Mothering Mom
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Marcia

When I think back, the first time I remember changing places with my mom had to do with her driving. She called me one day about ten years ago, whining about how she’d gotten a second speeding ticket and now had to go to a court-run driver’s ed class or pay a fine.

“Well,” I heard myself saying. “Serves you right for speeding.” There was about ten seconds of satisfaction, and then just the slow burn of realization: I had become the parent.

I panicked and realized it had been coming on a while now. At what point had I become the one responsible for such lines as: Slow down, dammit; Did you even look? (and the ever popular) You know you should be one car length away for every ten miles an hour, Mom.  And Mom, who is currently 80 years old, mouthing gems such as: WATCH IT, shit-ass! Let me add this: my mom’s only accident in the last thirty years has been with a patch of ice. It’s not her driving skills per say that concern me; it’s that she has recently, reluctantly, admitted to having some blackouts at the wheel, and found herself sitting at a red light, being honked from multiple directions, disoriented for a moment before she realized where she was and where she was going. I’ve found myself in that situation from time to time, but still, who is responsible if she gets into an accident? Her? Or me, her only child, because I didn’t stop her from driving?

Yesterday, my mother drove down to the city from the senior center she lives at in the northern suburbs, switched places with me for the last time, and I drove her back up to Northbrook where we sold her car. We sold her car because she cannot afford the payments any more, and I feared if she put it off any longer they would repossess it and she would still be stuck with a financial burden. And she has enough of those already. More than I can manage.

In this country people worry a lot about being good parents; do we worry as much about being good daughters and sons? I wonder, looking back, if I didn’t intervene soon enough, but this IS my mother we’re talking about: stubborn, determined, fiercely independent. When she wants french fries from McDonald’s--even though she promised not to--she’s gonna go to McDonald’s. When a regular check up revealed a lump in her breast, she put off the surgery until she was too scared not to (benign, thank god), and “neglected” to mention the lump to me for nearly six months, at which point I started coming to appointments and getting doctor’s numbers. And so it is that I am at the beginning of some new equation where I must determine how much of my mom’s life I need to be responsible for (and still manage my own.) And it is an equation I know many deal with, and one that often ends with us treating Mom and Dad like they are irresponsible teens, then feeling like we are doing a crappy job parenting our parents.

I was very proud of her yesterday. We were at the dealer’s for over an hour, and more than once I found myself on the verge of tears, wanting to apologize to her, wishing she didn’t have to go through this, wanting her not to be sad and hurt and scared. She smiled stoically, tried to make jokes. It was only after she signed the papers, as I stood over her on our way out (and god, how she shrinks and shrinks each year! She calls me her Amazon daughter...) that I saw the kyphosis in her back sag further, her jaw with the mouth full of false teeth I am still paying for start to wobble. And I rubbed her back and hugged her, and held her hand, and tried to say the right thing. The dealer was kind enough to drive us to the Metra station so I could take mom home.

Independence, that’s what the car was to her. I understand the panic she feels, although on a smaller scale. My own car died three years ago, and the reality is I didn’t need one, until now. I adjusted quickly, but then I am fairly young, and healthy, and live in a big city where public transportation is readily available. Mom lives in a senior center she says is “full of old people who only want to talk about their health problems.” I used to bite my tongue at this one, how she would see herself so differently. Now, I am sad she has started to talk about being old. Even when I had a car, I didn’t see her as much as I know she would have liked, and at the train station, I am loathe to think about the challenges of checking up on her so far away.

We wait for the train, sitting on some metal box outside in the warmth of the fading day and she says, for the umpteen-billionth time, “Do you know how proud I am of you?” I don’t even hear this, but then I have a lifetime of practice tuning her out. I have heard it so many times I don’t even know what it means, and I feel too shitty to hear it. A million questions are spinning and colliding in the large array of my head: Have I made the right choice? Should I have tried to take over the car loan so she could keep it a while longer? Could I have managed it financially and taken care of my own bills? Would it have made sense, considering my concerns about her driving? Am I trying hard enough? Should I have sacrificed the replacement of my 11 year old laptop--my only computer-- to keep her in her car a bit longer?  Would a better daughter have intervened six years ago when she bought the car and said “Let’s take a look at your finances” and tried to impose a budget that might have changed things? Would a better daughter have forced her overweight mom to keep going to Weight Watchers meetings so she wouldn’t burden her imperfect heart with so much extra weight? Wouldn’t a better daughter have noticed last summer that her mother was wearing shoes that were too small and tight for her swollen feet, and bought her better ones that could have prevented the issue which resulted in the removal of her big toenail?

And a part of me is angry, too. Angry that she didn’t take better care of herself, her finances, her health. Angry and selfish and snotty and ashamed because I fear the responsibility of caring for her.

Am I good enough to do all the right things? How much of my own independence will be sacrificed to give her as much independence as I can? What kind of daughter am I?

The train arrives and amidst commuters boarding, and me trying to guide her to the lower end of the step, Mom barrels ahead, stubborn, proud, independent, and half falls over the step. She trips and the world freezes. Six hands reach out to catch her, immobilize her mid-fall, including mine, but in that moment I’m holding her I think, “Oh god, I’m not strong enough to catch her if she falls.” She didn’t, but a few minutes later, seated on the train, wide-eyed like a child as the train starts to move, she tells me she thinks she scraped her calf on the train step. I peel up her pants leg to examine the skin. It’s so dry and powdery. Eczema, and tiny, lacy blue capillaries, fragile and broken, cover her legs, delicate as snowflakes. I can’t even tell where the scrape is, and I think that her skin shouldn’t look like this, it should look like my skin, and that this is my fault, that somehow, something I have or haven’t done could have prevented this: this aging.

But of course I can’t stop time. I can’t keep things from breaking down. Nature breaks down. We prevent it as long as we can. We stall it. We plaster it and Botox it and diet it and dress it up in hot pants and we pretend a whole lot. And still, things do fall apart eventually.

And all I can do is hold her, and hold her up, and hold her together. And hold her as long as I can. I don’t see her enough, I don’t call her enough. And I don’t know even what enough is, or if it’s relative, but I worry I won’t be able to be enough. I don’t know how to be a parent to my mom, yet. I guess that is the way a lot of new parents feel when the baby arrives. Fearful they will mess up, wanting to protect their kids from the world but knowing the reality is that you can’t, and that we all grow up; we all grow old. We all have people we are responsible for, who are responsible for us, and while it can be frightening to depend on them, and be depended on, it is what loving people is all about. I hope I can make the right decisions for her, for me, for us both.

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