It was happening again. This time it was my mom. I knew she was dying. Suddenly she was losing all of her faculties, mental as well as physical. She had fallen a couple of times and was too weak to get up. And sometimes she literally didn’t know where she was. Once, I arrived at her house to find the doors unlocked and her down on the floor. She’d slid out of her chair reaching for a dropped piece of paper. And she was complaining that nobody had come to help her up.
“Where are these darn people?,” she said; “All these employees and no one has come along to help me. And I don’t know why your dad hasn’t come either.”
I was able to help her back onto her chair after a few false starts.
“What people? There are no people here. You’re at home.” I thought it was best to be frank and direct with her.
She looked around, taking in the art on the walls, the furniture, perhaps the paint colors; “Oh, that’s right. I thought I was at the nursing home with your dad.”
“And, as for dad, you know he’s been gone for a while now.”
“Oh, that’s right.” At that, she sounded disappointed. It was one small chink in her armor and a slightly endearing reaction to her loss.
Hers was such a sudden decline that I didn’t have time to question whether she was still safe at home alone – she wasn’t – or if she should at least have someone to come in and care for her – she should. I just knew that she was dying too and, more than anything else, I felt a guilty impatience with the whole process. I thought life would be better if we were just here one day and gone the next. This terrible period of wasting away was good for nothing and just prolonged the inevitable. Not that I wished her dead per se. I just wanted her to be her old self or not to be at all. Was that so awful?
I was so glad when she came up with the idea of moving into an assisted living facility. I didn’t want to have to try to make her do it but it was the only solution to the problem of her safety. Dinah thought her grandma should move in with us and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her all the reasons this wouldn’t work. She had been a bad mother. I couldn’t bear the idea of spending the rest of my sixties taking care of her. The resentment would have been too great a price to pay for doing the right thing. Having Dinah live with me was different. She was a good daughter and a good person in so many ways. And I felt I owed her. To whatever degree I might have contributed to my daughter’s anxiety disorder, I wanted to do right by her.
My mom needed a referral from her doctor in order to move into a facility. Fortunately, she had a check-up scheduled and I was determined to assist her in getting what she wanted. There was one problem. My mom was likely to lie about the extent of her infirmities, by longstanding habit, just to make everything sound normal. She wouldn’t stop to consider that this would defeat her purpose. This tendency toward lying seemed to me one of the aftereffects of growing up in Nazi Germany. You had to make everything sound normal to avoid scrutiny.
I said, “Mom, you’ve got to be truthful. Let the doctor know how bad it’s gotten, that you can’t get up by yourself anymore, that you forget things sometimes, and that you don’t feel safe at home anymore.”
She considered these things and worried aloud that if she told him, she might be committed or somehow lose her freedom of will. I assured her this would not be the case, that the doctor had no interest in keeping her a prisoner somewhere. She was dubious.
When the time came and we were called into the doctor’s office, she said something like “What would you think about my moving into The Regency?” She had a way, well into her dotage, of regaining her sanity at the critical times.
Fortunately, he said he thought that was a good idea. He did go on to ask about her specific concerns and she downplayed the severity of what was happening, as I’d feared, but he seemed to intuit that the time had come. It turned out all we had to do was find a place and they would coordinate with her doctor’s office to complete all the paperwork.
I thought of her all those years ago, of her willful striding toward the neighbor’s homes on those summer days back in De Ridder, eager to gossip and drink Pepsi. I thought about her lack of patience with an equally willful teenage daughter and how I felt being smacked with a hairbrush, or a wooden spoon or a coat hanger or whatever she happened to be holding in her hand. I thought about her disengaged response to my crying. Was she trying to make me strong? Didn’t she know how to react? Or did she really not care? I tend to think my crying was simply something she couldn’t control, something that stood in the way of her social narrative, that of the perfect family. She must have had a hell of a bad childhood herself, not just because of the bombing and the fear of the stazi coming in the night. She must have had a bad childhood because her parents sounded as harsh and as uncaring as she turned out to be. For that fact, I had genuine empathy. It was all water under the bridge and I didn’t hold a conscious grudge but I could never forget and I could never think it was okay to have been ignored when I needed her.
I’m glad she got what she wanted. I’m glad she’ll be safe and cared for. Most of all, I’m glad I was going to outlive her, to be free of her curse at last. Now, the only thing keeping her from assisted living was her discovery that the costs would not be covered by her insurance. In light of that, she will probably end up dying in that house alone or falling and hurting herself and wind up in a nursing home. The idea that my supposed inheritance would be consumed by a retirement home didn’t faze me. It was her money and it was a hell of a lot more important to her than it was to me. But there was no budging her once the reality set in that she would have to pay to live in a safe place. With her house paid for and hers to live in for free, she wasn’t going anywhere.
The fact remained, and I kept coming back to it, that even a dog would rather have negative attention than no attention at all. And I was no different. True, I was never kept locked in a cage or shackled to a radiator but I was a prisoner nonetheless. I was a prisoner of the love that was withheld. A kid needs that love to grow and develop normally. And, lacking it, that need doesn’t ever go away.
I hope to hell I didn’t do the same thing to Dinah as was done to me. I always felt that I loved her even though I wasn’t too good at demonstrating it. Did she think I didn’t? Did my own mother hold a similar undisplayed love toward me?
