“Don’t be like me.”
This is something my mother has been saying to me all of my adult life.
And she said it just the other day as I sat by her hospital bed, one hand, as always, clasping that metal railing. Afraid of falling.
What she meant was that as an artist, she has always put her art first. Yes, she would socialize, but after all her own caregiving responsibilities, she would prefer to devote whatever precious extra time she had to her painting. To stretch large canvases she would fill with large sweeping brushstrokes, always painting responsively, intuitively.
I had just lowered her hospital bed back down; after eating, to avoid choking, she must remain upright for twenty minutes, excruciating due to bed sores.
More comfortable now, she asked me what was “new.” A general term as she can never quite place me now in time.
When reminded, she will remember that I am married and she has two grandsons. So I can ramble on, this time, about their frog for some reason. How when one of her grandsons had won the frog in a school lottery, it had been the size of the dime, and now had grown ginormous in its very cloudy algae-ridden tank.
“Going to any parties? Meeting any new people?”
As her short-term memory is so short, within the space of a frog minute, she may have me placed as she can, back when I was still single. When she would worry about my too easily retreating from the social. From the reaching out to make new friends. From the cementing of close friendships which at the end of her own life, she feels herself lacking.
“But I am like you,” I reminded her. At her bedside as she lays dying. As I’ve always reminded her.
Because, like her, I’ve always been more apt to retreat from that, the social. The collective, the group settings, from when I was sixteen and preferred writing poetry at my little table in front of my yellow-checkered-curtained window, to hanging out at the mall.
And all the years I was single and working full-time in the city, weekends I reveled in my space and freedom to be alone in my apartment — writing. Yes, I had my friends I’d meet for dinner. But when the writing was going well, my spirits truly soared; I was never happier than when I was immersed in the writing of my novels. And never more bereft and lost than when they were finished.
And so when my mother made this age-old “Don’t be like me” statement, I reminded her of this fact: “We have to like our own company, remember? We need our own company.”
And she nodded, even in her dementia, knowing what I meant. What I’ve always meant–you can’t help that, as an artist or writer. As whatever that inventive, imaginative, innovative someone you are who thrives on the creative outlet for happiness. (Though happiness is such a shallow word and I’ve never been able to find the word I’m looking for. Fulfillment Peace?)
I do strongly believe that we all are graced with creative urges; be it the painting of your nails crazy colors, experimenting with different eyeshadow shades; carving sticks, gardening, cooking, making jam…
But in many of us perhaps the social can outweigh the creative urges. And it is perhaps those beings who are the ones blessed with closer connections outside of their own company. They may indeed have their creative outlets, but are the ones perhaps more apt to reach out, show up at soup kitchens and make meals for the homebound. A kind of charitable reaching out my mother always has felt guilty about not doing more of.
And whenever that guilt would rear its head, I would remind my mother of this fact: that for all of her adult life, from the time she was 20 and had to support her parents during the Great Depression, through those years as my grandmother’s sole caretaker while I was still a small child, then thirteen years of caring for my father as he was reduced to a child himself finally, by his own dementia…that she had well earned whatever residual time to devote to her art.
Because she had to devote this time. This creative urge was never a choice. It was an innate need.
And that urge has never been a choice for me either. It is indeed innate.
And it has become a true coping mechanism as I try to balance the needs of two elementary school children (nevermind any needs my husband might have) against those of my mother’s, as her prime caregiving director: the one who, as POA, must ensure her live-in aide gets paid; household bills get paid; house insurance premiums gets paid; taxes get paid; the one to run errands, to CVS for more Depends and disposable gloves; to the pharmacy for prescription refills; to coordinate home nursing care for wound changes of increasingly invasive bedsores and of gangrene; to now find a mason to reconstruct her leaking chimney and replace the metal flashing which evidently was installed all wrong in the first place.
And I am the one to make the funeral and cremation arrangements. To decide on the perfect spot where she will be buried in her church’s cremation garden. And in making these pre-arrangements, I need to do that – to step back and coldly assess her reality. That she will not be around much longer to have these age-old exchanges, when sitting at my mother’s bedside, I could collapse to my knees in grief, as she is suddenly fully herself:
Don’t be like me.
But I go with the flow of this age-old exchange; I go on to remind her of what she’d always taught me: That you have to find your happiness from within. Because, no matter how much you may, or may not, prefer your own company, at some point in your life, you will find yourself alone. When even those people closest to you can’t always be there for you, because they too may be having their own needs unmet.
But this age-old “Don’t be like me” conversation could go just so far, as our conversations can, small snatches as if trying to catch ladybugs to wish on, when she suddenly interrupted me with: “I don’t know how much longer I can keep holding on.”
I seek out these moments now, as she is suffering so, and at times does cry out that she can’t take any more of it. Any of it.
So I took this opportunity to assure her: “It’s ok to let go.”
She stared at me. “It is?”
“You don’t have to keep holding on, Mom.”
“But I don’t want to fall. Oh no, I’m falling…” She readjusts her grip on the railing, and I realize this moment is not about the real letting go.
She was panicked.
“You can let go of the railing Mom, it’s ok. You’re not falling.”
“Because I’m so tired from holding on…” she is suddenly crying. As she can. Suddenly cry.
“Mom.” I put out my hand to her, slip it under the rail. “Let go. I would never let you fall, you know that….”
Gradually she loosens her grip. I take her hand. I rub it between mine. Ice cold from gripping the cold metal rail.
She calms down.
And I remind her that she is in bed.
Yes you’re in bed and you’re not falling.
“I hope not, because if I fall there might be frogs jumping all over me.”
And so there may not be so many ladybugs left to wish on, but there are fragments of conversation that stay with her, as the one about my son’s frog, even though such fragments may splinter into the nonsensical.
But my mother’s true sense of self remains steadfast. Even unshakable, as long as she can still turn to me and repeat a saying I now memorialize as I do her pair of china dogs from her childhood: Don’t be like me.
Although a saying I still refute: I am like you Mom.
The best of you.
My mother sketching. If not a paintbrush she always had an ink pen in hand.