Thin Ice

“Did you take my wooly sweater to the cleaners?”

“No, I didn’t know I was supposed to.”

“I told you to,” Mama sighs. Apparently I have let her down again.

“You didn’t,” I say, stubbornly refusing to let her get away with her false accusation, which is the hardest aspect of her aging for me to let slide; “but I will take it.”

Silence.

“You need to have your memory checked, Gretchen.”

“I’ll get right on that.”

“I can’t wear my sweater. I spill food on it when I eat, and everyone is probably wondering why I keep wearing it with food all over it.”

“I have never seen you spill food on yourself. And even if you did, you wear an apron when you eat, so it wouldn’t be on your clothes. And no one is looking at your sweater,” I say as blood rushes to my brain and shoves words out my mouth to prevent bursting a vessel. Does she think these people here all have 20/20 vision?

Old age is a mash up of the two worst ages in the life span: toddlerhood and adolescence, which are also remarkably similar to one another. I have become the exasperated parent to my mother’s childishness.

I was just back from three days away visiting my toddler grandchildren. The three year old had screamed bloody murder when, while his parents were out leaving me to put him to bed, I had to break the news that I didn’t know the password to the iPad so stories could play from it to the speaker he was holding in his hand to put by his pillow. (Recorded stories in the dark are an extension of the many books that had already been read to him, lest you think no one reads to the poor child.) He had glanced at me from his hiding place behind the chair every few moments to make sure I was paying attention to his tantrum. I wasn’t.

I don’t need to remind anyone about the joys of adolescence, an age when we simultaneously want everyone and no one to be looking at us; and when a mother has but two tasks: anticipate and respond to her teen’s every need, and accept that in all their wisdom the teen knows more about everything than their clueless mother does.

“Do I have an appointment with the ENT?” Mama asks then. (See the precursor to this conversation here.)

“Yes,” I said, “in the middle of January,” knowing Rebecca had already passed this information on to her.

“That’s a long time not to be able to hear!” she exclaimed.

“That’s Dr. Kim’s first available appointment,” I said, not reminding her that she insisted only he do it.

“Did you tell them it was an emergency?” she snapped.

I don’t bother to explain what an actual emergency would be, and that perceived wax in her ear is not one. Rebecca had already told her that they never find wax in her ear anyway, so I don’t repeat that either; nor that they always tell us her hearing aid isn’t clogged up. The unacceptable truth is she is 101 and the only ear she can hear out of is failing. Who wants to believe that?

“They said I could bring the aid in any time, though, and they would clean it. But you’ll have to be without it for several hours if you insist I take it to Olympia.” She starts to take it out of her ear. “But today is Saturday, I can’t take it until Monday,” I tell her.

“I just want to see if I can hear you as well without it as I can with it,” she says.

“And what are you discovering about that?” I ask, rolling my eyes.

“I can tell you are talking, but not what you are saying,” she says, putting it back in. “And I can’t hear what I am saying, either.”

I’m concerned about her not having her hearing aid, knowing what I know about delirium. If she’s having a bad day when I take it, not being able to hear could send her over the edge.

She moves on to tell me I had made her bed perfectly the day before. It was three days before and Bonnie made it, I was only an observer, but I remain silent while she tells me all that is wrong with it now because Bonnie messed it up that morning. She moves over to sit on the bed and inspect it so she can tell me what’s wrong with it. I put my head in my hands and try not scream.

“I can see what’s not right!” I snap as she begins her litany of how she likes it, the one I have memorized, my patience as thin as the first skim of ice on a pond. “If you will get away from the damn bed I’ll fix it!” I seethe, knowing she can’t hear me from across the room.

She finally returns to her chair while I hyperventilate.

“I never wanted my money invested in the stock market,” she says, picking up a conversation from two weeks ago when I told her I was trying to be careful with her money and did she really need a pedometer, and she heard it as the market had lost all her money.

Rebecca and I have both tried to change her story, telling her she isn’t losing money, she’s using it. But once she has decided on fake facts, it’s what she clings to. (Incidentally, I heard someone on NPR yesterday say that the man in the White House doesn’t know he’s lying. He tells himself a story and then repeats it until he truly believes it’s the truth. I leave you to connect the dots.)

I let go of the rope and crash through the ice.

“Your money has made several thousand dollars this year,” I bark. “It would not have made one dime in your bank account!” Why do I engage in this?

“Have you ever heard of the Great Depression, Gretchen?” she barks back. “People lost everything that was in the stock market! You had better be careful with your money!”

“That’s because they panicked,” I say. “They withdrew all their money from the banks, causing the banks to fail, and THAT’S what caused your Great Depression! And I don’t have any money to be careful with anyway. The only reason you do is because Daddy invested it and people who know more about growing money than you or I do have been taking care of it!”

“Well, who knows what will happen with the mad man in the White House,” she says. Finally something we can agree on.

“For reasons I don’t understand, the stock market is doing very well with the mad man in the White House. The financial market likes Republicans.”

She seeks a more pleasant topic.

“Did you read the article about kale in the newsletter from ‘this establishment?” she asks. “It has vitamin K in it.” She says this like it’s news to her. “Vitamin K is good for the eyes. If you bring me some, I could put it on sandwiches, since I can’t eat lettuce.”

Should I remind her, again, she did everything she possibly could to prolong her vision and now there is nothing more to be done? Should I tell her a leaf of raw kale would be more difficult to chew and digest than lettuce, and taste horrible to boot?

“I need to head out,” I say, before I drown.

“I like the cleaners next to Safeway,” she says as I am leaving.

I’ll take your sweater to whatever cleaners I want, I mutter to myself, narrowly avoiding slamming the door on my way out. Now who’s the toddler/adolescent?

The nearer people approach old age
The closer they return to a semblance of childhood,
Until the time comes for them to depart this life,
Again like children, neither tired of living nor aware of death.

—Desiderius Erasmus


P.S. It entirely escaped me that November is National Caregivers Month. To all of you out there (65.7 million in the U.S.) take care of yourselves. This year’s theme is “Caregiving Around the Clock.” My heart goes out to those who are caring around the clock; I am grateful not to be. Here is my post from last November (oops, two years ago—I guess I forgot last year as well) and an updated reading list of caregiver memoirs and books on aging that I have read to date. Blessings to each of you.

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