“You have to take my side. Why can’t you take my side?”
It was my mother calling, around 10 pm. Boys were asleep. I’d been watching The Piano on my iPad. A movie where I could escape to New Zealand and be a woman who yearned for her piano abandoned on a beach.
I’d paused the movie. I was staring at my plant stand. At my dried geraniums and thinking how could I have not noticed? That their dried brittle heads needed snapping off?
“You never take my side, but you don’t understand what they do. This is my house! They act as if it’s not my house!”
The “they” is her aide, and when I remind her that there is only one person, my mother can claim that the one aide can feel like multiple persons, the way “they’re” constantly going back and forth through her room, to the laundry, or putting away her clothes.
“You have to talk to them. I can’t stand this anymore, people coming through my room and just doing what they want with my clothes. It’s not their house! This is my house! ”
She sounded frantic. And afraid. “I know my mind isn’t quite right. But this isn’t right either. You have to talk to her. But be on my side, please. Not theirs. Mine. I need you on my side!”
I am her daughter. And we began to argue as only a mother and daughter can. I argued that of course I’m on her side, otherwise why would I be doing everything I can to keep her at home? And why on the one hand, does she claim her aide isn’t doing enough, spends all her time watching TV, but on the other, she doesn’t want her aide to do her laundry or to help her put her clothes away?
So for a few minutes we snapped and screeched at each other as mothers and daughters can. Because truthfully, us daughters never outgrow our wanting to prove ourselves separate entities from our mothers; we don’t like being told what to do as big girls, any more than we had liked being told we weren’t allowed to wear sparkly neon-green eyeshadow to school as pre-teens.
Because us daughters are more used to being made to feel as if we’re twelve, even at age fifty, than we are at trying to quell our elderly mothers’ tantrums as we only do with our own children.
The problem now however, as my mother’s short-term memory has deteriorated, is she can repeat herself and our squabbles have no end – they are merry-go-rounds. Not merry with quaint ponies, nor musical. But they can go around and around and around.
Until I realized I didn’t hear her television on in the background. It’s always on at night.
“Mom, is something wrong with your TV?”
“Oh I can’t get that newfangled thing to go on. Things were so much simpler in my day.”
“Newfangled” is the paper-thin new TV I gave her for Christmas.
“My life is just frustration after frustration, and then to have people doing what they please with my clothes…they have no right, this is my house…”
I was unable to get off the merry-go-round until I’d texted her aide to please come in and turn on the TV – I knew she had turned off the baby monitor, as she is respectful of our privacy when we’re on the phone. This was one phone call when I’d wished she’d been listening in.
Eventually she came in and turned on the TV, and I was able to hang up. But not before my mother made me promise to talk to the aide – although I wasn’t at all sure what I was supposed to talk to her about, beyond the aide helping with putting away her clothes.
I did talk to said aide – to find out that the reason she’d put away my mother’s clothes, was because they were strewn across the floor. Evidently, my mother can change her clothes several times a day, and when she used to be vigilant about hanging up her own clothes, now she can leave a a trail of discarded shirts and pants across her bedroom floor; where the aide says she can trip over them, on her walker-treks back and forth to the bathroom. So for the sake of my mother’s safety, said aide must pick said clothes up off floor.
“She is not in her right mind,” said aide reminded me. As with each new not-in-her-right-mind tale, I am reminded of other incidents: my mother trying to do her own laundry, turning on the washing machine when there are no clothes in it.
And I am reminded of something else: this aide is coming to know my mother better than I do. Not the mother I’ve always known, but my mother in this new present hazy state. The one who needs her window open in 9-degree weather so that she doesn’t feel “imprisoned”. The one whose moods can vary moment to moment, when all it takes is turning on the TV or a chocolate bar to stall the merry-go-round. The one whose toenails are so tough and hard, the aide asked me to pick up epson salts and baking soda for a foot bath so that she could cut them.
“Her feet will be smooth as a baby’s bottom,” she said, when I’d brought her the items. She was wearing a sweater I recognized as my mother’s. An old one, but a brilliant blue that I remembered would bring out the blue in my mother’s eyes. My mother has been obsessing about getting rid of her clothes now that she doesn’t go anywhere anymore. So on good days, when she’s on good terms with her aide, she evidently has allowed her to pick what she likes from her closet. The very aide she does not want touching her clothes.
Her aide went about filling a large steel mixing bowl with water to soak my mother’s feet, one she found as easily as if this were her own kitchen; I’d forgotten my mother even owned that mixing bowl, one tucked away under the buffet, which I don’t think she’d used for over 40 years, not since we’d make Christmas cookies together.
Said aide prefers dishcloths to sponges, and several she was sterilizing in boiling water on the stove. Her monstrous red Kitchen Aide blender thing was on the counter. Her mega Vitamin Shoppe Raw Meal bottles stacked in a corner. The kitchen TV was turned to one of her Gospel channels.
Such moments, when I’m standing in what should be my mother’s kitchen, I’m able to feel that, my mother’s angst, at how pots are not stacked correctly beneath the butcher block table, or coffee mugs are not in their usual places on the shelves. So inwardly, yes. In such moments I am taking my mother’s side, moments when I am bereft and lost amongst things that have only ever been so familiar, they were overlooked. Like the long forgotten steel mixing bowl.
But this aide actually seemed excited about the endeavor of tackling my mother’s feet. My mother no longer even likes to wear slippers, prefers the feel of the cold tile which undoubtly has only encouraged tough calluses.
All I could think was how much I myself have trouble even just looking at my mother’s big toenails – ragged as the mineral rocks my boys find every summer in the New Hampshire Polar Bear caves.
Ever since her hip replacement eight years ago, my mother has always complained about how much trouble she has reaching down to cut her toenails. And for eight years, I have been tormented by the fact that I should have been cutting them for her.
Recently, I have helped her catch urine samples. Years ago, I unclogged the tube to her mastectomy drainage site. But I have never been able to bring myself to cut her toenails.
Out in the sunroom where my mother was settled in her favorite Ikea chair, the aide tucked her feet into the mixing bowl. I glimpsed a big mineral rock-like toe. I had to look away.
My mother started to protest, taking out her feet. Her toes dripping.
“But what did I say…this will make your feet smooth as…” The aide waited, her arms in the air like a school teacher’s.
My mother looked up at her, a confused child being asked what is one plus one equal.
“A baby’s bottom!” The aide laughed.
My mother laughed too and then said, “That sweater looks good on you. The blue. It brings out your eyes.”
And I had to leave the room, on pretense that there was something I needed to do but I didn’t know what.
I wandered into my mother’s bedroom where her bed was still unmade.
And where the window was open again.
The aide was suddenly beside me. “Don’t shut it.”
“It’s below freezing out. It’s sending the thermostat down.”
“Let it stay open.” She put her hands together in a steeple. “Please.”
And then I saw it; yes, she may know my mother better than I do now. And to my mother, and to me, this house may feel as if it has come to belong to this said aide – But I doubt it feels that way to her.
Because to her, it is a place she must navigate carefully. A place where my mother opens windows, and said aide does not dare close them herself, for fear of more retribution. Later, my mother might very well accuse her of “stealing” that blue sweater from her closet when she remembers that she does not like said aide touching her clothes.
Because she too, my mother’s aide, a most patient a wise caregiver, may feel just that: “imprisoned.”
I left the window open. I stuck my hands out for a moment into the cold, no longer having any idea whose side I should be on or whether I should be taking sides at all.
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