motherland 2.0

December 2, 2017 · 17 comments

We were no longer cautious about our conversations. The rules about what a doctor can say to an adult daughter whose older mother is not taking care of herself can be bent when that mother is in danger.

She will fall, her doctor told me almost two years ago, and it will be bad.

I tried to believe that if only she ate what I fed her — she has a horrible relationship with food and always has; I wrote a years-worth of columns for the Washington Post and gave a TEDx talk about it— my mother would stay healthy and young and vital. She would be safe. Forget the laws of probability.

I tried to pretend that if she remained as remarkably beautiful as she is, as she has always been, my mother would never be at risk. Beauty, I was sure, would protect her from the inevitability of time.

One day a few months before the accident, I walked behind her on Madison Avenue to watch how the pose she has stood in her entire modeling life, coupled with atrocious nutrition, had taken a toll on her body: her left foot was pointed out so hard that her ankle was rolled to near-disjoint. She stopped to look in the window at Chopard; twenty years earlier, she owned one of their signature watches–the kind that has a few tiny diamonds free-floating beneath the crystal. Over the course of two months, she exchanged it five times, each time for a different color face and strap; I often accompanied her. Eventually, the clerks stopped buzzing her in, which enraged her to where she’d stand in front of the glass door, glare at them ignoring her on the other side, and not move.

I tried to explain why they wouldn’t let her in anymore — that she couldn’t keep returning the watches over and over again. It reflected her entitlement, and her addictive need to make her life better with things. But nothing was ever good enough — even with the watches she was still the same person with the same life and the same problems  — so she returned them over and over again, as if each new color might make her happier and safer than the last one. They were expensive; she felt it was her prerogative; I tried to understand. Standing in front of the shop window more than twenty years later, she seemed wistful; she stared at the display and shook her head, her shoulders sunken with grief. I gazed down at her ankle. I was once romantically aligned with a modern dancer who didn’t make it into Twyla Tharpe‘s company because her turnout wasn’t good enough; my mother could have been Twyla’s principal. When the fall came, it would splinter all of those delicate ankle bones like wooden matchsticks. Even beauty and fashion and Chopard watches with the little diamonds floating on their faces couldn’t stop time.

A year ago tonight, I was finally home from a long book tour for Treyf, my memoir of growing up in 1970s New York, in an assimilated, deeply quirky family that was always on the outside looking in. My last stop had been an overnight in California and a reading at one of my favorite bookstores. I was home less than twenty-four hours later. I dropped my bags in the entry way of our house, and Susan and I sat on the couch, exhausted. We went out to buy our Christmas tree, and we set it up in its cheerful red cast iron stand. We reheated frozen beef stew. We opened up a bottle of decent Pinot Noir. We listened to the radio as we do every Saturday night, our dog curled up between us. The phone rang: two hours away, my mother had gotten up from watching television, her foot was asleep, and her ankle exploded beneath her. There would be no going back to the way life had been before, for either of us. No amount of fashion or makeup or diamond watches or herb-stuffed organic roast chickens made by me with love and tenderness could protect her.

Over this last year, there have been two surgeries, forty days in a rehab facility, one consultant, three caregivers, two attorneys, four longterm care managers. There was the fight about the grab bars, the fight about the walker, the fight about the money, the fight about the insurance, the fight about the cane (which she carries tucked under her arm, like Peter Boyle dancing to Puttin’ on the Ritz in Young Frankenstein), the fight about the proper medication prescribed by two different doctors for the osteoporosis she doesn’t believe she has, the fight about the personal emergency alert system because one of her man friends who is younger than my wife doesn’t like them. My mother’s filing system involves gigantic white plastic garment shopping bags strewn all over her apartment, so it took me weeks to find her personal documents, which were dog-earred and stuffed between the pages of a Playbill for the 1995 Broadway stage revival of Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close in her first role as Norma Desmond.

I live two hours away from her, so we speak on the phone at least once a day; my heart stops when I hear her voice, until I know that she’s safe, until I know that she isn’t raging about one thing or another. My hands shake when her name comes up on my caller ID, or when she calls my cell and if she can’t reach me, Susan’s. I haven’t been sleeping well this last week — no amount of Sleepytime Tea or meditation or booze will help. (As if.)

A year ago tonight.

I’m not a Christian woman, but I know that Advent begins tomorrow. I’m reminded of the great old Anne Lamott piece, which I first read in 1997 when it appeared in Salon, back around the time my mother was fighting with strangers about diamonds.

Broken things have been on my mind as the year lurches to an end, because
so much broke and broke down this year in my life, and in the lives of the people
I love. Lives broke, hearts broke, health broke, minds broke. On the first
Sunday of Advent our preacher, Veronica, said that this is life’s nature, that
lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll
never meet. She said the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the
emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take
the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room,
until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice
and graham crackers.

