It was 7 am. I had just poured my first cup of coffee when my mother called to report that “they” had been wrong:
“They told me I was going to die, but I woke up this morning and…” she laughed, exhilarated. “I’m still here!”
Who was the “they”?
Well . . .them,” she said. “They were all here. . .” Now she was sounding vague. “Well, you know, my doctor and others. But you should see me now, I’m pulling myself up in bed. And I really thought that was it! Because you know, I really don’t want to die, I still get enjoyment out of just little things, you know?”
I did know. I could envision her there, in her bed, where she spent most of her days now, in her Soft Surroundings soft-pink bed jacket, staring out the windows at the tangle of winter crooked cherry trees. She talked a lot about how she wished she could tear down the space between the windows where her desk stood, so she could have an uninterrupted view of the trees. Of the sunsets that in summer she complained she couldn’t see as well because of the “wall of green.”
She called me again, another morning, her TV on in the background as if she’d been up for hours. But not nearly as exhilarated. Only determined: “I need to know something. Are you trying to put me away?”
I hadn’t even gotten as far as pouring that first cup. She’d woken me before my alarm.
“What?” I’d whispered, moving into the bathroom as to not wake the kids.
No, I told her, why are you thinking that? Why do you think we’ve hired a full-time aide? So you can stay at home. I promised you that, I always did. I would never put you in a home.
“I feel as if all communication between us has broken down,” she said. “Between you and me.”
I sat on the toilet seat cover, staring at the bathmat left crumpled on the floor from the boys’ showers the previous night; at an old Diego band-aide that had been stuck there for years now. The truth of that statement was as cold as the tile floor against my bare feet.
Ever since that last fall when she almost bled out, and the settling in of a full-time aide who subsists on blended cocktails of kale and green apples, yes – our communication as the mother and daughter we used to be, has broken down. Smashed to smithereens like some delicate child’s clay creation.
Because now there are all kinds of cold hard truths I can’t tell her about. After she was scammed of $1400 by a chimney company that left her house a carbon monoxide time bomb, I’ve had to take away her checkbooks and her credit cards. I’ve had to exercise my full Power of Attorney, and have removed all financial files from her office. From her mail, I weed out all financial statements and bills, throw away all charitable solicitations, leaving just enough catalogues and weekly coupons to disguise my rifling in her affairs.
And now I’ve removed the lock from her bedroom door after she locked herself in Christmas morning, claiming the aide was in on a plot with me to kill her.
Sitting there on the toilet seat, with my toes I pulled over the small mat to try and warm my feet, rambling on about how anything that I was doing was for her own good. To keep her safe, so that she wouldn’t fall again and bleed out. The one truth I was able to still share with her.
And then I reminded her of what time it was in the morning, that I had to get the kids off to school, and she was so sorry, she didn’t realize how early it was. And we were able to change the subject so I could hang up, go find my slippers and grab that first cup of coffee before waking the kids.
And as her short-term memory is, well, short, changing the subject can be as easy as that – until she discovered one of those cold truths. The one about my having unscrewed the lock from her bedroom door, when she wanted again to lock the aide out, this time because she wanted her “privacy.”
This call came midday, when I was between laundry loads perhaps. But I remember I’d sat down at the kitchen table, the boys’ half-eaten pancakes still on their plates.
“How could you do that? You could have told me you were going to do that,” she said slowly, steadily. “You could have talked to me about it.”
“Would you have let me take the locks off anyway if I had?”
She didn’t say anything. Quite possibly she hadn’t heard me as her hearing has greatly deteriorated.
But then she said, “You’re not my daughter anymore.”
She hung up.
You’re not my daughter anymore.
I sat there a long time. I picked at crumbs on the table to put them back on the plates.
Before that last fall that had resulted in a concussion and seven stitches to the back of her head, yes – she could forget within minutes some story about the cat knocking over her the flat-screen TV because “these new things are thin as paper,” and relate the story to me once or twice or three times over.
But she never before had not been up at 3am trying to decide what to wear so that she could “go out.” I’d had her tested for a urinary tract infection and it had indeed been positive, since UTIs oddly enough, can affect you mentally, as far north in your body as south.
Now I wanted her to be tested again. Because she was hallucination about people announcing to her that she was dying. About her aide and me plotting to kill her.
And she was able to forget too easily what I really thought she couldn’t have, that our communication has indeed “completely broken down.” That I no longer was her daughter; when I called her back after she’d hung up, I was already her daughter again, and she asked if I’d remember to buy more birdseed.
“It’s the disease,” her aide continually reassures me. As if that’s reassuring …
“The disease” of the brain she has seen before in other elderly clients. The forgetfulness. The paranoia, about plots, now about being trapped because all the doors are locked – the reason in 9-degree weather my mother insists on having her bedroom window open even though she is freezing. Because she feels “imprisoned.”
But my mother and and I now talk about the weather too much. As if we’re mere acquaintances. This is not us. This is not my mother. So I asked her doctor to have her tested again for the urinary tract infection.
“Whatever gives you peace, dear,” the aide said when I told her, and I resented this. That she now thinks she knows my mother better than I do. Than my mother may even know herself. Just because she’s been here before. Many times. And we haven’t.
That first urine sample, my mother had allowed the aide to help her collect, before she’d grown tired of having “no privacy.”
The aide was at the ready with latex-gloved hands.
“I can do it myself,” my mother said, moving her walker into the bathroom.
The aide shook her head at me, whispering, “She cannot hold the jar herself.” She handed me the gloves.
With the door just ajar, I was able to spy on my mother in her bathroom mirror. I watched her try to sit, then stand with the jar between her legs. She began to totter, and I burst into the bathroom.
“Give me my privacy!”
“You have to let someone help you, Mom, you can fall.”
“I can do this!”
I became impatient. I tried to put the gloves on but couldn’t get my fingers into them. I tossed them aside. And wearing gloves with my mother . . . she’s my mother.
I took the jar from her. I needed to get the sample to the doctor’s office, and back on the road; back home to pick up the boys from school; to ask them about their day; to pretend to listen about band practice and some new ball game they’d made up at recess, when all I’d really be doing is trying not think about this moment when I was squatting between my mother’s legs with a little plastic jar.
“Go,” I commanded.
She went – all over my hands but thankfully into the jar as well.
“I’m sorry,” she said, near tears, trying to pull up her underwear. “I should have let them do that.”
“Them” being the aide, as my mother can feel as if there is more than one person living in her house now.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at her behind me, in the mirror, as I washed my hands.
Yes, she should have. But I wasn’t mad. I was sad. And weary. But able, in my rushing, to lean over her on her walker, to kiss her on her cheek and reassure her, that it was all right. We were all right. She and I.
The UTI came back vaguely positive, most likely from a contaminated sample.
But my mother’s doctor prescribed antibiotics anyway, as she realized better than I did, how hard it would be to get a clean sample even with gloved hands. And realizing from all my calls going back and forth to her, with my mother’s various hallucinatory symptoms and forgetfulness, how hard it is for me to find that “peace.”