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That Might Be How It Is From Now On, Mom

A Mother. Story

“I’m so angry!” She says and pouts her lips and moves her head up and down.

The lip and head thing is something she has taken to in the past years to strike that delicate balance between victim and done wrong, but now that she is so thin and pale and slow it comes off more as a tiny reset of herself. A release of tension and / or pain while she waits to be validated.

It was a shock to first see her today. She stood up in their studio kitchen holding onto the back of a chair, drowning in a velvet leisure suit, face so gaunt it almost isn’t there, and not being helped by her not wearing her dentures, because she has lost so much weight they don’t fit her mouth anymore.

“What are you angry about?” I ask, struggling to not sound patronizing, while I braze myself for a rant about the slight of the day. As she gets worse, so does her mood. She is going down verbally swinging at everyone and -thing that moves. She might look like a flimsy lawn chair sitting next to me at the table, but her words can still be like an anvil to the face. Listening is the least I can do to make up for my guilt and shame over not wanting to be here, not wanting to go through this.

“Well, that woman was no good!” She says as if that should be sufficient for me to agree.

I can’t make myself do that, even if it might be the easiest way to make her stop. Once again we have to go the long way around.

“What woman?” I ask. “The one giving you a bath?”

Today she gave up another part of her independence, of her self. She has always been meticulous about her daily bath, even at her prior darkest times, which we have long surpassed. In the past couple of months my dad has helped her out as best he could, kept an eye and ear out for her when she was in the shower, made sure she got a new stool for the stall so she doesn’t have to bend down, let alone stand up, but she can’t anymore. She has no strength to hold herself up or raise her arms to wash her rapidly vanishing hair. It was important, but too much to hope, that today would be a good experience.

“If you can call it that!” She says with derision.

It goes without saying — literally — that no one, no one could have done the job to her satisfaction. It is one of those days where nothing is right; the bath, the food, the weather, the TV lineup, the election result, the immigration situation, the world. It is a global conspiracy against her, always has been.

“Oh, no, what went wrong?” I ask, though I already have a feeling, because we have had this conversation for over 30 years now. Not this exact one, but about doctors, nurses, librarians, hairdressers, salesmen and -women, painters, receptionists, plumbers, realtors, physical therapists, waiters and many other professionals who have not lived up to her standards for no other reason than to spite her.

“Well, she just left, didn’t she?” She says, because it is self-evident.

If I close my eyes, I can still see her as she was in my childhood. Stunning red hair, impeccable fashion sense, and more importantly; smart, strong and driven. That was before MS and drinking broke her. Some of that empowered her came back when she got sober, and she has had more than ten good years that way, but now her body is quitting while her mind as a cruel joke is still sharp as a knife. What is it the bible says? The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. In this case she has been gifted with cancer and is in the process of having everything taken away.

“What do you mean, she just left? Before she was done?”

I am still stuck on the bath like a drain stopper. She does the pout’n’nod again signaling she has met a roadblock and has to recalculate her route to justification.

“It’s those private care companies” Is the new avenue she chooses. Another familiar street. Not that she is against private enterprise, quite the contrary. She is about as ‘everybody for themselves’ as they get which is now messing with her head, because it is not a given she would help someone as herself, even if she was in a position to do so.

“But didn’t you get your hair washed?” I say, though I hate that I am incapable of forfeiting logic and reality. I see my dad nodding ‘yes’ from his retreat on the couch three feet away. He has taken on caring for her with an amazing sense of responsibility and attention to her wishes and whims, and the fatigue is now starting to show at the seams. More and more of their conversations end with an emphatic “ENOUGH!” on his part.

“Then she just left!” My mom says again.

I manage to prevent a “Well, what did you expect?” from slipping out, but the old adage ‘rather out than in’ holds true, because now I kick myself for once more having made it difficult for her by opting for the detour into facts instead of acknowledging what she is really trying to convey.

Had I been a bigger person I had said:

“I see you, mom. I see your pain and anxiety and sadness. I see how boundary-crossing and undignified it must be to have stranger touch you in the most impersonal way, to be confronted with the miserable state of your body in such a harsh manner. I am so sorry it has to be this way. I am so sorry it has to end this way. My heart breaks and aches for you every moment of every day. I cannot tell you how sad it makes me that you have to go through this to make it to the end. You just lean on me, mom! I am strong enough to be here for you. I am strong enough to hold you. I am strong enough to carry you.”

But I am not big. I feel so small in all of this. Like there is not enough of me to save her without destroying myself. We have been down that road before, and however much I should, I can’t do it again. Instead I say:

“That might be how it is from now on, mom.”

I had this conversation with my mother the other day. I wrote it down to capture how difficult it is to say what we really mean, even in the face of death, and no matter which side of the coffin we are on. As you can see, I am almost all questions and no answers. There will be more stories like this in the Mother. series, so stay tuned.

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