Every day living with a senior person is like opening the little door on an Advent calendar; what will we be faced with? What is behind door number one? Love, grief, fear, anger, health? A good day? A bad day? My mother would hope for her old Chopard watch with the little diamonds floating beneath the crystal, now long gone (I can’t remember which one she finally settled on; ensnared in fury and rage, she rarely wore it).

All I’d like is peace, and maybe a cookie.




{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzanne December 2, 2017 at 12:16 pm

So sorry for your current plight and hope that holiday music, the smell of gingerbread baking in the oven and a nice crackling fire with Susan and Petey at your side will help to ease your anxiety while caring for a strong willed senior.

2 Dana W. December 2, 2017 at 12:25 pm

You are a good daughter. At 60, I am lucky to have both my parents, 88 and 89, alive, together and mostly independent. My sister and I often cook for them and pick up groceries on “tired days.” We spend lots of time together and treasure every minute knowing that things could, and may still, be so different. Around me, so many friends and family are caregivers in a much less delightful way, bearing great burdens with love and exhaustion. I honor you and each of them as I read your beautifully written words and the poem that says so much. Thank you for sharing.

3 Angie Doyle December 2, 2017 at 12:32 pm

I think I’ve read every word you’ve ever written, you string them together like the finest pearls. I’m so very sorry for your pain. My year has been heart wrenching as well. The turmoil and hate we have witnessed in this country and the world add to our sorrow. My prayer for you is peace and rest, and continuing refuge at home with your beloved Susan❤️

4 Elissa December 2, 2017 at 12:58 pm

Thank you 🙏🏻

5 Elissa December 2, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Thank you so much 🙏🏻

6 Liz December 2, 2017 at 1:07 pm

My mother died this January at 102 1/2. She was an easy patient,and my sister bore the weight of the majority of her care the last 6 months. I traveled every other week to help out. But it was still hard. My outlook on pain and death has become somewhat radicalized. I wonder at the people who have no clue about the experience. It is a place we will all be called to. May you know you have the strength to deal with it and how it changes you. Healing thoughts to your heart.

7 Catherine Hughes December 2, 2017 at 5:31 pm

I cried when I read this because I could feel what you are going through and remembering what it was like with my mom. You take such great care of your mom … as much as she allows. Oh, how I know THAT drill. When I read what you write, it’s like your voice whispers in my brain asking me to be contemplative. Then a little healing happens for me. Thank you, Elissa.

When I read this: “my heart stops when I hear her voice, until I know that she’s safe, until I know that she isn’t raging about one thing or another. My hands shake when her name comes up on my caller ID, or when she calls my cell and if she can’t reach me, Susan’s. I haven’t been sleeping well this last week — no amount of Sleepytime Tea or meditation or booze will help. (As if.)” I wanted to stand up in my living room and yell, “Amen!” I lived that every single day hundreds of times a day for three years. I still don’t know how we do it. Bless Susan and the pets…

Catherine (Hughes, Cath on FB)

8 Elissa December 2, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Thanks Cath. x

9 Nancy LoBalbo December 2, 2017 at 6:53 pm

I hear you . Thank you for speaking to the difficulties of dealing with/ caring for an aging parent.

10 jacquie December 2, 2017 at 8:14 pm

i’m living my version of this currently with my parents and you capture the emotions involved so well. thank you. I had never thought of it in terms of advent but that two are so similar and I now can use that as a lens through which to view it so thanks to Anne and you for that.

I hope you find some moments of peace as well as a cookie or two as you continue holding your mothers hand along the journey.

11 Jacki L Lyden December 3, 2017 at 7:21 pm

Lovely piece, Elissa. Your mother is literally fighting the ravages of time with a timepiece and a most committed (and tired) daughter. That’s quite a year’s list, and I can as you know, well relate. Here’s to all the day by day for both of you, O Valiant Ones. No going quietly here!

12 Elissa December 3, 2017 at 8:46 pm

I am so deeply grateful for your comment – 🙏🏻💕🙏🏻

13 Sharon eisen December 4, 2017 at 12:37 pm

I would recommend a chocolate chio macadamia nut 🍪
Always works for me….
That along with a nice glass of pinot noir.

14 Kath the Cook December 4, 2017 at 10:20 pm

Your writing is so lovely and heartfelt. I’m right there with you – my Mom is 93 and struggling with a variety of issues. Being the responsible person is an important and critical role – our elders often aren’t fortunate enough to have people like us in their lives – it is difficult and tiring. But they need us and we find the strength to keep doing it for them because they deserve it and did it for us for so long (with varied results, ha). best wishes for you all and happy holidays. Kath

15 Lois December 5, 2017 at 2:14 pm

As I read this post, I felt like you were writing my life, as in the song
Killing Me Softly, “telling my whole life with his words.” The memories remain, mostly faded but oft times vivid. Thank you

16 Colin Sandler December 6, 2017 at 6:03 pm

All I can say is WOW…What a perspective this gives me…

17 Elissa December 6, 2017 at 6:29 pm

It hasn’t been easy; I suspect it never is.

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