I just returned from a few days at the home of my beautiful writer/artist friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, on Lummi Island, the northern-most island in the San Juan archipelago. We went to the beach, smelled the lavender, ate yummy food, sat on the porch in the early morning sun. She rode her bike. I climbed a mountain (not the one below).
And we wrote and read to each other. Astoundingly, she wanted to hear all of my first 100 pages, the account of my first year here on the hill, the year that was supposed to be the only year.
“Although my mother at 96 seemed in no danger of losing her mind, I was pretty sure by the end of a year with her, mine would be toast.
“‘Did she ask you to come?’ friends asked when I told them my plan to move across the country and into my childhood home. She did not. But no one challenged my sanity. They all knew I missed the Pacific Northwest, that it was my soul home, though I’d been gone more than three decades when I knew it was time to return. Maybe they should have staged an intervention.”
Reading my account of that year has thrown me backward into memory. Mama and I both seem so much the same now as then: she still the energizer bunny clinging to control, me still the insolent interloper wanting her to be different. And yet the subtle transforming is there on the pages. My mother’s life is spiraling downward, mine is climbing upward.
S l o w l y.
- She has stopped trying to read or watch the news, and no longer wears her glasses or uses a magnifier. We no longer make exhausting treks to Seattle to visit eye specialists. Which means she has lost hope for her vision.
- Because of vision loss, she can no longer do the laundry or get her breakfast and lunch by herself, as she could when I came. Because she can’t reheat leftovers or microwave a frozen meal anymore, my sister or I have to be here for dinner every night. (She would be a wonder if she could see.)
- She walks with a walker in the house now, and always holds someone’s arm outside. She still walks on the deck alone, but not up the driveway. She doesn’t trust her balance, and can’t see where she’s putting her feet.
- She no longer pulls weeds in the garden.
- She wears incontinence pants all the time, just in case.
- She has quietly allowed me to take over the finances, paying the bills and signing the checks, though she still asks for a balance at the bank.
- She has accepted the fact, and maybe the need, of a caregiver with regular part-time hours.
- She has stopped saying she needs to move; she would no longer qualify for assisted living, maybe she even figures she has it pretty good where she is. Her place-holding fee was returned.
- Her short-term memory is in free-fall and she is more easily confused.
- She still gives me operating and cooking instructions. And there are more foods on her “will not eat” list.
- Dan the Handy Man, who was often on her exasperation list when I came, has achieved Deity status. He has traded positions with Michelle, who was Mama’s occasional angel-caregiver and is now her regular scapegoat-caregiver.
This is journaling at its best: we write to help us figure out what we know; and when we read it months or years later, it helps us see the path we have traveled. We see that we have been making adjustments as needed, that we aren’t as stuck as it seems.
- I have two new grandchildren, and not too far away. But I can’t claim any credit for that, I guess.
- I’ve made large and small property improvements and gotten my mother’s legal, medical, and financial affairs in order.
- I have let some irritants go, like the stupid table in the kitchen that I despised for years before I came; and I can drink the water without noticing how bad it tastes.
- After three dental crowns in the first three years—broken fillings from stress-induced nocturnal teeth clenching—I no longer wear my mouth guard.
- I’ve learned more than I knew I wanted to know about how the medical system fails seniors, and have become my mother’s advocate.
- Some of my buttons are still exposed—but some have become deactivated. I have more patience than I did four years ago—but I won’t be achieving sainthood.
- I have quietly taken control of many things. Rather than wresting them from Mama as I once did (never successfully), I wait for things to slip from her grasp, and pick them up when she drops them.
- I’ve learned a lot about the old-old from books and teachers and from trial and error. Some of it I have incorporated, some of it I just keep trying to do. Knowledge is power, practice makes perfect.
As I read to Joanna, I saw that my most important learning about interacting with the old-old is information I received early on, but one that takes constant vigilance. It has been my most miserable failure, and will be my most magnificent victory. David, the elder care social worker I see from time to time (knowing him has been the smartest thing I’ve done here), told me this in January of 2013:
“The facts no longer matter. At 96, with sharply diminishing short-term memory and brain function, your mother is no longer bound to the facts. Nothing, including words, is where it is supposed to be. Her frustration level is very high. She has a low threshold of tolerance for the pieces she knows are missing, and for being challenged with the truth. Conversation is no longer about the exchange of information; what matters now are feelings. It’s okay when she gets the facts all wrong. Don’t try to straighten it out. Agreeing with her version of reality will make her feel safe and secure, and in control of her failing mind.”
I have written about my struggle with this again and again in this blog—my public personal journal—asking myself when I was going to f***ing get it. (I wrote about it here three years ago. The latest time was just last week, here.) I still have not mastered it, but the reminders keep me trying. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I’ve only been home from vacation for a day, but I’ve not corrected Mama with the truth, or questioned her thinking—even in my head (thank you to a reader for that re-framing suggestion)—a single time. It’s a record.
It’s good to take stock: to review goals, to observe progress, to acknowledge transformation. And now for the book.