Looonnnnnnnnnggggg time readers will remember that shortly after the birth of my second child, my parents moved across country to live near me and help me get back on my feet. I had combo PPD/medical malady requiring surgeries. My mother called it my ‘come-apart.’
(I’m pretty sure this is a southern gentility, but always makes me remember events as if I were a rag doll pulled too many directions, until the seams ripped and all my stuffing pooped out, to the screams of all in attendance.)
Long story short, they moved, were there, saved me. This is also the main thing that keeps me up at night lately.
Not necessarily because I feel like I owe them (she and Dad were always adamant about resources going down to the new generation, never up toward the old) but because life is now like this bizarre reverse mirror, in which my mother is having a PPD come-apart, with my dad as her colicky infant as well as her irritated, rebellious toddler.
At that ice rink in Sacramento, every story my mother told – the sleepless nights; an inability to even pee without Dad talking through the door, needing help; the frustrating power struggles; her pressured-speech plans to get on a schedule/set up a babysitter/anything to relieve the bizarre combination of boredom and exhaustion that comes from constant caretaking – each story I knew by heart, because seven years ago I’d told them to her.
And when I’d say the things my mother is saying now, she would have these magic words that cut through my defenses and forced me to see reason: If you don’t take care of yourself, you are cheating your children out of a mother. Take a break so you don’t resent kids who need you. If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy/It takes a village/put on your own oxygen mask first.
I cannot parrot back these words to my mother now. They are stripped of their magic. Because children get stronger, need less resources over time, and all the love you put into them comes back to you over time.
Dad, on the other hand, is a ticking clock of finite time, degrading with each day. If she decides to leave him for the afternoon? Well that is the pretty much literally the best afternoon of the rest of Dad’s life, and she missed it.
On this afternoon, Mom tells me she’s writing an instructional manual for other caretakers. Because a diary felt too aimlessly soaked in bad feelings, but an instruction manual of everything she’s learned might help someone else. She tells me about her acronyms to get through the day, or to help her remember ways to redirect Dad when he’s mad. She says, “The title for my next chapter is: how to boil two frogs.”
Something about that makes my stomach roll, and so I change the subject, asking her how she handled being across country when her own mother had several strokes and eventually died.
The question makes me feel like a thief — I should be listening to Mom, or figuring out magic words to give her. But I’ve been trying that for a year now and am no better than I was at the start. So here I am, looting her exhausted and wrecked mind for the last bits of parenting I can scavenge.
Mom shrugs. “It never occurred to me to go back. My brothers and sister were there, and our family motto was to help if you could. I was gone so I couldn’t.” She shrugs. “Guess if I’d thought about it, I might’ve done different.”
I ask her about when her father died. “He didn’t want to live after my mother died.” She sucks air through her teeth. “I hated that. He could’ve … his brother remarried a year after being widowed, had another life. My mother wouldn’t let Daddy have more than two drinks a day, and after she died, he set to drinking all day.”
I already know from childhood that before my granddad died, Mom’s sister tried to stage an intervention. Mom refused to participate. When I ask Mom about it now, she squints at the sky and says, “Daddy was stubborn. Some people you can appeal to their emotions, or to reason. But Daddy never took anybody else’s counsel.”
She tells me a story about how my grandfather would try to argue with you about the color of your shirt – claim blue when it was clearly red. She says he did it so kids learned not to accept authority without question.
I half listen, but mostly I end up thinking that, like her father before her, Mom doesn’t intend to outlive my Dad in any real way. This theory has been bubbling around for a while, whispered through long distance phone calls to my sisters, feeling like treason. Binge eating, drinking again after decades of abstinence, an obsession with estate trusts and wills. But sometimes it’s hard to know what’s a coping mechanism and what’s a self-destructive act.
I’m not sure how to talk to her about this. All my life, my mother has been adamantly opposed to suicide. She’s called it selfish and a ‘big fuck you’ to everyone left, and that God doesn’t give you something bigger than you can handle. I don’t feel that way at all. My experience has been that stress and altered brain chemistry can make typically unthinkable things make sense.
Another reason Mom and I haven’t talked about this subject: I’ve been mulling my options should I inherit Dad’s diagnosis – whether suicide/some pre-planned Kevorkian scenario would save my husband the pain of what my mom’s going through. Whether on the balance of pain to my kids, the quick goodbye is more of a rip-off than the long, deteriorating one, what will wreck them the least.
“I understand why you have to stay with Dad until the end, even if it kills you,” I put one hand out, palm up, like I’m weighing the fact. I put my other hand out. “And also, this is suicide.” It’s in these moments that I feel like a slimy, squirming creature – some newly birthed bug that cannibalizes it’s own dying parent. But I need this information.
She laughs. “Why do you think the title is ‘how to boil two frogs’? Not just one.”
Here is the part that was important, somehow imbued with the same magic Mom had for me when I had my come-apart:
It wasn’t in her answer, but in the question. Hearing it out loud, I finally understood the thing that hooked me in the guts, that made it so hard to make peace with my mom. Because I am way more stressed about her declining health than my father’s. I am way more angry and distressed and enmeshed with her plight. I was afraid I couldn’t accept her choices, or that I was selfishly jealous she chose Dad over me, and my kids, and my sisters, and life.
All those things might still be true.
But the magic part was that In saying it out loud, I finally understood the conflict of values is in her, not me. She has the value system suicide is wrong, but she’s chasing it. I don’t know how knowing so makes it easier to take, but it does. I guess it’s only that I don’t have to keep doing emotional/logical contortions to make those contradictory values both true.
PS: Am going to Boston this week. Will be at Boston’s Women’s March. Hit me up if you’ll be there!