I’m glad I don’t have to work in this horrible place anymore, says my mother as we walk to the main dining room which I’m now calling “the restaurant,” like she does, where the assisted living residents eat their meals and I sometimes take her so she can get away from the horrible people she “works with” in her memory care wing then she tries to remember what the horrible things are, tries to find the words for the horrible things the bosses have her do and how they keep changing everything which really means she’s confused, confused beyond all rational possibility over the new bathroom routine, with the caregivers taking her to the toilet every two hours and assisting her so she doesn’t keep going on the lid or in the laundry hamper in the closet or throw shit and toilet paper around her bedroom like some teenage-TP-in-the-front-yard gag gone bad and then she says, maybe next year, not realizing, naturally, that we actually are at the end of the year, a day away from Christmas, which as we all know, she says, takes FIVE CIRCLES before it arrives and I’m as baffled as she is at the speed the holidays hit us, all Mack truck-like, how fast they come every year, how fast each week passes now and yet it’s not fast enough, maybe next year we can go “back,” she says, we can leave this horrible place and she doesn’t say back to Maine or back home and I’m not even sure she knows she’s in Arizona ninety percent of the time but like me she always wants something else, something more, something better, something different, to be somewhere else, anywhere but where we are, and again I’m astonished because it’s like we share a brain: I’ve been thinking for a month solid about moving her back to Maine, to the dementia care home by the sea where I originally wanted her to live two years ago when I realized I couldn’t continue taking care of her in her house, I wanted to keep her in a similar environment, a smooth transition from the old house of my childhood to another old house, isn’t it perfect, mom? You get to stay at a bed-and-breakfast, I imagine saying as the fantasy unfolds, I’d leave her there for a few months because lately I just can’t deal with watching her implode and taking care of my husband, I’d leave her there with people who really care and understand dementia, not this corporate “care facility” with caregivers who quit before they get their first paycheck and an activity director whose idea of art projects is finger-painting and coloring books which pisses the former artist in my mom off to no end, her high-functioning moral superiority still shining bright, then I’d return to Maine myself with or without my suddenly-wheelchair-bound husband whose staph infection just won’t quit, I’d spend a very long summer and fall in my old house and visit my mother often in her B&B by the sea, and I’m positive, I’m certain now that I’m going crazy, the slow drip of insanity from my drinking days has returned and my mother’s tangled mind is seeping into my veins and neurons and organs, I can’t not be crazy, can I, after all this, five years of crazy: my mother and my father and now my husband, taking care of everyone but myself and if it’s true, like they say, the caregiver is the first to go, well, then, toodle-oo, bitches, I’m gone.
We were both only children, John and I, united as siblings in our pre-teens when his mother married my father. For while, I chose this family, mirroring my father’s departure as I left my childhood island home and my mother on her own.
But, like so much of the future I envisioned for myself, this idyllic second family was as transient as I. At sixteen, I moved in with a boyfriend and soon after, my father and stepmother divorced.
John and I have stayed close all these years. We’ve shared our own divorce woes, visited each other across countries and continents. We spend summers together at the family lake house; I’ve watched my nieces go from cartoons to college.
John has also kept in touch with my father, the man who raised him. He’s nearing his nineties, insistent on living alone in his island cottage. He still drives, although his macular degeneration worsens each year.
Over the past five years, I’ve spent more time with my parents in the than I have in my entire life, and what I’ve found is this: it’s easier to be patient toward a mother with Alzheimer’s than a father who, in his ruthless determination to be terminally unique, is stubborn and quirky to a fault. He recalls very vehicle he’s ever owned in vivid detail. He prefers befriending the mice in his house to a visit from the exterminator. Often, his dinners consist of dark chocolate and a handful of peanuts.
Recently, John and I took our father on a riverboat cruise along the Seine. At first, I was a basket case. Dad complained. A lot. He slept through the whole excursion to Normandy. His breathing was as labored as a freight train going uphill. It took a week aboard that ship and John’s patient reassurances that I was a good daughter to finally accept my father for who he is.
Like the recent death of my husband’s daughter, I’m doing my best with a situation I’ve never been through: being a parent to my parents. Although his legs may be slower than his thoughts, my father’s mind is still razor-sharp.
And for that, we’re all grateful.
“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”
We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.
She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.
Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.
I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.
I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.
And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.