If you dig a little, you will find that every family has at least one: they come in a variety of names: dirty laundry, skeletons in the closet, the Family Secret or just “Shhh! We don’t talk about that.”
It should have been a hard holiday for my Mom. The week before Christmas, I was all packed and ready to leave for a week-long visit when my sister called to tell me she and my brother-in-law were both feeling poorly. No, she reassured me, it wasn’t Covid, but they didn’t feel well at all. Because I always stay with them when I come to visit my Mom, we regretfully made the decision that I should stay home. My sister was in no shape for company – not even her sister (!!) – and I’d just end up getting sick, too. Because we are ultra careful about not bringing germs into our Mom’s seniors residence, and because we would never lie about such a thing, neither of us would have been able to visit Mom in any case. It was with immense sadness that I unpacked my bags and stowed away their Christmas presents, which had been sitting in a box, wrapped and ready, beside my suitcase at the door.
It had been a rough month. Our stepfather, who was still mobile at the time, had begun getting up in the night and wandering in and out of other seniors’ rooms. He was – until the very end – such a gentle man that we knew he posed no threat whatsoever to the other people living on his floor, but you cannot explain that to a senior who also has dementia. Waking up to a strange man hovering over you – making strange “huh-huh-huh” sounds over and over since he lost the ability to speak – was very frightening to the other residents. We were informed that our stepfather would be moved to another floor better suited to care for his declining abilities.
I’m watching a band that has come in to perform at my mother’s seniors’ home. Not one of the members of the band looks to be under age seventy and the lead singer is a spry eighty-six-year-old. I pride myself in my very eclectic set of musical tastes but I have to admit to my Mom that I barely know any of the songs they are singing (or playing on the fiddle), and none of them well.
Nonetheless, the music makes your toes tap and we enthusiastically clap along as the band entertains the crowd.
At one point, my Mom leans in and tells me, “I know a dirty song to this tune.” And then she proceeds to sing me a few snippets. After my first, surprised, loud belly laugh, I do my best thereafter to only quietly snort my mirth.
As the band is leaving, Mom catches the eye of the lead singer (the eighty-six-year-old J) and he stops to chat with us. Before he even has time to react, Mom is telling him she pays the fiddle as she gently but insistently pulls the fiddle from his hands and puts it in to her chin to play him a little tune she knows. While I’m a little embarrassed, I’m not overly worried (I know Mom won’t be rough with it). I am definitely dismayed for the man, though, as he is clearly not used to handing his beautiful fiddle over to a perfect stranger. I relax as he relaxes; as he notes that Mom knows how to hold it and what to do with the bow. Being very rusty, it doesn’t take her long to hand it back to him in any case.
This is the woman who taught me good manners. This is the woman who showed me how to behave in public; who taught me to be courteous; to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. She behaves as innocently as a child now.
I’ve reflected how an event like this one would have been the perfect time for a ‘teachable moment’ when my children were little: “Next time, sweet pea, make sure you ask the nice man first. People like to be asked before you touch their belongings. And do be polite if he says ‘no’, as is his right.”
As Mom slips further into a rather endearing childhood sweetness, I understand that the days of teachable moments are over for her. All my sister and I can do is hover nearby and quietly apologise for her when it’s appropriate to do so, knowing she is the one who taught us such good manners in the first place.
Luckily, the nice musician understood, and she still talks about how kind he was – the actual lead singer of the band!! – to take the time to stop and talk to her that day; to let her play him a tune.
I loved being a Mom. I loved the never-ending ‘why’ questions. I loved the snuggles; the bedtime stories; even the tantrums. Because I truly felt I was playing a role in helping my kids become whoever they were meant to be. My kids are all grown up now and while I do love getting to know the amazing people they are becoming, I do miss those days of being… well, their everything.
Remember The Waltons? Back in the 70s, my family used to watch that show every Sunday night. You didn’t have dozens of TV channels to choose from back then – just two or three if the rabbit ears on your big box of a television permitted it – so just about everyone else we knew was watching it, too. The story lines were wholesome and family oriented. There was no swearing and everything usually got neatly resolved by the time the hour was up. You always felt better, just for watching. You forgot that they were characters in a TV show.
