Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Introducing a new character...

In case I didn't know things had changed around here, there are reminders scattered about that are very hard to miss. For one, there is the bathroom. We have just one in our house and it is now occasionally occupied by a fourth individual. A mere 25% increase in this case is something truly and personally felt. At night, there is often some reality show with people (professionals? celebrities?) competing (dancing? singing?) on in the other room, and there are the dog-eared, pulp-y paperback novels on the bed in the extra bedroom. Oh, and there was also that reminder when we accidentally fed the neighborhood squirrels kishka. Kishka, an Eastern European dish, is a matzo meal mixture stuffed in a cow intestine casing: it is something so profoundly not vegan that, years ago, when I asked my happily omnivorous grandmother what that weird plasticky wrapper was around the stuffing, she told me, her expression wan, "You don't want to know." Our home, needless to say, is a cow intestine-free zone. We fed it to the squirrels inadvertently: the kishka was leftover from my mother's lunch out with a friend and we kept it on the back steps like a shoe with something gross on it that we just didn't want to deal with quite yet. We conveniently forgot about it. So, overnight, the squirrels got the kishka, which might become a code phrase for whenever something happens unintentionally but probably being for the best or at least the best that can happen out of a weird situation. In any case, the thought of squirrels rifling through my mother's carry-out container did provide some amusement. For example, imagining a squirrel with stereotypical Yiddish verbal affectations, "Oy! That kishka was so salty! Did you go to The Bagel? You should've gone to Kaufman's! Tch!" This sort of thing is funny. If you play it right, it has some real mileage as an entertainment device. When your mother has moved in with you, you take what you can get in this regard.

The inevitability of my mother living with us started its process about twelve years ago, like the mallet hitting the ball on top of a Rube Goldberg contraption, when my father died of a sudden heart attack. Or maybe it was a stroke. The man smoked three packs of Kool's a day and had a host of other habits not exactly conducive to longevity so when he died at 59 we weren't exactly scratching our heads in confusion, all crying protestations of "But how?" It was more like, "Now what?" Now what. My parents fought pretty much every day of their married life, at least from my vantage point. I think there was once they watched fourth of July fireworks from a blanket at the beach when they seemed to be content sitting side-by-side, and, shockingly, I saw them kiss one time, but other than that, there's scant little to point at as evidence of a joyous union. Still, my mother has always been a creature of habit and my father, and their life together, was a habit. As soon as he died, my mother began unraveling to where she is now, living with us. I'm not sure if my father's death and her decline are linked, but she did tell me that she didn't know what to do with her time now that she had no one to fight with every day.

My mother struggled with depression after my father died, wretched feelings of guilt and remorse. She is of a generation and mindset that does not approve of therapy, and group support was out for her as she's also not that sort of person. This was especially hard because after my father's death, she started to cut off ties with any of her friends who were still married. She felt like they couldn't understand her: there was no convincing her that she wasn't pitied, that her friends still wanted to see her out of anything but a sense of obligation. She also couldn't help resenting them. As my mother was a relatively young widow at 55, this led her to further isolation. Talking about her emotions is not comfortable or natural for her, and I'm certain that there were a lot of mixed feelings, residual hostilities toward the husband who died and then guilt because of that. They were supposed to retire and have grandchildren one day. Maybe with fewer stresses they could get along, mellow out, travel more extensively, enjoy their dotage together. His early death was not part of the plan.

After the depression came the headaches. She started having horrible, searing headaches that lingered for days on end. Headaches are such an elusive thing: many kinds have no clear root cause. Unlike with a broken ankle or a sore throat, you have very little evidence other than your word. She became defensive when the doctor couldn't find a cause and the medications he prescribed weren't helping. "Everyone thinks I'm making it up," was what she said to me countless times. "Why would I do that?" So first there was depression and then headaches, and concurrent with that was trouble with communication and an escalating forgetfulness. She would change what she was saying in mid-sentence and expect people to follow what she was talking about. She would say something that seemed to be completely out of the blue but it turned out to be relevant to something we'd talked about days earlier with no prefacing. It was as if she were having a conversation in her own head that she thought others could hear. Clear communication was never her strong suit, and, as my friends with parents on their own downward descents warned me, that sort of thing doesn't tend to improve with time. They were right, of course.

