Passing the Mantle may be a misrepresentation of what really is happening here; it implies intention on my mother’s part that is not present, at least not overtly. Slipping the Mantle, Seizing the Mantle, Surrendering the Mantle, Sneaking the Mantle might be more to the point.
Mama has not willingly given up control. But three years into this gig, I am getting her number: if I gradually and quietly sneak it from her, she will gradually and quietly slip it to me. When I arrived, I wanted to immediately cut the branches on the fir tree that my father always kept trimmed in order to see the mountain. “No.” They have continued to grow, closing in our lives and obliterating my view into the world beyond. Maybe when the new blinds come, I will revisit it.
I wanted to clean out kitchen cupboards of things no longer used, making space for my own familiar things. “No.” She needed to know where the things she used were. But the 24 sherbet dishes? Really? Then, after the three-year mark passed, after long ago silently relocating the unused rice cooker and electric frying pan to storage to make room for at least my pots, Mama, out of the blue, says she doesn’t need all her pans and skillets. I got right on it. Two years ago, I was scolded for moving the sherbet dishes to a top shelf so I could unpack and use my own plates, but she got over it, after I moved the cream pitchers back to the bottom. Maybe this winter I will again attempt to silently move the dishes and the china teacups to a box. The list goes on.
My mother and I are not much alike, but we do both like to do things our own way—and that causes conflict. And we both crave solitude. She doesn’t like her day filled with people; which makes scheduling the village a challenge for me. It also means I don’t feel guilty not spending the afternoons with her when paid help has spent the morning.
It was a hard sell to get her to accept a caregiver a few months after my arrival, in part because she didn’t think she needed one. After all she had me, right? But it was that or the highway for one of us. And if I left, she would have had to as well. She has acclimated, and I am learning to pick my battles.
I wonder, though, if it was entirely that she didn’t want someone around, or she didn’t want to pay someone, or she didn’t think she had tasks to keep them busy—all reasons she expressed. I wonder if she feels all these cheerful, helpful people have taken away her control over her life by the fact of their necessity. And I, her own flesh and blood, am the ring leader.
Would she have surrendered control more easily—perhaps with the relief I hoped she would feel here—if she weren’t in her own home? Was it the right decision?
My mother was a nomad the first 35 years of her life. Her family of origin moved every couple years, staying ahead of the creditors. Between leaving home and the end of the war, she lived in seven homes in three years. Then in four more before moving to our current home. Her dream, she has told me, was to stay in one place—one house. And she has been here for 55 years—”more than 60,” I have heard her tell people, stretching reality. She said she had wanted to leave, but really I think being here is as essential to her living as water is to a fish.
I think I have done the right thing in making it possible for her to stay. I hope I have done the right thing for myself. I am learning to balance our competing needs. I am gradually taking control of the big things: hiring people for home maintenance; and making decisions on a new heating system, but waiting until it was her idea. As I do the tasks she took control of when my father died—I think she is proud she did that, she should be—she has begun abdicating the kitchen work, not even putting her own dishes in the dishwasher. I’m not sure why, but it feels like something other than inability to me.
I could do more, make her breakfast—which she increasingly has trouble with. I have offered, she has refused. I don’t push, though I hold my breath. And when she despairs or complains when it doesn’t turn out well, I need to not jump in with the fix, “I’ll cook breakfast for you”; but say, “I bet it will go better next time.” I need to not empty the dishwasher because I can do it in four minutes while I cook dinner, and it takes her an hour and sometimes she forgets to do it until I’m in the kitchen.
How many times did she tell me my first months here, “I need to do what I still can.” But I wanted to take over because it was easier for me to just do it; as if the task was more important than her feeling useful.
There are things I must take control of, but a big part of my job—in spite of the frustration—is to help her stay in control of what she can. Again, not unlike raising a child. (See more on that in last week’s post.) The day is coming, I see it on the horizon, veiled by the fir branches, when everything will fall to me. I both welcome and dread that day.
Leaves don’t drop they just let go
And make a space for seeds to grow
And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain —Carrie Newcomer
P.S. Our three months of hospice is coming to an end. The nurse this week seems virtually certain she can get Mama re-certified for services: her weight has dropped (kinda sorta), I report that she is wobblier when she gets out of a chair, and she is letting go of some control—perhaps a perception that life is winding down. Whatever. We will take it. Are we beating the Medicare system? An old-old can be in decline even though her heart still beats, her bones refuse to break, neither cancer nor stroke have laid her low? Quality of life is as worth paying for as medical intervention at life’s end, but only if it can be disguised as medical intervention. When will we ever learn? (More about that in this post.)
Today’s Wordless Wednesday on my website is a metaphor of my life as Daughter on Duty. You can view it here if you wish. Writing Down the Story.