I always struggle between admiration, envy and horror when I hear 15-year-old kids in Grade 10 telling me that they have chosen ‘x’ or ‘y’ as their career path. After all, how can anyone that young be expected to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives? I still cringe when I recall how I blundered into my own profession. Having been accepted into forestry (which I entered mostly because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life but ‘loved nature’ in a vague sort of way), I ended up in education instead. I didn’t make this choice with any noble intentions: it was only because many of my closest friends had gone into education and – if I may be perfectly honest – I was terrified of venturing out into the world alone. I grabbed onto their shirttails and held on for dear life.
It would take many years but eventually, I did find my own little niche. It didn’t involve teaching in a classroom – I have come to think of those kinds of educators as the gods and goddesses of the education system – and let’s face it, not all of us measure up to that kind of lofty standard. Instead, for most of my career, I worked in adult education, industriously occupied in the background where I have always liked to be, quietly making my mark by training teachers and parents, writing creative grant proposals that would ensure ‘one more year’ of funding and promoting the importance of adult and family literacy.
Since I retired, I have not missed the office politics but I have missed that feeling of being valued, needed and respected. We all tend to define ourselves by ‘what we do’ to make a living and I haven’t really had a lot to say about myself since I left my career behind.
Not that I haven’t had things to do, mind you: as my Mom and my stepfather declined drastically over the past few years, my sister and I have found ourselves playing the role of caregivers (my sister, who lives in the same town as Mom, has carried the lion’s share of this responsibility). This has included everything from emptying their home and distributing their belongings; to managing their finances; to taking them to doctors’ appointments; to calming them down when they’re afraid. Thankfully, my sister and I compliment one another very well: she’s best in a crisis (and by ‘crisis’, I mean that blood is flying); whereas I am best in the situations which involve much waiting and what my sister would define as insufferable tedium.
This past winter, Mom and I happened to be chatting in her room when a caregiver came to stand in Mom’s door to ask if I had gotten the notice about ‘Mom and Charlie having Covid’. I stared at her in some confusion. No, I had not gotten the call. There was indeed an outbreak in the building but since everyone – including designated family caregivers – was vaccinated, we had been allowed to come and go provided we follow the proper protocols.
Long visits with an invalid being my specialty, my sister and I agreed that I would come and take care of Mom until she was better. Every day thereafter, I stopped at Mom’s door to carefully don not just a mask, but gloves, a face shield, and a long, plastic (very hot) gown. The first time I did this, I hadn’t been wearing all that awful PPE for more than five minutes when I added doctors, nurses and every other caregiver in between to my Personal List of Gods and Goddesses (well, they were kind of already on that list but I gave them all a gold star for good measure).
Mom was lucky. She didn’t feel too sick – just really under the weather – and somehow, I didn’t get Covid either, nor did I bring it home to my sister or my brother-in-law. But the caregivers were (as they have tended to be for two and a half years now) stretched thin. I was very glad that my being there meant we didn’t have to call on them too much.
Now here’s the sweet part of the story: at some point, Mom, whose dementia is still very moderate, looked at me in absolute admiration and awe as she declared, “I don’t know how you managed to get them to hire you to take care of me this week, Patti, but I couldn’t have asked for a better nurse!” She kept telling me how professional I looked; how much I had been cut out to be a nurse. To this day, she still believes that I was hired to be her personal nurse that week.
Honestly, it kind of went to my head.
If I could go back to age 20, I likely would become a geriatric caregiver. I have learned that it’s a job I would love, even if the patient weren’t my mother, and despite the inevitable downsides of being a nurse, like say, losing a patient. It hurts my heart to say that my stepfather didn’t survive that week: eight days after he and Mom were diagnosed, Covid quietly took him in the middle of the night.
Losing him was a rough go on all of us. But I guess any good nurse would tell me that losing a patient goes with the territory…
When I was a little girl, my pretty young mother used to go to parent-teacher meetings at my elementary school. To the best of my knowledge, Dad never accompanied her. Those were different times and children were primarily the mother’s responsibility. I know those meetings intimidated her: she had to quit school in her mid-teens so she could leave home and start making her way in the world and – although she later acquired her high school diploma by correspondence courses – her lack of a formal education always embarrassed her. I am sure she would have been grateful for my Dad’s company, but men didn’t ‘do’ those sorts of things back in the 60s and 70s. Continue reading “Things Mom Lost Along the Way”