As I enter the yard, the lawn has been mowed and there are trimmed bushes in front of the house. When I walk into the small, but clean and organized home, there is no trace of dirt on the carpet or dust on the television. The kitchen floor is swept and Mom is at the counter whipping up a batch of cookies. Mom is a tall woman (5’9″ish), thin yet strong. It’s possible the house smells like cigarette smoke, but it probably also smells like chocolate and sugar and a hint of dish soap.
Now fast forward four years.
I walk into the yard with the overgrown bushes and am greeted with a trash bag on the walkway that has been ripped open by animals. When I enter the house, I see a rug coated in dirt and grass, and Mom, now 20 pounds lighter with the look of a frail wounded bird, is sitting in her favorite chair because her body doesn’t allow her to do much more. The kitchen floor is also dirty, and when I open the trash can to throw something away, tiny flies dart out at me as I try to slam the lid back down while covering my face. I can only smell cigarette smoke. Nothing more. Until I go into the spare room where the cat’s litter box is stored. There is no more clean litter and the box is filled with urine and feces. The cat has done the best he could with what he had.
I don’t cry. Not yet.
I sweep the kitchen floor and vacuum the rug while Mom tries on the clothes I bought her for her birthday. I scoop the cat box as best as I can and try to leave the little guy with something until I can get back during my lunch break with fresh litter. I talk to Mom for another minute before I have to leave for work. It’s obvious she’s in pain today. The dark half-moon smudges under her eyes tell me she’s hurting. She doesn’t complain, just states that she hurts. I give her a hug and tell her I’ll call her in a bit before I come back over in the afternoon. I take the trash out on my way to my car, and I have to hold my breath as I open the large trash can. It not only stinks, but maggots drip from inside the cover onto the garage floor. I stuff the bag in and try not to retch.
As I drive the 15 minutes to work, I take several deep breaths. When I get to work, I ask my boss to smell me because I think I smell like smoke and/or cat pee. She tells me I do smell like smoke….and then I cry. This wasn’t a “silent, tears streaming down your face” kind of cry. This was a blubbering, snot-inducing sob, while trying to tell my boss why I was so upset. Mom was actually doing pretty well that day. Her memory was decent and although she was hurting, she could still get up and walk around with her walker.
But…she wasn’t my mom anymore. I’ve known this for several years, but the great leap in those two images, the stark difference in “before” and “after” finally became real to me. I know she is no longer the baking, clean-freak I grew up with (and became!) but is now an old woman who can no longer care for her home like she used to.
I am the person responsible for cleaning it now.
And I hate it.
But I think she hates it, too.
She always thanks me profusely whenever I go over and for some reason, I always feel a little guilty when she thanks me like that. Admittedly, if my visit is before work, I’m running around her house, cleaning up, not sitting down and chatting much, because I need to get to work (and typically this is after taking my son to school and running around my *own* house getting supper in the crock pot and doing laundry and who knows what else). I’m sure Mom can feel my tension but also understands my “I need to get his done” attitude, because that’s how she always was while I was growing up. I do know Mom appreciates my help, but I also know she’d give anything if she could do it on her own again.
And so would I.
Does that make me selfish or a bad daughter? Probably. But I have to be honest, at least with myself. But I also know I need to come to terms with all the changes. Over the past week I have had multiple emotional outbursts, some with tears and others in anger. No one has been immune–my family, my co-workers, my friends. I’ve either yelled at or cried on nearly everyone. Wearing my heart on my sleeve is an understatement this week. I have felt just so….exposed, with every emotion I have felt being raw, painful.
I’m aware that the stress I have felt isn’t just from Mom’s situation but also from other health-related concerns within my family. Yet I have no control over those problems. I can only hope and send good thoughts and say encouraging words, but there’s nothing else I can do. But with my mom? I may not have control over the deterioration of her mind and body, but I can do little things like vacuum or sweep or bring her good food, and I need to take some consolation from those few things I *can* do. I need to give myself a break and not get angry or frustrated when I walk into her home and it’s not like it was a few years ago. This isn’t her fault and I need to stop acting like it is.
I need to remember that Mom is still my mom and just try to forget all the rest.
You are really something, Holly. I’m glad we’ve crossed paths.
And I wished we lived closer!
You can’t expect to save the world and can’t expect not to express from time to time, your wish to be able to do more. It’s something that few people can put into words, let alone into such emotional, moving feelings that touch our hearts with that all too familiar fear. After spending the last week with mom, after her heart spell, which they say isn’t her heart, I’ve realized just how much she can’t do, compared to a few months ago. The forgetfulness and the simple pleasures we share on the phone, that get repeated, the movies she’s forgotten, the stories she doesn’t remember me telling her, and all, have made me want to grab all the bits taking flight and gather them back into the whole of what she was. I hate seeing parts disappear. I hate having a feeling of loss when she’s right in front of me. She’s still beautiful , still funny, still loving, still doing for herself with many more limitations, and yet I just feel like I want to make her less fragile and fearful and the woman she enjoyed being. Yet I could make myself sick over it, and lose myself in the process. So I pray and trust that she’ll take the rests she needs, and will become aware of when it’s time to move in with my sister, and leave the home she loves, in return for feeling more secure and safe, without us having to make that decision for her. She has a stress test coming up, and I know it could set something off, or weaken her heart even more, and it scares me, and I’m sure it scares her as well. Yet when the day comes, I have to pretend like it’s just like any other day, and not show my concern to give her strength. I like you have others in my family with health issues and my friend Phil, your terrific brother, that I’d like to turn back time for, and have the present turn out different, but you can’t leave your life path to try to control the paths of those you love. Each one can only live the path they chose and we sit on the sidelines, just being there, feeling pain, sadness, and anger inside. Maybe those are bits of their own , that we take on to lessen the load. I know that life will continue in it’s own fashion , at it’s own pace, and we can only hope that we are able to steer the ship for as long as possible.
Hugs to you, my friend.