Monday, September 18, 2006

The Challenge

It’s the middle of the night. I am sleeping peacefully. Then Bea shouts “Food!” I pop up in bed like one of those roly-poly dolls, with weighted bottom. How I hate to be awakened! I remain cordial but every bone in my body cries out for sleep as I feed my mother.

Bea must have noticed the difference in attitude, because upon my return at 8 a.m., she is already talking up a storm and for a reason …

ME: “My! You are chatty this morning.”

BEA: “I’m trying to do it all today so I won’t do it tonight.”

We share a good laugh, the first of many during the day. It helps to laugh about it.

My midnight surliness has made Bea rethink our living arrangements. All morning she has been making plans to move in with Virginia, a friend who is unfortunately dead: “Darling, I feel I’m in the way. I need to be a guest for a limited time only.”

I watch her fold her hands, a gesture that, in the past, accompanied an important decision of some sort, incongruous now that she is bedridden and dependent on others. My mother is using a voice that used to make sense: “I know Virginia would want me. Ruth, I think, is still alive. I could live there. I just need to know what room I’m supposed to stay in until then…”

“Right here. This room. This is your room,” I tell her. And, to myself, “Patience!”

A caregiver daughter of an elderly parent must let go of the person the parent used to be and open arms to an invalid child, quite a challenge.

Yesterday Bea could barely put one word in front of the other. Today she can't stop talking: “I have to be in contact with other people. It came over me when I realized everybody was doing something except me, and I want to do something. I need advice as to what to do. If I had some goal …”

When she gets manic, I shoot from the hip. I don’t mean to be cruel, but sheer honesty seems the way to go. Once the flow of words ceases, I say, “You can just stay right here in this bed until you feel it’s time to die.”

To my surprise, she declares simply, “Thank you.”

I assume Bea has grasped the concept, but the next time I stop in, she is again working on departure plans: “I have to be somewhere with my parents. I didn’t intend to stay here longer. I was planning to go home. My mother always said, ‘Why don’t you come home?’”

“Meaning you could always come home?”

Bea nods, very serious indeed. I take her boney hand in mine and gently explain the family home in Montclair was torn down and replaced by a parking lot many years ago; I am her family now; she is in her own bedroom.

This information is not what she wants to hear. Her voice takes on a more strident quality: “I want to talk to my mother. How do I go about doing that? I call her up. Can you get the number for me?”

“She died a long time ago. I’m sorry but you cannot call your mother.”

Bea heaves a sigh of exasperation. “All these people dying!”

Denial? Not really. Life is so worthwhile. Why would anyone go and die? The idea is so far from Bea's frame of reference that she cannot comprehend.

I realize I am living an unusual experience. Not every daughter gets to accompany her mother on this final journey. We are weaving our way down the road of life, and there’s no map. That’s what makes the trip so exhilarating …

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