Saturday, March 31, 2012

The long good-bye - part I

"It's as if someone has taken everything sweet, kind and good from my mom and left an angry stranger," a friend told me last month. "She's become impossible to please!"

I knew what she meant, remembering countless friends who saw their mother or father change, like mine is changing. It doesn't happen to everyone lucky enough to live into their eighties and nineties, but it happens.

I visited Mom at her assisted living facility last week, and everything I said was the wrong thing to say, everything I did was the wrong thing to do, anything I asked about was the wrong thing to ask.

She accused me of lying about career accomplishments. When I offered to show her my awards, she thought I wanted to show her my warts and responded with disgust.

"Not warts, awards I've earned!" I said.

"You think I'm such a fool, I don't know that anyone can get awards for themselves at any old award store, and type up certificates? Or else if you got something, must be everybody got the same thing!"

Then the visit turned into a typical visit for the past year, like this:

She scolds me for wasting money she thinks I don't have, not helping her like I should and for offering to help when everyone knows she is very independent and needs no help, especially not mine because I have always been useless, even as a small child.

Once we could talk about anything, but now almost every attempt to start a conversation ends when she raises her hand as if policing traffic and if it's ignored, she shouts, "Shut up! Shut up! I will not listen to this!"

Forbidden: small talk, questions about how relatives are doing, asking about her health or telling her about mine, anything about politicians, news or the past, unless she has a statement to make, and then response or questions are forbidden.

If I don't call and tell my sister I'm in town, she's worried we are feuding and to avoid each other, we won't attend her funeral together but if I call my sister, she's vexed about having to go pick her up or getting her dropped off, because my sister cannot drive.

Mother always has an errand to run or a place to go, and when we arrive she mutters, "You are so thoughtless, not like your brother who drops me off at the mall or grocery store and parks my car himself. It hurts me to walk!"

"You could let me go to the store for you, or let me drive," I say, envying my husband whose idea of visiting Mom is to drop me off at her facility and scoot up the road to the Soaring Eagle Casino for the day.

"I can't let you drive because when you were 16, you backed out of the driveway into the neighbor's parked car, which proves you are a terrible driver."

She asks my sister to navigate, to tell her whether a bicyclist is approaching from the right or if a car or truck is about to enter the space she is trying to back into. Except my sister has had strokes, and gives answers like, "Well, I can't read this guy's mind but it LOOKS like he might speed up when he sees you backing out and if you don't stop, you MIGHT nail him!" as Mother is already backing up, so she slams the brakes when a horn honks or someone screams, and then she screams at my sister for being stupid.

The visit ends with her telling us how she will be dead soon, and hopefully the afterlife has more to offer, and then tells us her latest desires about her funeral arrangements, obituary notice and will. All visits have ended with what my siblings and I call "the death talk," even after pleasant visits in the past.

In better days, I thought she spoke of such things to remind me that our lives are temporary, happy times are fleeting, we must appreciate the quiet pleasures like pulling weeds together, playing with water colors, singing hymns or driving past places where we lived or loved.

In the good days, she never said she hoped the afterlife had more to offer.

She probably knew it couldn't.

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