I didn't get a chance to write an on-time birthday post, because I was in Indiana visiting her and Dad.
I thought maybe I'd write about the things she's taught me in life. There are many. Hoardes. The most likeable parts of me are traits I learned from watching her. How to be friendly to any stranger, anywhere.
Elevator, plane, grocery store line, doctor's waiting room, church, department store ladies' room. How to love and appreciate beauty.
She sees so many things that I would miss otherwise. "Look at those little yellow flowers along that ditch. I wonder what those are?" This is what she says while I'm finding something in my head to stew about. Anything. She is noticing the flowers or the clouds or the sunset. I notice these things, too, sometimes, but I have to make
myself do it. For Mom, it comes naturally. They are there; she sees them. She is a stew-aholic, too, and so is my sister and my niece. We are all worry addicts. But we try to be like her, and to notice little pretties. How to be silly.
With abandon. Her favorite joke is a visual one: "How does a pollock look for a land mine?" Then she puts her fingers in her ears and tiptoes across the room.
You can't help wanting to make her laugh. Once when my mom and I were shopping at a big discount store in Florida, there was a tangled up pile of shirts on a table, on sale for $1.88 each. She was digging in to see what she could find, way down deep, and I slid my arm under the pile of sweaters and grabbed her hand from below. She jumped back like she'd been bitten and then said "That's why I like you, Candy. Because you're silly."How to keep my mouth shut when I need to.
This one didn't "take" as well for me.How to love animals. How to hate certain animals.
My extreme, radiating joy from dogs and cats is her doing. My need to speak what I think they want to say to me, is her doing. But Mom does not love all of God's creatures. She despises snakes (her battles with those are here
) and crocodiles. When we see a show on Animal Planet with crocodiles, she says "Look
at that ugly bastard. They oughta kill 'em all." And I always picture the crocodiles, lined up dutifully, to be pushed off a cliff.
The list of what my mom has taught me is long. But I'm most interested in what she's teaching me now.
My mother is on blood pressure medication, struggles with painful arthritis in her hips, knees, feet and crooked, throbbing fingers. Her right heel is sometimes tender and sore from a bone spur that resists treatment, some days worse than others. She has a post-cataract surgery "wrinkle" on her cornea, and an artificial knee that has, since its arrival three years ago, been stiff and uncooperative.
And yet, she still takes care of my dad almost entirely by herself. Dad is 90, tormented by Alzheimers, unable to go to the bathroom without supervision, unable to correctly brush his teeth, unable to walk without a walker, and then almost unable to walk anyway. He can't get the shaving thing right anymore, so she shaves him. Then she puts lotion on his face. She does the bodily things for him that could lead to the end of his dignity. But she does them in a way that keeps his dignity intact. Whether he knows this consciously or not, he does seems to know it. And he knows beyond any doubt that he is loved.
She used to give him a shower all by herself until we, her children, demanded that she hire help to come in and do that. At least that. It was getting way too slippery and dangerous. We also talked her into a "Life Alert" button, compliments of my brother. My sister, who is still dealing with the loss of her husband in May, visits almost every evening, often taking dinner to our parents. I go and stay with them for a week every six weeks or so. But we are small buffers for our mother's exhaustion. My mother is giving me a master's class on loving sacrificially.
I watch her take care of Dad, make sure he takes his flurry of pills (he has to be told numerous times), sit with him as long as she can while he finishes a meal. With Alzheimers patients, this can take two hours. They chew and chew their food and can't seem to remember to swallow it. She mixes Ensure with his milk to give him extra protein. Makes sure he gets to the bathroom during the night, and back into bed safely. The list of her daily caretaking duties never ends. And neither do my dad's questions. His memory has dimmed steadily and now his top two questions are: "Is this where we live?" and the most crushing "Are you my wife?" Until you are the recipient of the questions, full blast, you don't know how draining they are.
When I'm visiting, I want to answer every one of his questions. Because he is my father and because this is his impulse to communicate and I will take that any way I can get it. When I was sitting on the porch with him last week, my mom and sister took a rare walk together. I told myself I was going to answer every question as though it was the first time he was asking it. This sometimes revs him up to ask even more. After just fifteen minutes of rapid-fire Q and A about where I live, whether or not I like it there, who I'm married to, whether or not I have kids, where Mom went, and do we live here, I was ready to cry from exhaustion. And from the knowledge of what my mom endures, and from the gut blow of missing my dad the way he used to be, and multiplying that by a thousand for her.
We all have our baggage, our character flaws. One of mine is my tendency to self absorb. Not only to BE self-absorbed, but to almost emotionally fold up and curl into myself like an inverted daisy. It's a protective thing, developed from years of various battles. I'm not unique.
Watching my mom take care of my dad is teaching me to unfold. To, as an old friend of mine used to put it, let the pain go through
me. It's coming anyway, so you have to learn to stand firm and take it, and let it pass before the next wave hits. And, as obvious as this sounds, to love in high gear anyway. And when you are unfolded, you can see everything there is to see, good and bad. Even the little yellow flowers in the ditch. And the ugly bastard crocodiles.