Thursday, October 25, 2012

Speaking of Mothers

When I was a new nurse my first job was working in a long term care facility.  I love older people but much of the time my heart ached for my patients, who were almost all over 90 years old and had some degree of dementia.  If there could be said to be one recurring theme it was this: they all missed their mothers.

One of my patients was 107 years old.  This was in 1992, so she had been born in 1885.  Supposing her mother had been at least 20 when my patient was born, we are talking about a woman who had been born around 1865.  A woman born around the end of our Civil War was still being actively remembered and mourned in 1993.  I found that remarkable.  It really illustrated the power of the mother/child bond.

Many of my patients fretted their days away in terrible anxiety about missed appointments with their long deceased mothers.  Several dear ladies had the exact same scenario: their mother was waiting for them somewhere and they couldn’t find her.  They knew she would be worried and they were so upset!  We had many residents who had emigrated to America from Scotland, so they were always looking for the bus to Glasgow or Edinburgh to meet their mothers.  I would tell them I had called their mum to say they were going to be late, not to worry.  That never failed to calm them for a little while until they got lost in the past again.

Their very real pain often brought me to tears, but I could never see myself having the same longing.  I had no such sentimental feelings about my own mother, a difficult and self-centered woman who had wounded me deeply throughout my life.  On the rare occasions I did think of it, I all but snorted as I dismissed the idea of ever missing my mother.  Until now, more than a year after her death.

Just to put my mother in perspective, consider what my sister remarked when it was first suggested that I had multiple sclerosis.  “Wow” she said solemnly, with no hint of joking, “Mommy is going to be so jealous.”  And she was right.

My mother was in her element when illness was involved.  Her favorite thing was to actually have the illness, injury and/or operation herself.  But the next best, if there was an audience involved, was being at the patient’s elbow.  The audience was essential, because my mother had to be seen, if not as the Helpless Victim, then as the Selfless Handmaiden.

After I broke my shoulder in 2008 I had several surgeries to repair the damage.  Each time she and my father would drive over to ‘help’ me for a few days.  She brought boxes of food with her each time.  Not boxes of food to be prepared, boxes of food she had prepared.  While English was my mother’s first language, she primarily spoke Food.  It was all about food to her.  She cooked constantly and, I have to admit, very well.  When she and my father traveled you would hear not about what they had seen and done but what they had eaten.  Every outing involved eating, whether it was a trip to the hospital or the supermarket.  Columbia Presbyterian, where several of their physicians were based, has an actual restaurant in their facility on West 168th Street and no visit to Wegman’s was complete without a stop in the food court.

Food was the way my mother communicated.  Sometimes the message was loud and clear.  My father loved dessert and they had it for every meal, I swear they even had dessert after breakfast.  She would make at least four different desserts.  These usually consisted of a pudding, a pie, cookies and some sort of cake.  Now mind you, it was just she and my father.  He has a real sweet tooth and would rub his hands together at the prospect of these culinary delights.  The ritual went something like this every single time I was there.

Kay: What do you want Jerry?
My father would pretend to gather all the desserts to him while he looked around in mock surprise at the rest of us. 
Jerry: What are the rest of you having?!?
My mother’s lips would get tight with annoyance.  He would make a big show of not being able to make up his mind.
Jerry (finally): I will have a little bit of each.
My mother would pile his plate with her usual gargantuan portions.  My father would lift the fork to his mouth…
Kay: {snort} You certainly don’t need that!

Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes the message was more mixed.  Such as after my surgeries.  She brought all this wonderful food (pot roast, several vegetables and side dishes, biscuits, macaroni and cheese, chicken salad, bread and, naturally, several desserts) and yet every word out of her mouth would be a criticism, even though the barb might be veiled.

If we were talking about cooking, she would give me little cooking tips, as though I was a new bride, not someone who had been running my own household for 35 years.  Sitting in the sun room, wrapped in bandages, an ice machine, a pain medicine pump and a haze of narcotics I could hear her in the kitchen, loudly sorting through the cabinets.

