I really do try to pick my battles in the internal war I unwittingly re-engaged when I offered to come home to live with my mother. It was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission, but that was fantasy. Mothers and daughters with old wounds don’t give them up easily. We never could talk stuff through, and we aren’t about to start now, apparently; so we do battle.
I spent a childhood trying to “do it right,” and hoping to elicit praise from my mother for my attempts, until I gave up on both. No matter what, I was never going to be good enough. But, I thought, if I left my life and came here to care for her, wouldn’t that, finally, be the ultimate “right”? Wrong.
When the criticism (I’m sure she would call it a teaching moment) comes, my hackles go up just as they did when I was 15, and I lashed out at her and she told me not to “sass” her and sent me to my room. Now I try to choose what to challenge and what to let go. More and more I am able to let it go; mostly because it isn’t worth how bad I feel when I make her sad—what kind of person makes a 99-year-old sad—and it doesn’t change anything anyway.
But sometimes the challenge slips out of my mouth, like venomous snakes; then I hate myself. And once in a while I channel my inner George Hodgman (“Bettyville: a memoir”), and choose to tell her how her words make me feel; then I hate myself.
Hodgman asked his mother if he should treat her like some old woman not responsible for her words. But my mother, like his, is of a generation where feelings were not spoken of; and so the answer is, “yes”: Old women are not responsible for their words, especially if they could not be held responsible 50 years ago.
So it was the other night when I channeled George. The hospice doctor had been here earlier in the day, to re-certify us for services. For reasons unknown, Mama mentioned her helpers. “Dan does the outside work, and cleans the floors, and is helping me record stories on a tape recorder. Michelle takes me to walk at the mall, and shopping, and cleans up my bathroom messes, and makes soup and cookies.” I was pleased she was recognizing their contributions to the team. “My daughter, Gretchen,” she added without looking at me, “lives in the basement and is gone a lot.” My eyebrows rocketed toward my hairline.
That evening, after she told me Dan could take the Christmas tree out the next time he came, I did it myself. Maybe I wanted to show her—for the thousandth unrecognized time—that I was capable of “men’s work”; maybe I just was ready for it to be out. I wasn’t going to tell her I’d done it, and I didn’t think she would notice, at least until morning. But she did, right away.
“Did you take the tree out all by yourself?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes,” I said, rolling my eyes. But I didn’t stop with that as I knew I should have. It was a battle I needed to wage, maybe not right then. “It feels like you think I don’t do anything around here.”
“I don’t know why you say that, Gretchen,” she said.
I met her eyes and said in a controlled voice, “You told the doctor today I just live in the basement and I’m gone a lot. That didn’t feel good.” She started to speak and for a nano-second I thought she was going to apologize. Fantasy.
“You sure do hear things wrong,” she said. I shook my head and tapped my middle finger and thumb together—suni mudra, patience. She was sitting at the kitchen table holding a package of eye drops and the wicked-long barber shears she cut my bangs with back in the day.
“Do you need help with that?” I asked, deliberately changing the subject when she put down the drops and scissors, chalking my comment up to one more mistake. I had picked the battle, but the timing caught her off guard. In retrospect, though, there is no good timing with her.
“I’m trying to decide if I should ask you to open my eye drops for me,” she sniped then, like I was high maintenance.
“Why wouldn’t you?” I asked, picking them up from the table and cutting the top off the package, knowing she never had any intention of asking me to do it for her, because that would be to admit she needed me.
“When the nurse comes,” she said, ignoring my question, “I’ll be sure to tell her ‘Gretchen opened my eye drops for me!’ and give you lots of praise.”
“Good night,” I said sweetly, kissing her on the forehead and quickly retreating to my quarters in the basement. I did not slam the door; I’m not a complete child.
We both went to bed mad and hurt. I, hoping she wouldn’t die in the night, leaving that our last conversation; she probably hoping she would. The next day we acted like nothing happened. Because that’s what we do.
But here’s the crazy thing: since then she has been thanking me more; and genuinely, not snippy. Like maybe she is noticing what I do. Like maybe she knows I don’t have to be doing this. Like maybe she knows she’s lucky. Like maybe being grateful is something that should be voiced. Like maybe I have feelings. Fantasy.
She has to let a new idea roll around inside her before she can decide if she will embrace it or reject it. Maybe this is no different. Maybe it was okay to risk upsetting her if it brought some new awareness.
It won’t last; she will fall back to her old ways. It’s a well-worn pattern. But I’ll take what she’s offering now and be grateful. And do my own back-patting.
I’m a new soul, I came to this strange world
Hoping I could learn a bit ‘bout how to give and take
But since I came here, felt the joy and the fear
Finding myself making every possible mistake.