Thursday, October 12, 2006

Requiem for my mother

I love my mother. I love her dearly. And because my love for her is so strong I want her dead.

When I think back on my childhood, she’s the one parent who was there during key events and turning points, doing whatever she could to make sure everything turned out just right. No matter how bad things looked, she always had a way of showing me it was never as bad as it appeared. She was my fiercest critic and my biggest cheerleader.

Whether it was putting me on the path to recovery from a childhood illness, to making sure I was actually learning what was being taught in school, to helping me understand people and the human condition, my mother was always there. She taught me how to love, how to conduct myself at all times, and even how to drive.

She could talk about anything. Whether it was people at my dad’s office, events at his company or current affairs, mom could discuss it all. She had a way of making people so comfortable that they would take her into their confidence. Maybe it was her youth, her beauty or her charm that made her so trustworthy.

With few exceptions, I never held much back from her. And I never once felt embarrassed talking about the most intimate of topics with her.

She could discuss sex openly and frankly, never hesitating to answer difficult or embarrassing questions. As she said many times, “My mother never talked to me about sex. I want you to understand it.”

When I think about her, I think more people should have had my mother as their mom. She coached a few of my friends through some difficult days; she was easily able to make friends with all of my friends as well as their parents. Everyone loved her.

Whatever she lacked, she made sure I had. This was especially true of self-confidence. My mother never really believed in herself. But she made sure her two sons believed in themselves. She helped us find our strengths and showed us how to hedge against our weaknesses.

I’m not sure why she never had any confidence. Maybe it was her mother’s fault. Or maybe it was a generational thing. She was one of the last groups of women expected to marry young, stay home and rear the children. And, basically, that’s all she wanted to be – a wife and a mother. And a stay-at-home one at that, long before the term “stay-at-home mom” became fashionable.

She packed up our house eight times in 12 years for moves across the country and overseas. She managed nearly all of the details, making sure everything arrived just as it had been packed.

Looking back on her abilities and accomplishments, I’m impressed. There wasn’t anything about her background that would have led someone to predict the kind of life she would live. Her education was limited to a high school diploma from Charles City, Iowa, and about a year’s worth of secretarial school in Des Moines, where she worked for the state attorney general. By the time she was 32, she had two sons, 12 and 8, and had just returned to the United States after living in Hong Kong for two years.

Her life, I believe, caused quite the rift with her mother and even her sister. I’m sure there were some personality differences between them but there was also some jealousy, too. My mother left Iowa while they remained behind.

I suspect that’s not a new story. I’m sure there are other families with similar stories, where one member leaves to see the world while the others remain close to home.

The most devastating thing that happened to my mother was her divorce. She was married to my dad for just over 20 years when they announced they were separating. About a year later, their break-up was made official.

My mother was single at 42. The previous 23 years of her life had been defined as being a wife, homemaker, mom and hostess for my dad’s business functions. Suddenly, everything that gave her life meaning was ending. I was graduating from college and about to start my first job while my brother was off to college.

She was scared. Alone. And probably depressed. Her mother couldn’t advise her because she’d never experienced such a devastating blow. Her sister’s advice: Return to Iowa.

Mom remained in Connecticut and overcame some of the trauma with the help of close friends. They supported her but I suspect even they were eventually at a loss for words or guidance. She probably should have found a therapist.

But that wasn’t mom. She was the type of person – at least when it came to her own health – who thought freshening up her make-up, lighting up a cigarette, a new drink and a few good friends would make the pain go away. It did – until the party was over and she had to confront reality again by herself.

Today, at 64, she’s an Alzheimer’s patient. She lives near us in an assisted living facility. She still recognizes me, my wife and my children.

But her condition, in spite of all of the drugs that she’s taking to keep her brain working, worsens. Lately her mind’s demise has started affecting her behavior. She acts like a child, not only in front of my sons but also in front people she’s never met.

She demonstrated this behavior this week while we were waiting for her dental appointment. She went into her kid routine, with two other adults in the waiting room, and then proceeded to walk backwards out of the waiting room.

Then she peeked around the corner of the lobby into the waiting room to see if I noticed she was missing. These are the antics of a child who’s 6 or 7 – not a 64-year-old woman. An hour later, she acted like a kid for a 19-year-old waitress at the restaurant where we’d had lunch.

Her dignity is gone. If I introduced the mom I knew five years ago to the mom I know today, she wouldn’t want to be around. In fact, she’d want to be dead.

And that’s where I am on this. I want her dead. I’m not about to kill her or help her commit suicide or anything of the sort. But if there’s any one thing I pray for it’s her death. The sooner, the better.
Sometimes people commend us for all that we’re doing. We sold her house, moved her here, and her financial assets are well looked after.

But I feel like I’m walking on quicksand. Other than doing the best we can, I don’t think we know what we’re doing. She’s alive, somewhat healthy, comfortable, safe, and I guess that’s as good as it’ll be. But I keep thinking I failed her.

And even though modern medicine can slow her brain’s death, it can’t change the eventual outcome. At some point, if she’s still alive, she’ll be in some sort near-coma. This is what happens to Alzheimer’s patients if they live that long. They appear to be asleep; but, really, they’re just gone.

They don’t recognize anyone; they can’t do anything for themselves; they don’t know their name; they might recall pieces of their childhood. Mentally, they’re dead. Why should anyone stay alive at that point?

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