I’ve been here four years. That’s insane. My one-year commitment became a two-year commitment. The two-year commitment became a “till death do us part” commitment. But alas, lifetime commitments are not my strong suit. I’m anticipating some sort of breakup in the fifth year, or maybe a power shift. It’s time for the first lady to be president. (Oh, did I say that?)
The other night as I sat at the dining table I was overcome with loss and longing. It was a beautiful evening. I wanted to be sitting on the deck with my dinner. Instead the glass door was closed and bolted. Not a breath of air moved in the closed up room the heat pump had been chugging warmth into all day. The fir tree outside the window that my father kept trimmed up to clear the view of the valley hasn’t been cut in at least the 21 years he’s been gone, closing off the valley and sky across the table from me. The shades on the window to the right of the tree were closed against the bright light that hurts Mama’s eyes, even though the the windows are at her back. A flower basket hangs from the corner eaves and blocks the mountain through the window to the left. I was hemmed in, trapped in Mama’s web of need and control.
After four years it is only outside that I feel at home. I stand under the perfectly formed canopy of one of the loaded apple trees that has finally found its shape after two prunings in the past three years, following years of neglect. I look up at the still-green orbs, the sunlight filtering through the leaves. If I feel trapped in the house, out here I feel cocooned in safety under the arched canopy of the tree, its laden branches hanging nearly to the ground, kept trimmed by the deer.
Nearby is a scrawny magnolia tree my father planted for my southern mother years ago. It’s in a foreign land here and hasn’t done well; but he tried, it tries. About half way up is a single white bloom. I know it has a yellow center and smells like vanilla—I lived in the South for three and a half decades. But I can’t see the inner workings. The bloom is far out of reach, or I would cut it down and present it to my mother.
Can you be an expatriate in the land of your birth? Sometimes home is the most alien place of all. Maybe that’s why they say you can’t go home again. But I’m trying. Sometimes there is a hopeful blooming in the form of new understanding.
I had an aha blooming a few days ago. When I came home four years ago I naively thought my mother and I would have the relationship I always wanted with her. Of course that was magical thinking. She couldn’t let go of being my mother. I couldn’t let go of being an adolescent brat in her presence. I realized, some time ago, I needed to learn to love her just as she is, to let go of wanting her to be different. That was unsuccessful. She makes me insane. “Don’t expose your buttons,” I read (and wrote about here). “Never, ever give your aging parent access to your buttons.” Yeah, well, tell the buttons that. They live close to the surface and are non-responsive to such advice.
Back to the blooming. I’ve been trying to like my mother, trying to convince myself that her personality isn’t about me, that it’s her dementia. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But what if my goal is not to learn to love her (if that is even possible) “just as she is,” but merely to stop reacting? I’ve been thinking of the not reacting as a means to the goal, not as the goal itself, a subtle difference that be helpful here. I can continue to cling to my dislike of her neuroses like an osprey to a freshly caught fish.* I just need to stop squealing about it. (Do fish squeal? Probably not. They know when to give up.)
I just need to be where she is. A reader of this blog wrote that is what her therapist told her. But wait, I don’t want to be where she is: fearful, complaining, blaming, obsessed. Or maybe it’s not about me being where she is so much as letting her be there. I haven’t wanted her to be where she is. Surely, I’ve thought, with enough words of reason I can drag her up from the pit. But she won’t be dragged from there no matter what I say. And you can’t reason with dementia. I need to let it be okay for her to live there; but I don’t have to get in bed with her.
I’ve never been good at foreign languages, and I’ve traveled in very few foreign countries; I don’t know what made me think I could do this. But here I am, where I am needed, traveling the best I can. I’m grateful for books and blog readers who have gone before me or are here with me, and for David the dementia social worker who helps me understand the territory. They are my travel guides. I’m such a slow learner.
Starting now, letting go of my miserable failures following previous similar challenges, I’m going to see how many days I can go without trying to reason with her. I’m going to see how few words I can use, rather than giving verbal diarrhea free range. I’m starting now, right after telling her hiring someone different to do the weed-eating under the apple trees won’t help. The weed-eater is still going to be noisy and smelly and she will still have trouble hearing on the phone if someone happens to call during that annual two-hour task.
I fail my resolve within 24 hours when she won’t even taste the perfectly cooked sweet corn with small kernels just as she likes it because it came from Safeway and not right from the field.
Maybe I’ll measure victory in hours rather than days. But I will win this challenge. I’ll keep you posted.
*If you aren’t one of the 13-million viewers of the BBC video of the osprey catching a fish, watch it here. Amazing footage of a Mother Nature moment.