“You look very nice today,” she tells me. “That is a beautiful jacket. Where did you get it? Have I seen it before?”
Knowing my mother as I do, I have carefully chosen my clothing today. I wear black silk slacks, a white sleeveless top and an unlined, striped silk jacket. I know she will approve, and dressing with care is one small gesture I make to assuage my guilt and atone for not spending as much time with her as she would wish.
Four years ago, my brother and I moved our mother from her home in Florida to this graduated care facility near my home in Connecticut. After multiple crisis calls saying she had lost her car, or that the neighbors were stealing her jewelry, or that she didn’t know the way to the doctor’s office, it was clear to both my brother and me that she was no longer able to live safely on her own. We had anticipated this move for almost a year and I had done quite a bit of research to find this particular facility. Here, she has a lovely one-bedroom apartment furnished and decorated with her own belongings. She is provided her main meal at dinner and she dresses up each evening to go to the dining room, where there are always fresh table linens and flowers on the tables. Little touches like flowers and fresh linens are very important to Mom. A staff member cleans her apartment for her once a week, a beauty parlor is on site, and there are weekly events such as music recitals and health talks as well as daily wellness checks. While these touches are certainly important to her, they also ease my guilt at having placed my mother in a care facility.
Mom slowly gets up from her chair. I take her raincoat and hold it out for her, and she carefully buttons it. Ready now, she takes my arm. As we walk out, Sally, a resident, comes through the door. Mom says proudly, “This is my daughter. She is taking me out for lunch.” Sally nods in my direction, wishes Mom a good afternoon and continues on. My mother is beaming.
After four years of this same scene – the charming, well-dressed, waiting mother, the dutiful well-dressed daughter – I am feeling resentful. I would much rather have put on jeans and a sweatshirt and walked the rolling trails in and around Candlewood Lake on this beautiful late fall day. Guilt rolls in like a rogue wave, threatening to knock me over. You’re such a horrible daughter! She has no one but you to take her out. She is lonely and old and the least you can do is spend a bit of time and be charitable.
Within the past six months, much has changed for me. I have left my husband and marriage of 36 years and am living in a small apartment. Because I chose to leave, my husband remains in the 5,000-square-foot house we built together 26 years ago. I have tried to help my mother understand that we can no longer go to that house, and that Eddie, her beloved son-in-law, will probably not come to see her anymore because he is so angry with me.
These days I have less and less tolerance for others, my own life taking up so much more emotional space than in the past. I hate answering the same questions over and over. I hate having to repeat myself, to keep on talking, to keep on offering the same information. I know her week revolves around the times we can be together. I know her dementia is robbing her of the ability to remember the present, although she remembers some of the past quite well. And I’m doing my best to stay centered for both our sakes. But today, my weariness feels profound.
In the years since I brought her from Florida, I would bring her “home” for the day on a Saturday or Sunday and she would just sit in our large house, feeling part of, and enjoying, whatever activities were going on and where frequently several of her great-grandchildren would be romping. On a sunny winter day, she would sit in the indoor poolroom with its south-facing wall of windows and comment: “It’s just like Florida.” But now that I can’t take her there, I need to think up or create activities that we can still do without a “family home” and a piece of “Florida” to visit.
What a horrible woman you are, Fran, I say to myself. Look at how happy she is. Look at how proud she is to have you for a daughter. Why can’t you be kinder and more generous? Stop thinking about your own situation!
“It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you,” she says as she gets into the car. Really, it was only five days ago. “Where are we going?” she asks. I have spoken to her by phone as recently as two hours ago to remind her when I will be there and where we are going. I tell her the name of the restaurant and she says, “That’s lovely. I really like that restaurant. The food is always hot.” This is the same thing she says each time we go to this restaurant, which is at least once a month. I watch myself responding with a snappy, unkind thought to each of the things she says today. After the third time trying to explain that I will be taking her for her doctor’s appointment on Saturday, my voice is sounding tighter and tighter and I fight to stay calm and patient.
As she rummages in her purse as she usually does when things become tense, she finds a postcard she received from an old neighbor in Florida. She can still read the card, which tells her that a good friend has recently died. Mom appears sad for a moment. Then she says, “It was so nice of Marie to write,” showing me the picture on the post card as if the sad message did not exist. Happy again, looking out the car window, she points to the trees that shimmer with sunlight catching the last brilliant color display of orange, red and gold on this crystal clear New England autumn day.
At the restaurant, Mom gets her coffee served immediately by a buxom waitress who has worked at this restaurant for all the years that we have been coming. She knows that getting Mom a hot coffee as soon as we are seated will win her a charming smile and a “Thank you so much, you’re a lovely young woman” from Mom and a good tip from me. Mom studies the menu for a while. She asks whether she should get the meatballs and spaghetti or the veal. We discuss her choices and, given the simple task, our interaction is easier. She decides on the veal and we order.
“After lunch, we can go back to your house. It is such a nice day for a drive.”
Crap. Do we have to go over this again! I feel my body tensing, my muscles start to contract in my hands and legs. I swallow hard and say in a measured tone.
“Mom, we can go for a ride or go shopping but not to my house.”
“But why? I like your house.”
In my head I have just slammed the napkin down on the table, stood up, and shouted at her to get with the program. I’ve had enough! In reality, my voice is like the rest of my body, constricted, tight, straining to stay in control.
“I’ve told you many times that I don’t live there anymore. I have a wonderful little apartment for myself now. Remember a few weeks ago I took you there?” Doing my best to remain calm and re-direct the conversation, I ask, “Do you need something from the grocery store today?”