Kay (calling to me from the kitchen):  Marie, you are out of salt.
Me (yelling back): It’s in the cabinet next to the stove Ma.
Kay: Jerry, she’s out of salt.
Me, under my breath in the sunroom: No, it’s in the cabinet.
Jerry (drinking coffee in the dining room, clearly disinterested): Er…oh really?
Kay (more banging): Yes, she is completely out of salt.
Jerry:  Ohhh.
Me, murmuring in the sunroom: No, it’s in the cabinet.
Kay (bang, bang, bang): I know she doesn’t use a lot of salt…
Jerry:  Ohhh.
Me, calling out from the sunroom: It’s in the cabinet.
Kay (bang, slam, bang): She really could use more salt in her cooking…
Jerry: Ohhhh.
Me: IT’S IN THE &%#@ CABINET NEXT TO THE *&^%$#%  STOVE!!!!  (Of course I would never have really cursed at my mother, I just thought of it, and anyway this is a family blog).

When she so kindly serves lunch (and I mean that, I truly was grateful), I note cold liquid in the coffee mugs next to our plates.   Mystified, I just have to ask.

Me: Ummm, Ma, is this Coke in the coffee mugs?
Kay: Yes, because you have no glasses.

Now please note, this is a LOADED STATEMENT which I am able to translate now after decades of experience.  It doesn’t say I couldn’t find any glasses, it says you have no glasses.  It says not only do you not have any glasses, but you also do not keep salt handy.  It says you are a poorly equipped, disorganized slattern loser whose cooking leaves a lot to be desired.

Me (picturing the more than a dozen William Sonoma Picardie tumblers I have in the kitchen cabinet next to the fridge): But… (then I decide not to bother) this is lovely, I’ll bet the mug keeps the soda nice and cold.  What a treat it is to have my lunch served to me like this!
I smile broadly and take a bite of my chicken salad sandwich.
Kay: You must be so upset about all the weight you’ve gained.

By now my jaw aches from clenching my teeth.  My mother gives a slight, satisfied nod.  My father asks what is for dessert.  If they continue to come every day I am going to rip open my surgical site, pull out the rod holding the bones together and beat her to death with it.  Either that or I am going to fling myself in front of a truck.

But we both survive for her to torture me another day.  When she does die, it is from heart disease, not because I have killed her.  My sister and I continue to be incredulous.  Our mother was bigger than life.  Her every action was like a broad, color-soaked stroke across a canvas.  Even when you didn’t quite know what was going on, you knew something was going on.  It was usually something hurtful, but her creativity in lobbing one of her emotional hand grenades was a true art that I have almost come to grudgingly admire.  She drove me crazy.  But she was there.

However, it is still a shock when a thought pops up last week, unexpected and unbidden.  In the past two months I have been sicker, more scared, and feeling closer to my own mortality than ever before.  Sitting in bed the other day, a sense of foreboding hung over me so thickly that I am certain I do not have long to live.  My lip starts to quiver and I am astonished to find myself whispering, “I want my mother.”  The one thing I cannot have. 

“Ma,” I say with a sob, “I am so sorry.  Please pray for me.”  I close my eyes and just cry for a few minutes.  I cry for all we didn’t share, for all the hard feelings and hurtful words, I cry for not loving her the way she needed to be loved.   When I open my eyes, I can feel my panic starting to subside.  I am able to take a deep breath.  I know she is watching out for me and I will be ok, one way or another. 

Thanks, Ma.  


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Muffie said...

Thanks, Marie, now I'm crying. My relationship with my mom was totally the opposite of yours. We loved each other and got along well. Now, she lives in her own world of dementia in the long-term care facility of which you spoke. She still knows who I am, and responds when I say, "Mom." She's 90, and I know she won't be around much longer, so I try to make her days comfortable.
The story about the elderly wanting their mothers is so true. My mom made a christmas ornament last year (with much help, of course) and she announced it was for her mother. When my aunt drew her last breath at 96, I reminded her that her mother was waiting, and she smiled. So, yes, our mothers do remain in our lives -- forever.
I laughed when you wrote about lunch from your mother. Mine would have done the same, but without the attitude.
Sorry you're going through so much right now -- I hope you'll be feeling better soon.