Deep relationships were too complicated for me. I didn’t know how to make sense of them or deal with them. And I guess that was the whole problem. We learn by example, don’t we, and the example I was shown was cold, secretive, and short-tempered. And now the tables were turned. I was in the caretaker role and my mother was the helpless child. I’m not sure I had anything to give back to her.
When my dad was dying, my mom didn’t even attempt to care for him. She didn’t know where his dentures were and he had one lens in his eyeglasses. Whether she was beyond caring or just didn’t feel it was her job anymore, she wouldn’t budge. She wanted him in a nursing home and she assumed correctly that his care would be covered by his veterans’ benefits. Now that it was her turn, she felt entitled to the same benefits. She’d always had a hard time drawing a line between who he was and who she was. Maybe she was trying to pay him back for all those years of physical abuse. I couldn’t blame her for that. She’d shown up often enough with bruises and black eyes and I knew, even as a kid, she couldn’t be that clumsy. But she must have thought it was a good trade-off because she never left, never complained. She just kept her mouth shut and continued to thrive courtesy of her own personal version of the Marshall Plan. Did she sell her soul for the good life? I don’t know. I only know that it was part of her demeanor to play down the beatings.
When I was a kid, my dad would regularly drink too much and become enraged. She was the one there to suffer the consequences. He never touched my brother Klaus and me. But I always thought he had plenty of reason to be angry and without any apparent outlet. I had the feeling that the root of my affinity for my dad was that, as a man, that which came out in me as hopelessness and despair, manifested itself as rage for him.
He was just a poor country kid. He’d come of age during the Great Depression and wound up leaving home to join the army. From then on, he had everything taken care of for him. The military did everything: paid his bills, gave him housing and plenty of cheap goods from the commissary – and even provided him with a bride. As a result, he never learned anything about autonomy or competitiveness or aspiration. No wonder he was frustrated. My mom was just the opposite.
She came of age in pre-war Germany where you learned to hustle almost before you could walk. She was always looking for an angle. No wonder she was uncaring. Both of them, each in their own way, was markedly ill-equipped to raise children. But they did it anyway and wound up with a couple of kids who didn’t know much of anything until they grew up and learned it the hard way.
So, my mother was abusive, domineering, and detached. My dad, as it turned out, was a racist. But he was always kind to me and mindful of my personal space. What a messed-up deal. But it was the deal we got, Klaus and me, for better or for worse. It’s a mystery that I still felt the need to choose sides, to determine who was most to blame.
It occured to me that, in spite of the fact that we always seemed to have distant relatives to visit on those interminable road trip vacations, ours was a small immediate family. I have a couple of first cousins out there somewhere, siblings who were the children of my dad’s younger brother. Sometimes I wonder if they grew up anything like us, ignored and unadvised. Curiously, neither of them had any kids of their own. The only reason either Klaus or I reproduced was that our partners insisted on it and we were unable to provide a cogent reason why not. Speaking for both of us, it was without a doubt one of the best things that we ever did.
After my dad died, it became apparent that my mother was functionally illiterate on top of everything else. She was unable to read a letter or write a check. As the daughter, it fell to me as part of the caregiver role to handle all of her household business, a fact that she at once insisted on and resented. I recognized that I was in the same difficult position as a lot of women my age but that knowledge did little to make it any easier. Klaus wasn’t much help. Like any man, he had trouble dealing with anything that he was powerless to fix.
Maybe he had more in common with our dad than he knew. Either way, it was a fine mess. I held a lot of resentment at first until I realized that was only making things worse. These people were who they were. Not only did I have to deal with it but they had not prepared me for any of it. These were matters, literally, of life and death. I was working up high and without a net. I knew I had to cut myself some slack or I would short circuit, blow another gasket and wind up in the same condition as I had been in with my ill-fated career. I had to do what I could and let the rest go.
So, I tried to make light of the fact that the family idea of tradition meant stopping in Bordertown on the drive home from Reno. The culture to which we aspired as a family was whatever convoluted ideal my mom embraced at any time. She was from Europe. We were raised to believe that bestowed some special cultural significance on her and, secondarily, on us. What passed for values were only the reflexes by which we hoped to survive without letting on that we were troubled, to keep up appearances, to fall in line with the current ways of reacting to things. Again, Klaus was better at it than I was. And my mom was the master. After all, it was her system. She’d put all the rules in place. My dad and I, we didn’t fare so well somehow.
So, with dad gone, she sat there in that dark house alone with all the shades pulled down. Just her and her money. It was no wonder she was going crazy. And maybe it was better that she spent so much time in her dream world when the reality was so dreadful. I couldn’t help but think maybe it was better than she deserved. No matter. That was how it all ended up and I felt somehow set adrift. Already in my mid-sixties, I was still ill-prepared to face life. The years came and went, punctuated by events that should have been either blessings or devastations but instead were no more than blips on a time line. I maintained the flat affect of a depressive through it all. If nothing could phase me at all, then nothing could hurt me.
Linda Caradine is a Portland OR based writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian Newspaper, This Week and Animal Wellness magazines, among others. I am currently working on a memoir.