She is not to be sidetracked. “But why can’t we go to your house? Is Eddie there?”
“Yes, Mom, Eddie is there.”
“Did you leave him?”
“Yes, I left him several months ago. I told you that before.” And I don’t want to have to say it again so let’s drop the conversation. My hand is grasping the fork so hard my knuckles are white.
Attempting diversion, I greet the arrival of the waitress. “Look, Mom, the bread and butter is here.”
Success! A break where she busies herself with buttering her roll; I hope she forgets the topic of Ed and the house.
But then: “Did Eddie have other women”? Oh how wrong I was! “I don’t think he was a drinker,” she persists. “Did he hit you?”
A string of questions even as she butters her roll.
“No, Mom, Eddie did not have other women, he did not drink to excess and he never hit me.” Keep in control, breathe.
“But why would you leave him then? I liked him.”
Placing my butter knife deliberately down on the plate without throwing it as I want to, I answer in a monotone: “I’ll try to explain again. You know that we were very young when me met and married. We had children right away and then worked hard to support the family, buy a house, start a business. But then the children grew up and it became clear that we really have very little in common. We have different values and argue a lot about many things. I’m not happy being with him anymore.”
“But I stayed with your father even though it wasn’t easy. Why can’t you stay with Eddie if he doesn’t have other women or drink? He is a good man. I like him. You should stay with him.”
Even though she has said similar things in the past, this time it hits an especially sore place. Ed and I had met with a mediator earlier in the day, an encounter that went very badly. I’m confused and upset and in need of a quiet space to think through all of what I am feeling so I can make some rational decisions. I am also angry that I have to again justify to her why I left Ed when I still have some of those same questions for myself. The question of why I left Ed has come up so many times with her and I just don’t know how I can drill it into her head. So I blurt out in a childish, angry voice, “I know, Mom, you stayed with Dad even though he drank and had sex with other women.”
What did I just say?
“Dad only danced with the women at the dances. He never did anything else!” She responds to my angry statement with her chin thrust forward and her eyes glaring.
The polite, white gloves are off. It is like we are stripped down, bare, raw, not mother and daughter, not elderly somewhat demented 89-year-old woman and 55-year old daughter. Okay, you are better than me, you were willing to live with someone who put you down, hit you, cheated and lied to you, slept with other women. You kept up the illusion and still deny what you lived. Okay, you win, but now I will push that denial button, so there! There seems to be no way to stop my anger.
“Really, Mom? You know that he had other women. I could name some at the soccer club and his work and you could too.”
I don’t care that she has dementia; I want to hurt her, to break through to her.
“He did not. He only schmoozed with them. He did not have sex with them!” She is looking directly at me, her voice strong and loud. She raises her arm and shakes her index finger at me as she did when I was a child.
“Mom, you know he did, you just don’t want to admit it.” Why can’t I just drop the subject?
“How do you know he had sex with other women?” she says angrily, directly challenging me.
“Because he came into my bed when I was a young girl.” My voice is soft.
A moment of stunned silence as I realize what I have just said – something that had never been said – something that should have or could have been said 40 or 50 years before but not now, not to an 89-year-old woman with dementia.
Tears start coursing down her cheeks unchecked.
Then from her lips: “He was a monster! A monster! What did you want me to do, Frances? I was alone in this country, I couldn’t speak the language, I did not have schooling, I had two little children. What did you want me to do? What did you want me to do?”
The pleading in her eyes, the depth of anguish in her voice, the desperation of her words crashes through my own anger. I hold her hands, hands that are tightly clenched together on the table; then tears wet my own cheeks as my hands cover her gnarled fingers.
For the first time in memory, we cry together. Two women, both wounded.
Mom talks and cries as we pick at our meal. She is remembering him, remembering some of the cruelty, some of the hurt, some of her heartbreak, and also some of the good times, and asking me to fill in pieces for her: “Were you there when?… I didn’t know you heard… you saw that?… back and forth between her sadness and her rage at him. But none of her questions address my statement about my father coming to my bedroom for sex when I was a child. Had she even heard what I said? Soon she gets caught up in a particular story from her own childhood and appears to have forgotten what we had been talking about. By the time the dessert menu is presented, she is smiling at the waitress and telling her that she was born in Germany, but her children were born in the U.S.
I sit stunned, feeling guilty and sad for both of us. I need time to try to sort out what just happened. I need to be alone. Okay, Fran, one step at a time. Ask the waitress for the check, get to the car, and remember how to get back to her apartment, then make an excuse to leave right away. Somehow I do get through the dessert course and then make an excuse about needing to return to work. I drop her off and she gives me a big hug and kiss and thanks me for a wonderful afternoon.
My oldest daughter, Linda, calls later that afternoon to tell me that she had spoken to her grandmother. “Oma told me that she had had the best afternoon with you today.”
Then Linda repeats what Oma had said: “Your mother and I had such a wonderful day together. It was like we were two best girl friends.”
And my daughter asks, “What happened today, Mom? Oma sounded so happy.”
Author’s Comment: Upon retiring at age 72, I felt a strong desire to write about my life. The material did not present itself as a flowing or linear narrative but as a series of discrete stories, each appearing with a title and pushing relentlessly forward demanding to be written. For three months the material flowed effortlessly until 18 separate “stories” were written. “Monster” is one of the stories in my backpack that I have carried through my life. Documenting in hard, fixed words emotionally laden, elusive, multi-dimensional and powerfully lived experiences was both cathartic and profoundly moving, often leaving me in tears and depleted for days. Having excellent coaching for my writing was immensely helpful in transforming experience into a publishable story as the craft and art of writing is completely new to me.