Between Parent and Child
May 29, 2013
On Sunday, Mother locked me out of the house again. She’s 89, and though not senile, “high maintenance” strikes me as accurate: Osteoarthritis, crippling scoliosis, high blood pressure, and residual bi-polar disorder. On the first lockout, I had been away for the evening, and she had gotten uneasy and locked herself in via the keyless deadbolt. I solved that one by crawling through the doggie door into the screen porch where I could hammer on her bedroom window until she woke up. That time I was sympathetic. It was late at night and she was frightened. This time I was pretty sure it was pique—plus, I was in my good clothes, and damned if I was going to crawl through that dog door again.
On the whole, we’ve navigated the terrain of elder care pretty well. She came to live with me after a compression fracture in her spine, and though we had a heart-to-heart about using the stove after the third teakettle burned to black, she maneuvers pretty well on her own, using her wheelchair as a walker. Most of the time our emotional collisions don’t cause pile-ups. That Sunday morning, though, yesterday’s minor argument hung around the kitchen like an overdone casserole. When I got home from church, I found the back door deadbolted, solid and impenetrable. Mother had removed her hearing aids and gone to bed.
My mother spends a lot of time in bed, drawn to it partly by heavy narcotics prescribed for her arthritis pain, and partly by a practice of sleep as escape. In bed she can literally close her eyes to the losses that have accumulated over the years: shopping excursions, audible conversation, independent baths. My friends suggest that caring for her is like caring for a child, but I never had children and besides, the comparison is only partly true. The true part, the part that elder care has in common with child care, involves thinking for them—we make their appointments and arrange their transportation; we sort their pills and remind them to swallow; we fix a plate of food, perhaps cut it up, and coax them to eat; we remember the sweater and extra pillows that will make them comfortable; we try to be patient with their awkwardness. Often our charges must be dressed, fed, bathed, doctored, and even diapered. I fret over Mother’s sniffles and her potential for the flu. I worry that she will fall and hurt herself. I hire a sitter when I am away at night. I grow irritable when she needs milk for breakfast and I am late for work.
But our situation is more complicated than Mother becoming, in effect, my child. We act out a subversion of the natural order, a distorted reflection of childhood from a funhouse mirror. Children gain strength and independence; with every month, Mother needs me more. I don’t look forward to an easing of responsibility; it will only get more intense.
But even that’s not at the center of it. I try to tease apart the relationship and find this: My mother is still my parent, even in her diminished state. And children—those of my generation – don’t tell parents what to do. I do not cease being my mother’s baby girl even as I assume responsibility for her physical and emotional well-being. Elder care doesn’t reverse parent/child roles; it combines them, an uneasy merging. The doubling puts my psyche out of joint.
In Donald Hall’s poem “My Son, My Executioner,” a new generation heralds the speaker’s own death. Watching my mother’s decline forces me to confront my own potential, inevitable following. She has had to move out of her home, disperse her belongings, and leave her friends. “I never expected to be like this,” she tells me, her crippling arthritis bending her almost double so that she must look up to see above the floor, her back and neck making a lopsided “S.” And of course, neither do I intend to be frail, dependent, and incontinent.
On Sunday, I was furious. I hammered on every door I could get to and screamed for her until my voice was raw. With the dog barking like mad inside, I beat on the front window until I feared it would shatter. Finally, she emerged from her room, shuffling slowly behind her wheelchair, her white hair tousled and her blue eyes wide and steely. I yelled without caring about the neighbors. “LET ME IN!” Stone-faced, without a word, she fumbled with the bolt and finally drew open the door.
Then, in the face of my anger and against all evidence, she denied responsibility.
She had not locked that door. Of course she would never do such a thing. She swore it through gritted teeth. She blamed the dog. She threw her plastic water glass across the floor. Didn’t I think she knew better? But the facts were not in her favor: The door had been bolted from the inside and the dog wasn’t really a candidate. Fear that she could have done it—and done so without remembering it—made her denial fierce. She was terrified. I swallowed hard and left the room.
Later she was remorseful.
“Honey, I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t do anything in the world to worry you.” Her voice broke. She put her hand over her face as she crinkled into tears. “I’m afraid I’m going crazy.”
“It’s all right.” I reassured her. “You’re not crazy; you just got upset.” I wiped her eyes, kissed her cheek, hugged her bony shoulders carefully. I understood the subterranean need to assert some control in a landscape where she has little. We made our peace.
Bette Davis was right about old age and sissies. Whether we watch a younger generation move into our place or an older one beckon us toward theirs, we face hard times; losses that slip grain by grain through our clenched fists. There we both stood that Sunday, Mother and I, separated by age, power, and options, angry and impotent, pounding on locked doors.
Mary Marwitz teaches creative writing and first-year composition in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA. Her work has appeared in Perigee:Publication for the Arts, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Georgia Guardian, and several academic journals.