Though my mother was always a little flaky, she was also always very rigorous with her responsibilities. I don't think she ever had an overdraft notice, never paid a late fee, never even had an overdue book. (Once she got a call that a book she knew she'd returned was late so she went to the library and found it there herself, misfiled. I know she showed it to the librarian behind the check-out counter with a victorious smile as her record returned to its untarnished state.) For her to forget things - where she was supposed to meet her friend for lunch, and what time, and was it even that day? - was very unlike her. When I had my son, the event she had seemingly been waiting for all her life, I had a delusory hope that his birth would shake things up in a good way, snap her out of the fog that seemed to widen around her every day. She was overjoyed, of course. My mother loves babies, just adores them, and the fact that this one was her very own first grandchild was almost like gilding the lilly. He was perfection. He was all she ever wanted. He didn't cure anything, though.

Eventually, my mother sold her house and bought a condo closer to where we live. She picked out all new furniture, started from scratch. "For the first time in my life," she told me, "I'm living exactly how I want to live." There was a maintenance worker on call, a good mix of younger and older residents, no lawn to take care of anymore. She had to give up her car right away, though, because even under the best conditions, she was an anxious driver and now she was living on a very busy street. But she had a movie theater a short bus ride away, there was a big bookstore nearby, a drugstore. Most important, her grandson was five minutes away. Everyone knew that this condo was the last step before she'd come to live with us and most of us guessed, given the progression of everything, that it'd be five years or so. Not too far off: it was four years.

The beginning of the end of my mother's independence was probably when she broke her pelvis a couple of years ago. She lost her balance when a bus took off abruptly and she fell off of it. It wasn't a bad break, as the doctors liked to say, but she had to stay in the hospital for two weeks or so while she recovered and did physical therapy. Oh, she was deeply unhappy. She wanted to have an operation to "fix it" and no matter how many times we told her that she should be grateful that she didn't need surgery, that the recovery would be much more long and painful, it didn't seem to sink in. She disliked most of the nurses but reserved the majority of her rancor for the physical therapists, individuals she was certain were there to personally torment and hector her. In addition to the pain, after so many years of living with someone who harshly judged and criticized almost every move she made, physical therapy was too much for my mother to take. She dug in, though, and managed to recover. Her doctor was pleased with her progress, remarking that younger people often have a longer recovery process.

Even though my mother recovered physically, the fall was terribly undermining to her confidence. She fell again last fall and, though there was no lasting injury, her confidence was fully shattered and her resilience was shot. She tried for this past year to continue to live on her own - something she very much wanted to do - but it was becoming too risky, We visited a lot, staying with her on weekends, but we couldn't watch her every move. She kept losing her wallet, her credit cards, her keys. She couldn't figure out how to lock her door. We were afraid she'd be robbed or worse. Like my grandfather, my mother has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, something that's been very hard for me to come to terms with but it is true nonetheless, She has moments of clarity and lucidity and moments of utter confusion. Honestly, between the Alzheimer's and Parkinsonism, a neurological syndrome similar to Parkinson's, as well as her various medications, she has more bad days than good ones. I still see little glimmers of the mom I knew, though; she's still in there. My old mom emerges with her sense of humor, her love of flowers and children, her caring, peacemaking nature. She moved in with us in March.

It has not been an easy transition for any of us except for my son, who enjoys the novelty of having another person live with us. I don't know if my mother and me could be more opposite, temperamentally and in terms of habits. I often struggle with my judgments over her junk food, her television, her being and I dislike this about myself but I also can't seem to help it. She thinks I'm messy and disorganized and I think her priorities are screwed up, So there. I know that my mother - having lived through all that she has - is a survivor but I can't silence this voice that judges her as weak, soft. And it's true, though she has survived a lot, my mother is essentially a soft person, not tough. She's not without fault, but she's kind-hearted, probably the most generous person I know. The part of me that I dislike, the part that is mean-spirited and condemning of her, that's the voice that tyrannized us, the voice of my father, and it makes me wince in recognition. A Buddhist once told me that he enjoys driving in heavy traffic because it's a good test of how completely he is manifesting the qualities of the Buddha. We can be peaceful, kind people when we're not challenged but in the challenging we find what we are made of, we find our default modes of operation. When my mother wants to bring Doritos into my house or leaves the bathroom sink running for the fifth time that day or asks me if I'm giving her the right pills yet again, I'm going to need to try to cultivate the Buddha.

