital hasn’t moved, why is she asking this question?
“How do the ambulances get through here in a hurry?”
A friend who cares for her mother—and for her father before his death—has told me several times she survives by pretending they are someone else’s parents. I haven’t achieved that self-deception, but I understand her strategy. I have, however, (almost) learned (sometimes) to take a pause—a selah—before I respond to Mama’s (in my perception) crazy questions. But I haven’t learned to use the breath well. What the hell? goes through my mind during the deep breath, or I have no idea what she is asking, or why, or how to respond.
I take a breath now, then say exactly what I would have said without the selah: “They turn on their sirens, just like they do at any red light.” The “duh” is implied in my tone. Helpful, Gretchen, way to go, I berate myself. My stomach clenches in a familiar way. Why do I let her get to me? Why can’t I be kind?
“And then they go on through the red light,” she says; it is a statement not a question.
I take my breath and say, “Right,” without rolling my eyes. She doesn’t make my stomach clench, I do.
We drive the rest of the way in silence. She didn’t need to ask that question, my mean self says. She’s old, my self-loathing self says; her brain doesn’t work, she just forgot in the moment and she no longer knows to ask herself the question before she says it out loud. Give her a break.
I’m letting myself fall into the rabbit hole with her. And then it comes to me like a blast of wind in my sails: I’m not using my selah correctly. It’s taken three years and three months to get it. Okay, not quite accurate: I climb out of the hole from time to time, make adjustments in my attitude, and then everything changes with another step deeper into the abyss. Cognitive dysfunction waits for no woman, and I’m not keeping up. They don’t call it continuing education for nothing.
Now I ask myself: What if one of my young grandsons asked me a question. How would I respond, and what would be my tone? What if I used the breath to imagine it is my grandchild asking the question?
As if to punctuate my learning, I was in Staples later that day, and a father and his young son were looking at hole punchers behind me. “Can it go through paper?” the boy asked. His father did not say, “Of course it does, it wouldn’t be a hole punch if it didn’t.” He just said, “Yes! It does!” Question asked, question answered. I would have answered the same way, if it had been a child asking.
I have resisted the oft spoken platitude that the elderly are just like children. They are not children, they have a whole history of experience and knowledge behind them. But brains fail, sections go dark. My mother is missing many things she learned long ago. The effect is the same as a child’s brain: she doesn’t have the information, but she is (still) aware enough to ask me to supply it. Unlike children, rather than learning, over time she will add to what she has forgotten.
For three years, I have been caught in the waves, struggling to navigate rough waters with a woman who is simultaneously child-like and still trying to be parent to the child, neither of which is who I want her to be nor the relationship I long for. But I don’t get to choose. She is who she is. My job is to keep my own rudder straight.
What’s past is gone, what is to come cannot be anticipated. What I have is this one moment, this one breath. Selah. Respond with love, as if to a stranger. Selah. Or a child. Selah. Or my mother.