On Saying Goodbye To A Difficult Mother

young hand holding old hand with arthritis, reaching and holding on dark cloth background
young hand holding old hand with arthritis, reaching and holding on dark cloth background

My mother died on January 5, 2010. She was 101 years old. Our long association had been troubled from the time of my birth, and throughout my life, I'd found it challenging to choose cards for Mother's Day. So many expressed a gratitude and devotion I couldn't feel. By 2010, however, I had long opted to play the "good daughter," calling from time to time, visiting now and then, and keeping my less filial feelings out of sight. It was only in the last few days of our hard relationship that I would find a form of reconciliation.

Six months before my mother died, my husband, Bill, and I had paid her a visit at the continuing care center in Hemet, the city on the edge of the Mojave where she and my father had retired. We found her waiting in her room, hands folded across her lap in her lightweight wheelchair. There was nothing wrong with her legs, but she had gotten tired of falling down all the time from the vertigo.

"Where've you been all day?" she asked, annoyed.

"We've been flying and driving to come see you," I said as cheerfully as I could in return. "Didn't the nurses tell you we were coming in the late afternoon?"

The nurses didn't tell her, or maybe they did. But she'd been waiting and she wasn't happy. She was dressed up as usual in a long-sleeved top of pink crochet ending in a flourish of ruffles at the wrists, a purple polyester pants suit and a matching set of pink bracelet, earrings and necklace. She had on eye makeup and lipstick, pink polish on her nails and a round Band-Aid concealing the quarter-sized age spot on her right hand. At 101, she still liked to brag that she was always taken for ten years younger. And now she was eager to go.

The visit was peaceful when Bill was in range. He was courtly to her and told her we loved her, though that wasn't true. Bill had only seen her twice before, and I was attached to her by a web of sorrow, longing, anger, duty and guilt, none of which registered as love. When Bill dropped us off at the restaurant and left to park the car, she turned to me and said,

"I like that Bill. He's nice. Maybe he'll rub off on you."

I swallowed, a wound opening somewhere in the region of my throat. She was girlish one moment, quickly cutting the next, but always oblivious to having delivered a blow. Now that she was 101 years old, I could put it down to age, although it had been the story of our relation since my childhood.

The next day, Bill and I rearranged her room to make space for the sofa she talked incessantly of buying. I'd tried to tell her there wasn't space for it.

"Yes, there is!" she'd say, "I measured it myself."

So, I gave up trying to tell her any different. When Bill escaped to Target to buy bulbs for her lamp, I helped her sort through the half-empty boxes in her closet. The director of the center, seeing "fire hazard" all over them, was insisting she prune them down. Having finished the closet, I suggested tackling the bed. She had boxes stashed end-to-end under its frame.

"No!" she said, out of the blue, her body stiffening, her eyes becoming narrow.

"But the staff is bound to check," I said.

"No, they won't! Not unless you tell them to," she countered.

"Mom, I'm trying to help you."

But I dropped it. I told her I was going to the visitor's bathroom and took ten minutes coming back.

In December, the director of the center called me to say that my mother had been talking to her coffee cup.

"I see you in there," she'd been saying.

"She's hallucinating," the director said.

"She's remembering," I replied.

My brother had visited her six months before, wearing a mountain-man beard she'd never seen. It had been a while since he'd come to see her, and it had taken her some time to recognize who he was.

"Mike! I see you in there," she'd said at last.

He had always been special to her, and ever since his visit, she'd been recounting that discovery to me during every call I'd made.

A few days after the coffee cup conversation, the director called again. Mother had had a stroke, so Bill and I flew down to see her once more. When we arrived, she was sleeping in a hospital bed. Teeth out, her face caved in, mouth open, snoring softly, her skin pale as the sheet, her body so shrunken, she looked like a corpse. She was on morphine now, since being turned was painful to her, and she slept most of the day. But the staff woke her for meals and water, for turning, for diapering. I fed her green Jell-O and applesauce when she was awake.

"Good, Mom," I said when she took a bite. "You're doing really well."

One morning, she was especially alert.

"Real food," she muttered. It was easier to understand now because they'd put her teeth back in.

"What food, Mom? What would you like?"

"Why, buttered toast and coffee!" she said, as if I should have known that. So I tracked down some toast and butter, filled a cup with coffee, and brought it back to her room. I buttered the toast until it was soft and tore it into tiny pieces and fed her as if she were a bird. I wondered, Did she feed me like this when I was young? I was happy to have such simple tasks to perform. I was being "the good daughter" again. And for once it was without conflict, without ambivalence. She looked so shriveled lying there in her hospital gown. I wanted to feed her. I held her hand because I was moved to do so.

"Your hand is warm," she told me. I laid my hand, with hers still in it, along her face. She smiled.

"That feels good."

The next day she asked me, eyes closed, coming out of her morphine fog, "Is Mother here?" She thought I was one of her sisters down on the farm.

"I'm Judy, your daughter," I said, wanting her to understand for once that I was the one taking care of her. But I let that go. She needed, was reaching out to, one of her long-dead sisters. I could be a sister.

"Mother's here," I said.



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