“You look tired.”
This astute observation didn’t come from a friend or family member. Not from my husband, certainly not my boys who’ve been subsisting on candy canes off our Christmas tree; not from my mother’s new live-in aide who doesn’t drive and asks if I can pick her up large canisters of Raw Meal from the Vitamin Shoppe.
And not from my mother who, in her far less elderly, more clearer-minded years, would have been the first to notice the shadows under my eyes.
The observation came from the middle-aged housekeeper who’d come to clean our room at the lakeside resort where we were spending New Year’s. The mini vacation we never got this past summer.
Daddy and the boys were off somewhere, busy checking off the daily activities on the little chart left at our breakfast table – hours for snow-tubing, archery, shooting range, bumper cars, basketball, goofy golf contest, wiffle ball derby, shuffle bocce, trivia contests etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc…
…the little charts that can make me hyperventilate, as can my wall kitchen calendar filled with reminders of my boys’ ortho appointments, my mother’s cardiologist appointments, all those “activities” I need though certainly don’t want to do.
And this past holiday season has been all about what I need to do. So separating out what I may want to do, has become like trying to comb out the knots in our poodle’s matted coat.
Each morning on this mini vacation, I’d opted to hang out the “do not disturb” sign, skip breakfast and drink coffee in bed, to stare numbly out the window at this lovely view:
The lake was frozen. As was my psyche.
It was around noon our first day when I’d gathered enough gumption to get dressed and take a walk down by the frozen lake.
And there I was, the odd resort guest venturing off the paved walking paths, navigating rocks and paths through pine trees:
A resortee of sorts, who’d rather head into an icy wind than gather at the other end of the lake for the snow tubing contest down a fake snow hill.
Who’d rather be alone and contemplate, in her numb-minded state, the water drifting back and forth beneath ice:
To stop by a brook to find some relief in its rhythmic white noise:
When I’d finally meandered my way back to our room, the housekeeper was making up our bed.
“I’ll only be about fifteen more minutes,” she said, tucking in the sheets tightly, perfecting the pillows.
“That’s fine,” I said, and rattled on, thinking out loud, about how my family was out at the shooting range or somewhere and I was happy to do nothing.
“Well, some vacations are like that. Especially around the holidays.” She folded back the shimmering green bedspread with admirable refinement. “And all that wrapping and cooking, we’re the ones to do it, aren’t we?”
As soon as she was done making up the bed, I lay down on it.
She paused to look at me.
To tell me I looked tired.
Yes, I’ve been feeling tired which surprises me, as I’ve actually been sleeping a good eight hours a night, although with a little help from magical sleeping pills….
She ran a finger under her own eyes saying, “You can see it.”
I mumbled something terribly vague about it having been a rather difficult holiday as my mother hasn’t been all that “well.”
Despite the vagueness, she got it: “I’ve been there. I know that.” She picked up her bucket of cleaning supplies, and before heading to the bathroom asked,
“Do you take the immunity pill?”
I asked if it were like probiotics which I don’t take either.
“No but it’s a great pill. It helps to sustain you.”
She looked as concerned as if we were actually more than tiny acquaintances. “You rest.”
She moved into the bathroom, and I lay sprawled on the bed, comforted by the simple sounds of a toilet being scrubbed, the swish of wipes across a counter, and I thought of telling her about our Christmas morning. How we’d been opening presents, and how I’d been missing my mother since it was the first Christmas she had been unable to make the trip to our house.
The plan had been to drive out to her house mid afternoon for Christmas dinner – until her aide called to ask if I’d please come out as soon as possible; my mother had locked herself in her bedroom. A dangerous choice, as her balance has become so precarious, she is known to fall even with the support of her walker.
She had locked herself in because people were plotting to kill her. And supposedly said aide was in on the “plot” with me.
With me. It was not ever her plot. It was mine.
To kill my mother.
“It’s her mind,” the aide reassured me. “It’s not about you.”
By the time I got there, my mother had unlocked the door.
“Mom, you can’t lock your door.”
“I just was getting dressed. I like my privacy, is that so terrible?” she said, and I realized she’d forgotten all about the stern conversation with her PT about how she no longer should move about alone by herself, even to go to the bathroom. She can forget her walker entirely and try to balance on one leg to put on her underwear.
I’d saved our Christmas stockings to open together, as in all my 50 years, we’d never had a Christmas morning apart. Opening each silly little gift, a tube of hand lotion or a note pad, she had to read the labels. With great care, as she would all those long printed sheets of her prescription side-effects, and I couldn’t tell whether she actually was interested in these details, or trying to cover up the fact that she knew about my heartbreaking delusional plot to “kill” her.
I took the lock off the door, which I had to do surreptitiously as I do a lot of things now. Like taking away her checkbooks, as she’d recently been scammed by a chimney company. Like sorting through her mail and tossing most of it, except for all financial statements which I sneak home. Like hiding her pills where only the aide knows they are, behind her empty red kitchen tins, as my mother still insists she can keep track of them herself.
And how these clandestine acts have been cumulating since her last fall, just before Thanksgiving, when she almost bled out. Since her short-term memory loss has become more acute and now punctuated by moments of paranoia. Since my enlightenment that she no longer safely could get by with a patchwork of aides who could come and go as needed. She no longer could live alone.
I didn’t tell the housekeeper any of this. Nor how all I was trying to achieve on this mini “vacation” was to stop feeling as if I were gripping a steering wheel until my knuckles turned white. To find a mental reprieve from my germinating grief; from my shock that my mother could think I’d be plotting to kill her, as demented as that plot may be; a reprieve from the truth, as grey and ice-cold as that lake – my mother is beginning to fade away.
But after the housekeeper had gathered up bags of our wet towels and her cleaning bucket and left me alone again, I took a picture of myself. A mistake:
(Yes, I purposely made this a thumbnail. And I’m either narcissistic or sadistic for posting it in the first place. )
I told myself it was the cold grey light reflecting off the lake that made me look like hell.
And went back to staring out the window.
No wind. Just the strength and stark stillness of winter trees.
The following morning, there was a different housekeeper. A young twenty-something who had no interest in a tired middle-aged sandwich mom.
But I did run into my new “friend” one last time as we were leaving. As I was heading up to our car with the last of our belongings and she stopped me mid-path.
“How are you feeling, better?”
I didn’t recognize her at first. Because I hadn’t taken the time to look at her as closely as she had at me.
But now I did. I hadn’t even noticed that she had red hair. Or that she actually looked tired herself – I could see that she too had indeed “been there.” And maybe still was.
I told her yes, I was feeling better, even though I had no desire to return home, to face my wall calendar with reminders to call my mother’s plumber as well as her electrician because her fuse box needed to be replaced. etc. etc.
Instead I told her about the New Year’s eve dance date I had with my ten year old:
And we wished each other a great new year.
And she took off down one path with her cleaning supplies, her red hair tangled in a cold wind. And I took off down another.