Patty Woodland said...

My mother and I did not get on. At all. AT ALL. Worse than your story. I wonder at looking for as she never cared a day for me beyond getting me out of diapers. Then she put my three brothers into my care and entered into an alcoholic haze. I was 6.

I'm so sorry you are feeling so low. I do wish I could do something to help. Goat hugs?

Marie said...

Muffie - I am so sorry I made you cry! And I am sorry that your mother is struggling with dementia. But I am glad you still have each other. And I am glad to have you as a virtual friend. :)

Patty - I don't know what to say. Alcoholism is a horrific thief, it steals so much from so many. It obviously stole your childhood. I am so sorry.

Thank you for your kind words and concern. Goat hugs would be lovely, thank you. And I am sending some virtual nourishing hugs as well. xoxo

Cheryl said...

Oh, Marie, I am so sorry that you are going through this period of missing your mother. I think ageing and health issues lead us to need and want that maternal connection. I wonder if it isn't greater in those of us that had a poor relationship or no relationship with our mothers. My mother abandoned my brother and I when we were really small but...when I was a young adult, I was given the prognosis that I was probably going to die (obviously I didn't) anyway..I went through a period of needing to find my mom and eventually did. It was disastrous but still I NEEDED to connect with her. I clearly empathize with your need for your mother now. I wish I could transmit positive energy your way and help you feel better.

Anji said...

I still have my mother though she lives a long way away.We get along quite well, though we don't have much in common.

My MIL is 90 in two weeks time, when I speak to her on the phone next time I'll ask her about her mother. I know that they promised each other not to haunt each other! I did go through a bad patch with MIL and my eyebrows dropped out because of it. She came to stay with us once and of course we made a really nice welcoming meal and drinks and nibbles to celebrate her coming. She took one look and said "do you always eat like this?"

Fortunately the bad times have been forgotten and I'm very aware how lonely she is.

Our parents are always our parents.

Anne said...

I'm so sorry you are going through this bad patch. I have to say I'm surprised that you are missing your mother considering everything she put you through during the time I've known you. Capital D Drama Queen. I remember her at Dennis' wake - wow. But we all want and need unconditional love and caring when we feel bad, and we want that to come from our mothers who have known us all our lives, even since before birth. Marie, I know Kay loves you and is praying for you right now.

I'll be in your area on Nov 3rd - assuming Sandy doesn't wash us all away. How about a cuppa and a scone? I'll come to you.

Paula Wooters said...

I'm glad to hear that you're able to get some solace in thinking about your mother, Marie. In some ways it's harder to lose a mother you haven't been close to. I often mourn my mother, but mostly it's the mother she was never able to be that I mourn. She just didn't know how to be nurturing because I don't think she was well nurtured herself.

Marie said...

Thank you dear friends, for these wonderful, insightful, heartbreaking comments. Motherhood is truly a mine field for so many of us. Even for those who had healthy relationships with their mothers, there is the pain of watching them grow old or ill. It is all hard, even when it is good.

Cheryl - I am SO happy your prognosis did not come to be!!

Anji - You lost your EYEBROWS?!? Oh my God, you poor thing. Anyone to have you for a daughter in law should have known how lucky she was!!

Anne - I would so love to see you although I think all I will do is cry buckets over all we have been through. You saw the craziness. Dennis' wake was 'wow' on so many levels. lol You were a LIFESAVER. Usually that term is such an exaggeration. In this case it was literal. Let's see what we can plan around the storm. xoxo

Paula - That is so true, so many of our mothers just didn't have the tools they needed to be what WE needed. So much sadness and missed opportunity.

I am lucky to know all of you, even if virtually. You have filled my life, especially my remarkable friend Anne, who has been a source of commiseration, humor and comfort over more than 30 years.

Anji said...

I asked my MIL, who will be 90 next week, if she thought about her mother more these days - she told me no not particularly but she dreams about her every night.

I phone her at least twice a week so I was greatful to have a different subject to talk about - thank you.

Anne said...

Marie - Please let us know when you have power and are back in your house. The photos of the devastation at the Shore are horrific. Praying for your safety and health.