My mother has a list of physical maladies she talks about to anyone who will listen: constipation, over-active bladder, poor vision, gas, difficulty breathing at night. But never does she talk about her soul-state. Her emotions are locked away, like the letters from my father, written during wartime, kept in a footlocker.
My sisters and I know she has probably lived with depression all her life, and refused to treat it because she doesn’t believe it’s a thing. Stunningly, the hospice nurse got her to agree to a low-dose antidepressant almost two weeks ago, carefully described as being for anxiety. As we settle into rainy season here in the PNW, she is sliding into her seasonal slump, making her mood even lower in the two medicated weeks. But it hasn’t been long enough for the med to have any effect.
It’s damned hard to live with someone with depression. It used to make me angry. Why can’t she just smile more? Why can’t she be happy with all that is good and beautiful in her world? She’s had a good life, where does this come from? Why didn’t she get counseling? How did my father survive it? Why can’t she be more like me? Am I making her more depressed? And—the most frightening—is she going to drag me down with her?
I do know where it came from, and that she can’t just will it away—and believing that she should be able to is why it’s untreated. Her father was an abusive alcoholic. I can only guess what the atmosphere of their home was like. In the presence of her father’s unhealthy expression of anger, she turned her own inward. Now when she is angry or frustrated, she becomes silent, perhaps emulating what I imagine was her mother’s don’t-rock-the-boat existence. Happiness is the only legitimate emotion. If you can’t be happy, be silent.
Soon after I moved home, I found a roll of negatives in a yellow metal Kodak film canister and got it developed. One of the photos was of my grandmother looking decades older than her years—eyes hollow, face drawn, no affect—at a creek with three other women. The picture makes my chest tight. She was, even then, the woman I knew her to be later—empty.
A manifestation of my mother’s depression is lack of emotion. I am aware of it now, but as I read my father’s letters, I can see clearly how long this moratorium on expressing feelings has defined her. Was she happy in his love of her? Scared, homesick, lonely, during the years of separation during the war? He keeps asking, and apparently she keeps not responding. Although he wrote frequently about his own highs and lows, he also praised her for not crying at the train station when he left for training, or at the base when she said goodbye before he went overseas. She tells me now she doesn’t remember he was so unhappy. I wonder if she drove that honesty from him, and she responded to his no-tears praise by staying closed up. She didn’t cry when he died.
It’s possible she has never in her life raised her voice in anger or frustration, other than during the long menopausal years. An insolent teenager back then, I thought I caused her unfamiliar outbursts. I wonder now, suddenly, were those tumultuous years a spewing forth of all the lost self she had shoved down into some dark recess of her soul; and carefully recapped when they were over?
She isn’t able to cope with my anger now, or to return it to me. It would be a relief to me, if she did. Sometimes I feel like I am goading her to anger. She tells my sister I need anger management therapy. She doesn’t want me to express my frustrations at being here. I’m the insolent teenager again, and she shuts down. The hospice social worker tells her, “Yes! It’s healthy to get angry.” I see on her face that she thinks he’s full of crap.
Sometimes I think she wishes I were not around, mucking up her emotion-free existence. I wonder again if I am the cause of her depression. I ask the hospice chaplain and social worker to create space for her to express how she is feeling about her life now, and me in it. They try, but report that she just says things are okay. I’m not surprised.
The other night, reading one of my father’s letters to her, he wrote—as he often did—of her pin-up-worthy picture hanging over his bunk in the barracks. I have become weary of his praise, but this particular paragraph made me smile with his love and the admiration of his mates.
So far I know the officers here in the barracks little more than by sight. Last night, while we were waiting in line for the movie, one of the officers came up and struck up a conversation. One thing led to another – he asked me if that’s my wife’s picture over my bunk. I said “yes,” with pride in my voice. And he, with awe in his voice, said “She’s beautiful! She looks like a movie star!” I thanked him and told him how heartily I agreed with him. That’s the honest truth – I swear it. There are a lot of good-looking girls stuck up around here, including a few pin-ups. But there aren’t any as good looking as the girl over my bed, I can tell you that.
I glanced up at her, struggling to get a bit of food onto her fork. Her face was blank. “Did you hear that?” I asked her. I couldn’t believe it brought no reaction. “I heard,” she said. “And nothing?” I asked incredulously. “How does it make you feel to hear that again?” “I don’t know why he liked that picture so much,” she finally said. “I wasn’t even smiling.” She resumed eating and I resumed reading, gobsmacked by her flatness.
In Bettyville, a memoir by George Hodgman, Hodgman asks his mother, “Do you want me to just treat you like some old lady who no one can hold responsible for anything or get mad at? You have your struggles, but you have to realize there are other people. I’m here, too, you know.” I don’t know about his mother, but yes, I think that is what my mother wants. I think it’s what she’s always wanted.
I try to oblige. She’s 99. She isn’t going to learn a new way of being now. The kindest thing I can do is accept her for who she is; I didn’t cause it, and I can’t fix it. Acceptance is not the same as submission. I don’t have to go with her.