Last night I got the phone call every daughter dreads. “Hello, Mrs. Manson? Your mother cold-cocked a member of the senior day care staff.” “No, you must be mistaken,” I say. “My mom is a 91-year-old great-grandmother.” “Yes,” comes the reply, “we know, but she still has a great right hook.”
Today the squeaking door announces Mom is up and ready to begin her day. Slipping in before she can put on her robe, wander into our bedroom, or down the hall, I whisper, “Good morning.” The Parkinson’s symptoms have given my husband a rough night and I don’t want to wake him. Mom looks at me, cocks her head to one side, and says, “Am I asleep or are you?” I sigh, “I am not asleep, because you are not asleep.” She sits on her bed and her legs swing. This visual cue means the aggressive state from the adult day care has been reduced to anxiety. She is subdued for the moment but I am not sure how long it will last. The Xanax now increased to three pills a day, has not made her a zombie, but she is not herself. I’m not sure who she is, but she isn’t my mom, she just looks like her.
If your folks tell you, “Don’t sacrifice yourself for me. Find a good place and put me there. Don’t feel guilty about it. Do it and go on with your life,” have them put that in writing now, while they can still talk with you about it. It would make a lot of difference if I had that letter from my mom now. I promise you when that day comes, it won’t be your mom facing you, it will be the face and spirit of a two-year-old. When her tear-stained face looks at you and says, “I’m sorry, I won’t be bad, don’t send me away,” and it will break your heart.
Mom announces she’s going to bed. She heads down the hall towards her bedroom. Following, I watch her turn into the closet. “Tha-bump, tha-bump.” Mom is pushing her walker against the wall. “What are you doing?” I ask. “I am going up,” she says as if talking to a child. She pushes her walker against the clothes. “Momma, we live on one level,” I tell her, my teary voice betraying me. “Oh, Margarett,” she says. I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that she still knows me, but it is a thin blanket against the cold I feel. She is leaving me. I can no longer pretend otherwise. She is going away a little more every day.
How did I get here? How did this become my life?
We are Black “cradle” Catholics, a rarity even today. This means we were baptized as children instead of converting from one of the noisier faiths. “The Sugar,” or type II diabetes, also ran in my family, claiming first my oldest brother and then my sister. In 2007 Mom buried her first-born son before his 65th birthday. When she was diagnosed, my sister started self-destructive behavior. She stopped communicating with family and friends and Mom feared the worst. Those fears were realized when my sister was found dead in her apartment four days before she would have been 67, two weeks before Mom’s 86th birthday. I flew home to help my mother bury a second child a year and a half after the first.
My heart was heavy with loss and this awareness; for me to take care of Mom, she would have to move to California. In addition to caring for my husband, I would begin caring for someone whose unstoppable energy had started a final game of hide-and-seek.
Packing a life in a bag taxes the back; packing a grieving spirit taxes everything and everyone. I watched the take-care-of-everything, handle-anything spirit drain from my mom. She spoke with longing of having a bath, her apartment having only a shower stall. The night before I moved my mother from St. Louis, while at my cousin’s house, I suggested a warm bath, thinking it might help her relax and feel better. I helped her get into the tub and asked if she wanted me to stay and bathe her. I rose, expecting her to shoo me out when she was settled. “Please stay,” she whispered. I turned to look at her. That moment something shifted between us. My strong, wise, independent mother needed me to be the strong, wise one. The woman who had held my hands and calmed my fears needed me to soothe her.
They say a child will wear you to a nub faster than anything, but no toddler could be more demanding than this giant child of mine. I have become da mommy. I, the child who never had a child, now have this childlike spirit to care for and love. I have been drafted into this club of caregivers that no one volunteers to join and no one is eager to leave because the only way out is through that final exit door marked “Funeral.”
I am tired but not sorry. No matter how frustrating, difficult or filled with challenges these days may be this will never change: She is my mommy, and I treasure each day I have with her. Do you remember “September Song”? It was sung by Frank Sinatra and is one of my mom’s favorites:
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few, September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you.