I have a number of friends who are dealing with aging parents right now and my heart hurts for them because, in general, I know how it feels. Whether it’s trying to get them to comply with what the doctor says they need to do, memory issues, mental health issues, phone calls at 3am...it’s not easy; it’s physically and mentally exhausting, and there’s no handbook for this kind of thing. Just when you think the hard part of your life is over - the kids are at least semi-independent, you’ve figured out who you are and what you want to put out into the world, you’ve got some goals you’re looking forward to, you can finally celebrate your anniversary alone - life happens. And when it involves your parents, be sure to hold on tight because this ride is going to be epic.
I consider myself lucky. I never had to take away mom’s car keys, I didn’t have to go to court to be appointed her guardian, I didn’t have to go to doctor’s appointments with her, and I didn’t have to convince her to move. She took care of that for me. When she told me she wasn’t coming here for Christmas we knew something was wrong. When her friends started calling because they were concerned, we knew something was really wrong.
Between Christmas and her birthday in March I found it hard to concentrate, damn near impossible at times - her friends were calling and emailing and I was calling mom every day to check on her. Shit was starting to roll downhill and it was gathering speed. I went back to school in January after having to delay a semester because of my surgery. The learning curve wasn’t necessarily steep but eight week semesters are no joke; you hit the ground running and there is no stopping until you take the final. There are no breaks either - the day after one semester ends, the next begins. I was starting to feel a little wobbly emotionally since I’m a stupidly competitive overachiever and anything less than perfect was personally unacceptable. Something was going to have to give and I was afraid it was going to be me. On the other hand, I knew if I dropped out I would resent my mom and at this point, I had no idea what was wrong or what I was going to do with her. If she could just keep it together until May, I could focus everything on her.
I had no idea what to do when I got the call mom had fallen and was in the hospital; however, as callous as it sounds, it was the best thing that could have happened. She was maintaining a facade of normalcy in December but, three months later when we saw her again, it was obvious that something had gone terribly wrong. Small side note - thankfully, all the planets had aligned and her fall happened just before spring break. Mental collapse averted.
No one wants to see their parent take a hard turn that they will never recover from but, am I glad that’s the way it happened with mom? Yes. There was no need for discussion or diplomacy; I didn’t have to deal with convincing her to move to Oklahoma or take her car keys away. Bill and I have done the post-mortem on her situation many times and no matter how we look at it, she signed up for it. She’s the one who set this outcome in motion years ago. I had continuously tried to talk to her about preventive care, moving to a first-floor apartment, taking better care of herself, etc. It didn’t help and, who knows, it may have happened anyhow.
Whenever I think about what got my mom to where she is, it reminds me of a part of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” where he describes that there are usually seven consecutive human errors that lead to a disaster- such as a plane crash. In general, I think that applies to our lives as well. For example 1) skip dinner 2) order a drink 3) order a second drink 4) tequila shots 5) send a text 6) grab your car key 7) drive. Any of those things alone are no big deal but, when they occur together, you’re on the fast track to disaster (especially drunk texting - never ok unless it’s to tell me I’m pretty). At best, you’ll end up at home with no memory of how you got there; at worst you hurt or kill yourself and/or another person.
Mom’s doctor at the skilled nursing facility in Illinois was pretty certain that a couple of mini-strokes, poor diet, plus three or more falls that resulted in a concussion contributed to her dementia. I don’t know the exact number of missteps that happened to get mom where she is but, with her lifestyle and resistance to self-care, something was going to happen. I just didn’t expect this.
I can understand how anyone looking at this from the outside may feel that the way I handled this at the beginning was selfish and at times uncaring. Maybe, but I don't think so. There’s some history at play here that I would never put out there; I’ve come to terms with it but I can’t say that the damage to my relationship with my mom will ever be resolved. I never had the need to “pay her back” or to punish her; I loved her but not the way I thought I would. However, the person she is now is pleasant, loving, and kind. Her behaviors can be exasperating and exhausting but she is not; if there has to be a good part to all this, my last memories of her (if she stays on this path) will be gentle ones, and if this is the last chapter to a very long, many times sad, tumultuous story then I’m good with it.
Lately, I seem to be on an Augusten Burroughs kick. No, wait... I am on an Augusten Burroughs kick. It’s where I go when I feel like I need a stern talking to, when I start dancing with my demons instead of putting them in their box and placing them on the shelf where I can’t easily reach them. I don’t need to be told to love myself or that I’m enough; I know all that. I need to be told to snap out of it and take a good hard look at where I want to be and make it happen. There’s a lot to be learned from someone who’s been through hell, wallowed in it a bit, and found out some hard truths along the way.
“Revisiting painful experiences makes you experience the pain. When you need to move past something, this isn’t helpful. What is helpful is realizing you don’t need closure, you don’t need understanding, and you don’t need resolution. What difference would these things make if you had them?
Having one’s mother or father or past abuser admit to their crimes or even apologize for them changes nothing -- certainly not what they did. Rather, such an apology would give you the psychological permission to “move on” with your life.
But you don’t need anybody’s permission to move on with your life.
It does not matter whether or not those responsible for harming you ever understand what they did, care about what they did, or apologize for it.
It does not matter.
All that matters is your ability to stop fondling the experience with your brain.
“How To Get Over Your Addiction To the Past.” This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t, by Augusten Burroughs, Picador USA, 2013.