Four Years an Expat

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.

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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.

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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.)

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Osprey fishing at Takhlakh Lake, Mt. Adams

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.

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18 thoughts on “Four Years an Expat

  1. Pingback: Bumpy with Chance of Potholes | Daughter on Duty

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  3. How about trying this…..go 1 maybe 2. hours without complaining in your mind? I don’t mean this in any dismissive or judgmental manner….it’s something I have practiced for years in order to survive working in a governmental bureaucracy….I ask myself “is this a complaint?” If yes, I choose to dismiss thinking like that. It does not mean I choose to dismiss egricious behavior, it works for me. And then again, sometimes I want to pull my hair out! 😊

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    • That’s a good idea, Kathi. I have probably thought rolling my eyes was okay, because she can’t see it. But what’s in our head certainly colors our attitude—for good or bad. I’m sure the same has been said about what I write. (But I don’t think I’ll stop that. It’s the story until and unless I really and truly am struck by Glenda the Good’s wand.) Thank you for your thoughts.

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  4. The Guest House is one of my favorites….thank you Gheeta…and Donna your comments were so so insightful and empathic.
    Gretchen, please have compassion for yourself and your mother. You are really hanging in there, and you demonstrate exceptional self reflection. Don’t be so hard on yourself….each moment is a new beginning….the Buddhists call it beginners mind….the Christians scripture says forgive 70 times 70….surrender….we can’t change anyone but ourselves..everything is an inside job. You and your mother are perfect teachers for one another….what we resist persists.
    Your word pictures are extraordinary….letting us in on the landscape of your heart and your mind. Thank you….and nature is calling you..let her nourish you each day…the valley, the mountain….

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    • Compassion for self is sometimes the hardest, right? Haha, I practice the beginner’s mind every week at yoga, after some eight years of it. Good reminder. Thank you, Beth. My mother taught me to love nature. Such a gift; so needed now.

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  5. I wish I had something helpful to share with you, Gretchen. I empathize with you in so much of your current experience, having been through something similar with my mother (though she was not old-old) for as many years as you, as I’ve shared before. I was never able to crack this nut: maintaining myself and my sanity, though I tried many things. My victories were sometimes measured in mere breaths rather than hours or days. That’s not an exaggeration because sometimes it was so hard to breathe through her abuse, whining, screaming, and narcissism.

    I can relate to the feeling of being hemmed in and suffocated, not only by the constraints of caregiving but also the shut doors, windows, and shades. Perhaps that desire/need to keep things closed is merely a function of worn-out eyes and malfunctioning body temperature because even my father-in-law, an utterly uncontrolling person who loved the outdoors his whole life, cranked the furnace well over 80 degrees and kept the windows closed year-round, suffocating the rest of us! (He died at 104 after a looooong decline but a short illness.)

    Despite my sorry lack of helpful suggestions today, I guess what I want you to know is that I — and I’m sure many other regular readers — are standing vigil with you, albeit at a distance. We, too, have beaten our heads against this wall that doesn’t always give, but we eventually came out the other side, some of us worse for wear, some not, all of us confused and wiser at the same time. No neat packages to regard and many loose ends. Life! Sometimes you just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all!

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    • “Victories measured in breaths.” So. True. To know that people stand in solidarity is often all that is needed. A friend’s voice rings in my head, “This is not your forever.” I continue to want to make my mother’s forever—because it is hers—have some measure of happiness. And maybe that happiness is only to be found in letting her be, hard as that is. That is the gift I can give. And to continue to take care of myself at the same time. For me, this week, that means a few hours with my grandchildren and a few days with a writing friend in her island home. Yay!

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      • So glad you are able to be with your grandchildren! So glad you are finding respite in writing get-aways! You are on my mind often and I miss you. Keep breathing — one breath at a time.

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  6. Your comments about your travel guides reminded me of the “Guest House” poem by Rumi (below). As always, thank you for the honest with which you speak:

    The Guest House

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    As an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    A teaching story translated by Coleman Barks © by owner. provided at no charge for educational purposes

    https://allpoetry.com/poem/8534703-The-Guest-House-by-Mewlana-Jalaluddin-Rumi

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    • Thank you, Gheeta. This poem used to be taped inside my pocket calendar (years ago). Thank you for reminding me of it. May Sarton called the dark thoughts, the shame, the malice, the Furies, and invited them to the table. All is part of who we are, but they don’t get to set up shop. Thank you for the poem, thanking you writing here. ❤

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  7. Pingback: Corrected Link: Four Years an Expat | Writing Down the Story

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