Selah—A Pause Before Speaking

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.

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22 thoughts on “Selah—A Pause Before Speaking

  1. Gretchen,

    A little late to this post. It stirs up so much for me, because I am living it as well. I have days where I feel totally trapped, where all I can think is “why me”. If it were not for my husband, I honestly would have a hard time pulling myself out of those dark places.

    I told someone recently, that until my mom came to be in my care, I was actually entertaining the idea of devoting myself to some real service. My husband and I talked about how and where we could make this happen. Well, I got my wish, and right on my own home turf, and with my very own flesh and blood. Not what I had in mind. “Why is that?”, I ask myself. Why is it so hard to muster up the love and compassion for her, versus someone I don’t know? Well, the answer is complicated, and the reality is different from what I had imagined. Heh….I don’t call the shots….DUH.

    I think it does help (as someone suggested) to blow off steam, to just let the anger and frustration out. When I do that with my mom, she seems surprised, but it does seem to wake her up a bit….remind her of what I might be going through, that I am to be considered. And, she does try harder afterwards….at least for a little while.

    I so appreciate your honesty, and the time and effort you take to share your journey here. If it is any consolation, you really do provide a service for many of us. Thank you so much for that. And may tomorrow be a better day. I am thinking of you, and your mom and sending love your way. XO

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    • Why is it easier to care for a stranger? I think it’s uncomplicated–there’s no history; they don’t push your buttons, nor you theirs; there’s no investment in outcome; neither of you is trying to make up for past hurts; you don’t take your work home with you. And if you are caring for a stranger, you can quit. 😀

      I’m so glad for readers that hear their story in mine. You all help me. Thank you, Clare, for saying so. I am thinking of you and your mom and sending love to you, too!

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      • Oh, I don’t think it does help for me to blow off steam. It makes my mom feel bad, but it doesn’t change anything, because in the end, she just thinks I have a problem. :-/ She doesn’t seem to understand that perhaps she needs to change something, or that she has the power to change the situation, or that she should have to.

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  2. We can all use, may I say, ‘my job is to keep my own rudder straight’. I just watched a recreation of noahs ark on pbs…so appropriate! Thanks, all, for great insights! So much of this sounds like me growing up…i had to leave home to realize the love, and i have learned to love the story of how my mother came to be who she was…my father less but still its so. Thanks for all you are, G!

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  3. I appreciate you not backing away from the com-plain-tation (made up word) that arises in you. It’s honest…like a form of lament. I wonder too, as I do with my Dad who is caregiving for my ill mom, when he barks/snarls/kvetches…what the ache of desire is behind his discontent? I think perhaps anger, disappointment, having what we doesn’t want…are all inflection points with desire behind them. My humble thoughts…Thanks so much for your transparency.

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    • Love your coined word. And yeah, as I wrote this piece, I felt myself hanging my mean-girl self out there for all the world. Whatever. All the enemies are in the trench, including ourselves. And how can we not be disappointed, at least some of the time, with the hand we’ve been dealt? We are human. My mother has never forgiven herself for that when it came to caring for her own mother, more than 25 years after her death (at 99). Who does that serve?

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    • You might have to wait for the book on that one. 😉 I’m only beginning to figure it out. Probably a relationship I never had, with a person she can never be. The details of that, I don’t know enough to articulate at this point.

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      • Do you ever let yourself get mad out loud..?
        I mean loud so that she hears you being mad? Its totally ok once in a while. Let the daughter be heard.

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      • Oh yes, Kathi. I have reduced her to tears with my anger; after which she tells me I need “anger management training.” (She has no idea what that is or what it’s for.) It’s news to her that it’s healthier to let anger out than to bottle it up, which is her modus operandi–and has been mine in the past. She can’t let my anger be okay. (She sent me to my room when I was a child.) Lots of history there. And now is probably not the time to set it on a different course.