So there's a new character around. And occasionally squirrels will eat kishka in our back yard.


  1. Wow, Marla, this post was funny, poignant, and gutsy in its honesty! I can relate to quite a bit of it. My parents had a similar relationship, which ended in a very bitter divorce rather than a death, and my mother has dementia too. She lives alone a few hundred miles away, is fit and functional enough to manage fine so far, with good neighbors and friends who look after her. But I'm an only child and I I dread that day I sense is coming, even though her dementia has mellowed her out. She used to be negative and nasty to the point of cruel, but losing her short term memory seemed to erase her bitterness! Funny silver lining, but there it is. I've been working for years on cultivating my own Buddha nature, often without much success... patience is not my virtue. And sometimes when I think of the possibility of my mother living with us someday (she's mellower, but still crazy-making!), I panic over my lack of progress in the Bodhisattva department! :-) I feel for you, it cannot be at all easy adjusting to something like this. I'm sure you're handling it with far more grace than you're giving yourself credit for, along with admirable self-awareness and your usual wonderful humor! I do hope some things will get easier as everyone adjusts more.

    Meanwhile, thank you for "the squirrels at the kishka" - what a great new shorthand for things inadvertently working out in the best possible way, under the circumstances! LOL

    And thanks for another thoughtful, interesting and funny glimpse into your life. I send you my sincerest wishes for a peaceful and very happy Mother's Day! :-)

  2. Hi, Laloo (my new nickname for you)!

    Oh, yes, similar issues. It is interesting how dementia can take the edge off some or give them an edge they didn't have before. My grandfather, the most mellow, content, serene person alive, suddenly started giving everyone a piece of his mind when dementia hit him. It turned out that he really did have judgments and opinions about everyone but he'd kept them bottled up under his calm exterior. :)

    Patience, patience. So not a quality of mine. Having my mother live with us has been an excellent window into how quickly I can fly off the handle when triggered, let's just say that. My triggers seem to usually center around feeling judged, and, well, that's my mother's general mode of operation. We're all trying.

    Thank you for your kind words, Laloo. It is nice to have someone who understands.

    Peace and love your way as you face your challenges...

  3. Hi, Marla!

    First of all, I just noticed that the squirrels not only ate the kishka, but also the letter "e" at the end of ate in my comment! Those tricksters. ;-)

    Second, I love the nickname Laloo and am happy to see you adopt it (and save yourself some extra typing!)

    Third, hearing about your grandfather going from content to curmudgeonly when his dementia hit was another familiar story! My maternal grandmother, who was just like your grandfather - patient, gracious, suffered greatly but never complained nor had an unkind thing to say about or to anyone - maintained that pretty much intact even when she had dementia in her final years (she died at 95). She stayed saintly-sweet right up till the end, but then... her last words to my not-yet-mellow mother (who had "cared for" - in her Nurse Ratchet style - my grandmother for about a decade), were, "Oh, shut up." My mother told me that she hadn't said a word (I'm pretty sure that's physically impossible for her, but whatever), was just standing silently at the foot of my grandmother's bed, when my grandmother looked her dead in the eye and said those words in a very firm voice. She never said another thing, and died peacefully later that night. My mother was mad, offended and upset about it, but I have to admit that I not only chuckle every time I think of it, but give my grandmother a mental fist-bump too! :-)

    Until you're able to deprogram your trigger, I hope that every time you're feeling judged you'll hear the bang of a gavel in your imagination, and a booming, authoritative voice declaring you, "Not guilty!" :-)


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