I’d always been dramatic, but I really wasn’t sure we were going to make it back East with my mother still alive. We drove the long, boring stretch of Route 80 across the Midwest before stopping in the middle of the night at a crappy road side chain hotel because they accepted pets. The trip was tinged by the Midwestern cold and snow and we were wedged in tight in our Highlander with suitcases, food cooler, two dogs and presents we’d been given at Christmas, the first one without my dad.
Besides being 81 and a recent widow, mom was not in great shape. She had a hard time leaving the house because her bowels were subject to “acting up” at random moments. When we would try to get to the root of her ailment, she would respond “Oh sweetie, my body just won’t let me eat broccoli anymore.” The next day she would quip “Oh, you know, my body won’t let me enjoy fruit anymore.” If we were at a restaurant I would try to entice her to order a piece of fish. Scanning the menu, she would ponder long and hard until eventually she picked out an ingredient that caught her eye and she made that her latest scapegoat. Then would come the inevitable bartering with the waitress. Coquettishly putting her finger to her chin and casting her eyes sideways she would begin “Now I know I’m being a troublemaker here, buuuuut, may I please get the steak without the onions and instead of fries can I get mashed potatoes? Oh, wait, they’re garlic mashed potatoes? Oh well, Can’t have THOSE!” And I knew what was coming next. Whispering, as if she and our server went way back to college days, she would add “If I eat garlic my body REALLY doesn’t like me.”
So we set off on the long, worrisome journey spiking her food with Imodium and praying for short distances between rest stops. My mother, Grace, was doing something she had never done in her entire life. She was going away from her home, without her life partner, for an entire month. Mom was coming to live with us in The Hamptons.
A relief to me, the agenda did not include my mother dying on us in the flat, ugly regions of football- crazed Ohio. Nor did she meet her demise in the dingy bathroom of the rest stop Denny’s. She was chatty on the journey, amused in an odd sort of way at our David Sedaris autobiography on cd. She would suddenly cackle out a skeptical laugh, unconvinced that anyone, let alone David Sedaris, actually lived like that. In the sacred silent moments, she punctuated the quiet, busily reading road signs aloud. Sometimes she applied a staccato for emphasis – “SanDUSky, O-HI-O. TWEN-ty five miles.” Or “Benny’s BIG BOY! DE-LIC-IOUS sandwiches for you and yours. Sandwich, chips AND a drink only $6.99! Hmm. That seems high to me.” When she wasn’t bustling with opinions about the weather, the terrain we were covering or repeating some news for the third time, she slept, chin dropped down to her chest. I frequently strained over the seat to look at her more closely. “What are you doing?” my husband asked. “I’m making sure she’s still breathing.”
By the time we petered into Eastern PA on the New Jersey border, we really were feeling high, thinking that yes, maybe we WOULD make it home with a living grandmother for our child. Wrapping up our diner dinner served by a rough waitress named Janice, I retracted the $50 bill mom put down for her tip and asked “Um, mom, did you want Janice to have a 5 or a 50 dollar bill?” These are the kinds of things kids start doing for their parents, I quickly found. It’s payback for all the infuriating things we did as kids. You know, like smacking our gum, picking our noses, and kicking our little sisters.
Never did pulling into our snowy driveway in Springs in the cold, black night feel so good yet so uncertain. My mother, born and bred in the Midwest, Catholic, mother of five, housewife, and small town woman was moving in with her East Coast actress daughter, son -in-law, 13 year old grandson, our two dogs and a cat. All of us, a quirky combination, living in a cold, drafty, renovated barn in the woods. Things got real. Fast.
Dad died only six months earlier and mom of course was still struggling. The fact she agreed to come back with us exposed something to me that I had never thought to be in her. I felt a pride in her courage, her adventurous spirit. Perhaps it was a desperate need to escape the memories in the house she’d shared for 40 years with her husband. I understood. A change of scenery can save a life. Coming to the ocean, particularly our little tip of the island, can mend a heart. The East End had been my savior too 16 years ago.
We gave her the “best room” to enjoy and I made her breakfast and tea every day. I saw immediately if left to her own devices, mom would sit and stare the hours away. Mom was deep in mourning, at a loss as to how to be on her own. She was struggling with early onset dementia, and she valiantly tried to hide it from us. Her intestinal system was unsteady which made leaving the house always chancy. Her mind betrayed her too. She began saying “Kate, I don’t know why, but I keep feeling like I’m back in my parent’s home.” I tried to reassure her while scouring my brain for any information I had or article I had read that could explain this recurring experience for her. I tried with “Well mom, you’ve never been here to this house before, it’s old like your childhood home was. ” Or “Well, you’re missing them a lot mom, they’re on your mind, so of course this makes sense.” But the truth was that I was now her parent. I felt the way caretakers feel when they don’t know for sure what to do: terrified.
Our month together was peppered with a class creating a “vision board,” weekly church at Most Holy Trinity, movies, playing cards and Yahtzee (even being an avid card player we had to continually remind her what a full house was – yet she managed to beat us almost every time.) She complained how cold the house was while refusing to heed my and Jimmy Carter’s advice to “wear a sweater.” I set up acupuncture treatments to help with her ongoing war with vegetables, fruits, coffee, fried food, baked food, sweets, and anything else one puts in their mouth. She never considered that her system was revolting against the 12 pharmaceutical drugs she took every single day. Her pickiness with food became a source of frustration for me when I would see her carefully pick out and push aside every finely chopped onion from the pasta sauce I’d made. My patience wore thin, my nerves fried, my heart was breaking. I longed for my younger mother, the one I could count on, the one who didn’t ache so visibly, the mother who beamed at my childhood performances and athletics. This near-unrecognizable person with us couldn’t look her ailments head-on, was rarely involved in conversations and took no interest in the outside world unless dragged to do so. I spent time outside on walks, venting to my husband, unable to grasp what was happening here, angry that life had to be so unbearably cruel as we age, frustrated with something mean or repetitive mom had said.
The mantra came to me one day, quietly, on a walk at Louse Point where I always feel my father’s presence with the sound of the lapping water. It was a time when I felt my lowest and most hopeless.
All there is, is love.
All there is, is love.
All there is, is love.
I had to let the judgment go. I had to allow my mother to be who she was now. I had to let her grow old as she would. In sadness. In forgetfulness. In confusion. Slowly fading into the ether as she gazes into space. All I had to do was love her anyway.
I add light where I can. I help her experience new and interesting things. I clean up after her when her body betrays her. I laugh when she tells me the same story for the fourth time. Everything is new each time mom tells it…. again. Like the waves upon the shore.
We visited the ocean her last day here where she said “Thanks for my time here.” Then she looked out over the shimmering expanse and told me “I’ve always loved the ocean. Your father and I honeymooned at the ocean. I will never forget it.” I believe her.