Quitting my full-time job this past May and becoming self-employed has given me so many gifts. More time to enjoy life, freedom to do my work when it suits me, the ability to look after my granddaughter at a moment’s notice, to name just a few.
But the most unexpected gift, for me, has been having more time to spend with my Mom.
I say unexpected because Mom and I have never been overly close. As a teenager, our relationship fluctuated between nearly constant arguing and long stretches of unhappy silence. My sister Laurie felt the same way, and we were united in our resentment over our Mom’s perceived faults. This was more than routine teenaged angst; it lasted well into adulthood.
For years we thought our Mom was unfeeling and cold. I now realize she was forced to put up a barrier against our hostility toward her. I also know my sister’s and my untreated depression was one of the main triggers of our feelings toward our Mom. She seemed uncaring, we were hurt, became angry – it was a vicious cycle.
Losing my sister, and then my Dad several years later, definitely improved this relationship, but that sense of distance has always prevailed. I know Mom wanted to be closer, but for some reason, I kept her at arm’s length. And while I anticipated my newfound freedom from the daily grind of an office job would allow me extra time with her, it wasn’t something I necessarily looked forward to. I was afraid it might feel more like a duty to be fulfilled.
My brother lives on Vancouver Island and doesn’t have to bear the responsibilities of caring for an ageing parent – the “away” sibling never does. I say that without resentment (ok, maybe a little resentment!). On the other hand, I have truly always believed the “away” sibling and his family miss out on a whole lot too. My kids had their grandparents at every birthday party and Christmas concert, and are still extremely close with their Grandma.
I’m not sure why the thought of caring for my Mom as she grows old has occasionally filled me with dread. I just remember, years ago, watching a co-worker of mine, with no siblings, being run ragged between working full-time and caring for both of her elderly parents on her own.
This was before Laurie died and I remember thinking, “thank God I will never be in that position!” I simply could not imagine bearing the weight of such a responsibility without my siblings to help share the load. Yet here I am.
At 81, Mom is a great conversationalist, she’s well-read and continues to be an amazing cook. Her baking is incredible (more on that later), and most importantly, she takes good care of herself, so she’s in excellent health. As her only living daughter and only child nearby, we should have a closer relationship. But that distance between us has always been there, just under the surface.
I know how lucky I am. Jeff’s Mom had Alzheimer’s and I am fully aware of how much of a strain that places on a family. But he also had two siblings to help. My brother would like to do more but he’s simply too far away.
I also know that, at 81, I am fortunate to still have my Mom in my life.
If I’m being totally honest, at the root of my discomfort at being in this position is my lack of faith in my own ability to care for her as she ages. Let’s just say there’s a reason I’m not a nurse!
However, a few things have occurred over the past weeks that have literally transformed my relationship with my Mom, in the most surprising and positive ways.
The first occurred after writing my last blog post about my struggle with depression. One of the people I was most hesitant to share it with was Mom. I have never openly discussed my depression with her because I’ve always felt we don’t have that type of relationship. It is what bonded my sister and me, and my Mom simply didn’t share that bond. Old habits and beliefs are hard to let go of.
To my eternal shame, after reading my post she blamed herself for how Laurie and I suffered (her words) for all those years, while she had no idea what we were going through. Her reaction shocked me. “How could you have known?” I asked her. “We never told you!” She also told me, tearfully, that she always thought we hated her and had no idea what she had done to make us feel that way.
Hearing my 81-year old Mom say she thought I hated her gutted me. All I could offer was this: “Now you know it was not your fault – it was something inside of us that made us act the way we did. I hope it gives you some relief to know you were never to blame.”
How I wish I had written that blog post years ago.
Then, three weeks ago, Mom had her back operated on for spinal stenosis. Basically, her spinal column is collapsing and pressing on the nerves that run down into her legs. Her pain has been pretty horrible for over a year and she was finally having long-awaited surgery.
Not knowing exactly when the operation would occur or what type of care she would need left me scrambling for extra help at the last minute. This resulted in a gap of several days between her release from the hospital and the start of her home-care visits.
With a six-inch incision full of staples in her lower back and post-op instructions not to bend or twist for 4-6 weeks, you can imagine how helpless she was during that first week back home – and she was stuck with me. (And by this point you’re probably thinking, that poor woman!)
It was pretty stressful to say the least – for both of us. I had to help her on and off with her clothes. Seeing your 81-year old mother naked as a newborn for the first time is pretty uncomfortable. But you know what? After the 4th or 5th time, it becomes just another day at the office.
Helping her in and out of the shower is something else I never could have imagined myself having to do. I won’t lie – the first time was weird. But the second time? Piece of cake. Laughter helps enormously.
To my daughters, I described her coming out of the shower as reminding me of a baby bird. And as I dried her wispy white hair, a sense of tenderness came over me that I haven’t felt for my Mom since I was a little girl. And I thought to myself, “I am so glad I get to do this for her.”
Then there is, you know…the other thing. Kind of brings to mind that line from the old Meatloaf song…”I would do anything for love…but I won’t do that!” Thankfully I don’t have to – there’s a tool called, quite appropriately, an “easy wipe”. Mom paid $65 for it and has been complaining about the price ever since. Worth every penny, I say!
Over the past three weeks since she’s been home from the hospital, I’ve been at my Mom’s house daily, often multiple times, picking up or delivering laundry, dropping off meals, and helping with whatever requires bending or twisting. As she’s healed, we’ve taken walks together, a little further each time. Had I been chained to a desk for eight hours a day, it would have been much more difficult to manage, I would have been rushed and stressed, and that stress would have passed on to her.
Instead, it almost feels like we’re getting to know each other again. My brother came home for the long weekend to provide a bit of respite for me, which I greatly appreciated. But you know what? I spent much of the weekend wondering how she was doing and found myself missing her.
Now that she’s back on her feet she’s doing a bit more each day, so last week we made pies together – another first. Jeff’s been after me to learn Mom’s pie crust recipe for our entire married life – 29 years. I’ve always said I would learn “one of these days”, but I am now realizing these days may not last forever.
So we made pies from scratch. She showed me all her little tips and tricks, the pies turned out terrific – and we actually had so much fun making them. (I went home and said just that to Jeff – “We actually had fun! Can you believe it?”)
I hadn’t baked with my Mom since I was a kid, and I felt just like that again. She watched over me as I measured and mixed, telling me I needed more flour “but not too much flour” as I rolled out the shells, and we chatted and laughed while we waited anxiously for the crusts to brown enough to come out of the oven.
As the kitchen filled with the smell of bumbleberry pie (a combo of Saskatoons, strawberries and apples that is seriously life-changing), I felt like our relationship had turned yet another corner. Over the past few weeks, as our roles have reversed, I’ve come to accept – and even embrace – the fact that we are entering a new stage in our lives.
On this day, though, as I proudly carried my freshly baked pie home to share with Jeff, I was very much a child again.