There’s a stranger in my mother’s house. She greets me at the door in comfy moccasin slippers. As if she’s living there. Which she is.
I enter the house as if I’m a true guest, rather than my mother’s daughter who used to live there as well. Who wrote her first stories at a broken table up in the attic. Who, when she was grown, returned there after college, to bike to a job at the local newspaper until she figured out what she really wanted to do. Who still returned once she found her roots in the city.
My mother would meet me at the train and we’d go out to dinner. We would share a plate of mussels steamed in garlic and oil. Then we’d go home to the oceanside cape, sometimes build a fire in the fireplace whose bricks we’d stripped together, of its blue paint, when my parents inherited the house the back when I was fourteen. We’d sit in the sunroom, her favorite room.
Where now, on my weekly visits, I bring her fresh sunflowers to place in the middle of the table.
“This isn’t my house anymore,” she can say. Of this stranger, dressed in her aqua-aide uniform, who cooks her own recipes with my mother’s pots and pans. Who whips up her own healthy concoctions of kale, green apples and ginger in some old blender she found that I’d forgotten my mother even owned.
My mother can shake her fists in the air and hiss, “I have no privacy! None! She even goes through my drawers!”
I listen to these accusations, speechless, sitting at my mother’s bedside. Hearing the aide in my mother’s kitchen, warming up some soup for lunch. My mother’s cat is curled tightly at her side as if he feels it too, this invasion of privacy. Not only is my mother’s own space invaded, but ours, as mother and daughter; there’s a baby monitor in her bedroom now, so the aide no doubt can hear everything we say.
And the aide did hear it all. She seemed distraught herself and said, “You need to believe that I don’t go through her drawers. Your mother asked me to open a drawer for some socks and that’s how she remembers it.”
And I believed her. Because the paranoia isn’t quite new; my mother is sure “kids” got into the house to make mayhem with a pack or cards found strewn across the coffee table (most liked the cats’ mayhem….) She thinks someone stole a new shower curtain she remembers buying which I now think she has imagined ever buying in the first place. My mother accused the aide of drinking all her scotch when she asked for a light drink one night, and the aide didn’t know where she kept her liquor.
“I don’t drink. It makes my knees weak.”
And then the aide and I are laughing – as only my mother and I could ever laugh. Giggling really, on the edge of a kind of hysteria; I knew the aide was tired. Her first week, she’d been up most nights as my mother rummaged through her closet for something to wear so she could go out at 3am. But she’s also an aide who could assure my mother that she is still “a beautiful woman” when my mother complained, “I look like a witch;” she was unable to wash her hair for ten days before she could get the stitches out, from where she’d gashed her head when she’d fallen on the sharp corner of an open bureau drawer.
My mother is sleeping better. The UTI has cleared up and so has the disorientation. And so my mother now knows exactly where she is: “I’m in prison! I go nowhere! I’m sick to death of staring out these same dirty windows!”
My mother spends most of her time lying on her bed, facing these windows. I have tried to clean them. I am desperate to make them smudge free, to appear as if there is no glass there at all. Because, in her more contented moments, she finds real peace gazing out those windows. “I can still find happiness, you know, in the little things,” she can say. And point out a window: “That burning bush, how brilliant it is now! I will miss the fall colors. But then through the trees I’ll be able to see the sun set better.”
The aide can see I’m distraught. And one afternoon, she asked me to sit down beside her on my mother’s couch. “You have to understand something. This is all new to you.”
New to me. My mother and I were best friends. We took vacations together. We sat by lakes sketching old straggly pine trees. Not everyone can find beauty in an old tree. We could.
I don’t know what we are now.
“You never take my side,” she can accuse me, if I try to dispute her accusations of the aide going through her drawers or drinking her scotch.
Or if I try to explain what every doctor, social worker and even her physical therapist has confirmed, in no uncertain terms, after this last fall when she could have bled out: My mother can no longer live alone.
“Don’t tell me I can’t take care of myself. I’ve been taking care of myself since I was 21! And I took care of my parents when Daddy lost it all in the Depression. We were broke and I took care of them!”
It’s all I can do to resist snapping back that she’s not 21, she’s a very elderly and fragile 95-year-old woman.
“You wait until you’re 95, you’ll see what it’s like!”
I want to scream back I’ll never make it to 95, never mind 55, the way I feel now, old and creaky and angry myself.
The actual tone of our arguments can vary. They can sound as familiar as when I was a rebellious teen and could seethe because she thought my caramel 70s vinyl boots made me look “cheap.” Or when she can still tell me what I need, like a new couch, or need to do, like clean out my closets.
Then there are the arguments that feel far too awkward to be anything other than the unchartered territory of a daughter now having to take care of her mother. As when I sat on the edge of her bed and told her the truth. Her mind is not working correctly. She cannot even remember all the times she has been in the emergency room from falls, but I remember them too well. She no longer can make all her own decisions or I, her only daughter, will be “sick.”
She looked at me then, not angry. But worried. About me. And she was my mom again. And I wanted to cry on her shoulder, and for a moment I did.
And she was so sorry. “I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”
The day finally came when she was able to get her stitches out. Dressing for the doctor’s appointment, she sprayed perfume between her legs and I laughed. “What was that for?” Very ancient perfume, by the way, that she hasn’t worn in years and for some reason was now on her vanity counter.
She laughed. “I have no idea.”
We both laughed. Suddenly feeling silly. But the laughter is the one thing that can still bring us back together. As the mother and daughter we always have been. And sometimes, although in smaller and smaller moments, still can be. (Especially as I’ve had the brilliant realization to turn off the damn baby monitor when I’m there.)