catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 18 :: 2007.10.05 — 2007.10.19


Mother to mother

Caring for a parent when you’re a parent as well is a multifaceted ride, as many know. Over the last ten years, I have often felt as though I’d stepped through the looking glass—and into a house of mirrors. (Either that or like a slice of Spam®—think sandwich generation.) I am desperate to care for my mother as I would like to be cared for—for purely scared and selfish reasons. I am some 30 years from mom’s stage of life, and my teenage daughter is surely storing up how I’m doing this, whether she knows it or not, for what future duties, neither one of us knows.

My mom called just this morning to ask if I’d remembered to cancel her follow up appointment at the oral surgeon. She had all her lower teeth extracted three weeks ago, and is sporting a full set of dentures now. I was in grubbies and gloves, pulling up carpeting from the living room floor.

“Oh, no, not yet.”

“Well, they need 24 hour notice or we have to pay for it.”

“Well, um, why don’t you just go ahead and call if you have the number.”

“Oh, well, I don’t.”

“Oh. Okay then. I’ll do it.”


“No problem. See ya.”

I’ve gotten used to being asked to do things she is perfectly capable of doing, like making a phone call. This particular foible no longer makes me look dumbly at the phone in my hand after she’s hung up.  But others—supplying the cat with bottled water, say—make me stare bug-eyed and slack-jawed in disbelief…but only in my mind.

Just as when my teenager makes an interesting fashion choice, I bite my tongue. What’s the point of voicing judgments about mom’s illogical choices, outdated viewpoints, or repetitive reminiscences? But it’s in those moments that I feel like I’m 17 again, all rolling eyes and noisy sighs. (Get the mirror thing now?) The parallels between parenting and caring for a parent are obvious, with the ongoing lesson being all about sacrifice. And the calloused tongue. 

My mom is a great lady. A single parent from the time I was four, and alone for the last thirty years, she deserves all kinds of credit and tender care. And, to converse with Mrs. Houston is to engage with a smart, well-informed, educated gal who’s an avid reader of mysteries; a fan of Michigan State basketball, championship tennis, and Keith Olberman on MSNBC. She devours mysteries, and swears at the television when George W. Bush appears.

However. Up until about nine years ago, Mom avoided doctors for roughly 30 years. Yes, this intelligent woman with the college degree. That neglect finally caught up with her, as neglect tends to do, in dramatic ways, and the last nine years have been fraught with illness and reduced ability that have drawn us together in a double helix of role reversal, an emotional roller coaster on both sides.

And I must admit an ongoing level of resentment at being forced to manage the results of those decades of senseless neglect. Especially when there is a health crisis—I’ve become familiar with three emergency rooms in the last decade—when she turns into a different person. Much like…a child. Needy, worried, hurting, frightened. I feel quite a bit younger too, in these situations. Panicky and over my head, running interference with physicians and institutions, agencies and hired help, medication management and powers of attorney.

It took two years for mom to take the oral surgeon’s advice and take care of the last of her teeth. I feel sure the state of her gums and her broken teeth were in part responsible for the awful last year she’s had—including a staph infection, a blood clot, two surgeries, three ER visits, two hospitalizations, two nursing homes, and a malpractice-level bad prescription. But I was not going to nag or entreat her to take care of it sooner than she was ready. I was too tired.

An infection in her jaw has been the only blip in our fairly peaceful summer (for which we have both been grateful) and the impetus to taking care of her mouth, finally. Please, among the other habits, good and bad, inherited from my dear mother, let my attention to my health take a different path.

Anyway, before walking in her door these days, I pray for a good attitude, when I remember to—and that the commode will have a light load. I work to put a smile on my face, and to keep those internal eyeballs from rolling.

Sometimes I fantasize: if only she weren’t my mother. It’s not that she’s hard to get along with. I’m just certain that I would be nicer if I didn’t have these 48 years of relationship pushing at us like a Mississippi barge.

If I were just a hired helper, I’d have a start time and a finish time, and I could easily marvel at her observations, smile and nod when she reminisces about something for the umpteenth time. I’d gaze at her wrinkled red oversized feet with sympathy, and be encouraging when she waggles them around in circles, doing her ‘exercises,’ instead of holding up my newspaper or repositioning myself to avoid the view. Let’s not talk about the vision of a loved one without her teeth.  

I’d patiently write down the specific type of fish among the many varieties of the very specific brand and size of canned cat food she’d like me to buy 30 cans of because we’re down to only 10. I’d happily dump out the cat’s leftovers for a fresh can, because who cares? I’m just the hired help, and all bosses are a little crazy, and old ladies have a right to be persnickety.

Sigh. I know I’m ranting. And I know it’s because I want my old mother back. I mean, not my current old mother, but my past, healthy(er) mother. When did she get this old? Am I going to get this old? And I’m angry. It goes with the resentment, stuck together like peanut butter and jelly.

The truth is I also know that some day I will be sorely missing those dear old rotating feet. Someday I may be coping with the same lymphedema that has necessitated a walker and a nearby commode for overnight toileting. That’s what the eldercare industry calls it. Toileting.

Which brings me back to parenting, so rich with challenges and frustrations. But the payback washes over me all the time: the joy of watching them surmount a challenge, negotiate a new social situation, develop an opinion; the pride over their success on the stage or the ballfield; the simple peace and comfort of their physical affection.

Caring for my mother, though… Well, I do it because I love her. Because I owe her. Because there’s no one else. And, because I hope my daughter will take care of me someday. And perhaps payback is not really the point—or maybe it will take shape a few years down the road—when I look at myself in the mirror after she’s gone.

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