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  4. First of all I love reading your posts Gretchen. This is about taking care of a parent but I could relate to it in many ways regarding a relationship I had. This man was and is a wonderful man. Past 65 as am I. I was in an off and on relationship with him for 3-4 years. I tried to make it work but he was an undiagnosed adult on the Autism spectrum. He was on the Asperger side of Autism. I tried to learn all I could about how to understand how his mind worked so that we could have a relationship – a romantic one. I finally gave up because I never could stop wanting him to be the kind of man I was wanting. I couldn’t stop being impatient with explaining things that should have been understood by most people. I couldn’t stop being stressed because he had to know exactly what the “plan” was step by step in details and needing answers to how long something would take. I didn’t understand his melt downs and many other things at first. Even after I learned as much about why he was the way he was it didn’t help me from becoming exasperated with him. I finally broke off the relationship when I figured out how much it was hurting him. You can’t break off you relationship with your mother but perhaps something will come up where you will have to figure out with your siblings what is best for everyone. Maybe that is to continue what you are doing for the rest of her life. Who knows? But I feel for you. I truly do.

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    • Thank you for your story, Brenda. And for your compassionate understanding. I think exasperation is a human condition. We forgive ourselves and move on, until the next time. We are imperfect beings doing the best we can, inching toward a better place. Maybe I will get there in the time we have left together, maybe I won’t. You are right, though, at some point we have to do what it best for ourselves, or we are no good to anyone. Triage.

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  5. A friend responded to this post via email. In replying to his story, I realized something:

    What I “should” have said always seems to come to me AFTER my emotional response—the snippy sarcastic one. That’s what I’m trying to use the selah for: to let the emotional response go unspoken. It occurs to me it’s like meditating (which I also have a difficult time doing): let the interruption be there and pass through. Perhaps I can let the snippy response be in my head without judging myself for it, let it pass through, then respond with compassion to this person who isn’t the person I want her to be. Maybe, with practice, the sarcasm will no longer present its ugly head.

    Another friend told me some time ago that she asks herself, when she argues with her mother’s “logic,” if she is trying to engage the dementia brain or the one that came before. I want my mother to be her old self. I need to let her old self go. It probably takes courage for her to ask me things she may know she used to know; I need to find the same courage in myself to let her be a new person.

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  6. When my mom became ill, and her mind started to decline, I, too, found myself responding to her with annoyance and exasperation. I finally realized that I was just so damn mad she’d had the audacity to get old and sick, like, “How dare you change? How dare you start to falter and die?” That realization helped me be kinder with both her and myself, though not consistently. But I didn’t get what was underneath that anger. After she died, I was hit with full-blown panic attacks and debilitating anxiety for a good year or more, and even now, over two years later, my nervous system is still badly tweaked. With a couple of best friends taken too young, the sudden death of a brother-in-law, and both parents gone, the law of impermanence hit hard: “My god, we really DO die, which means that I’M really going to die, too! How can that be?” It seems silly for a woman of (then) 53 to think that way when the evidence is around us always, but it wasn’t till Mom died that I finally got it at bedrock level, and it scared the sh*t out of me. The illusory rug of permanence was ripped out from under my feet. I wish I could say that I’ve now peacefully accepted reality on this point. Let’s just say I’m working on it!

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    • Wow. Thank you for this, Donna. What a horrible lot of death to live with.

      And, now that you mention it, I think that fear is lurking beneath my anger, too. Maybe not that she will die and so must we all (yet), but that I will (maybe am) losing my mind, too. I’m fighting my own inevitable dementia as much as I am hers. I feel like I can deal with her death (and time may prove me wrong on that count), but not with the effects of her old age.

      Thank you for your story. All we can do is keep working on it. Right? I think we probably never “arrive.” There’s always one more thing. Perhaps that is what life is. Blessings.

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  7. Oh! this is the discussion we were having a week or so ago, huh? so hard to find compassion in my answers to my mother. so hard.

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