The hidden costs of caring

My mother’s resolve to live in her home forever is impenetrable. At the same time, my resolve to keep her out of harm’s way while improving her quality of life slowly erodes, as I fight the good fight with my conscience about how to respect her wishes and keep her safe.

I picture the devil on one of my shoulders and an angel on the other, each whispering into an ear, trying to steer me towards doing the wrong thing or the right thing, respectively.  I just don’t know which is which.

From a purely logical standpoint, it’s a no-brainer.  It is ludicrous and unconscionable – bordering on criminal – to leave a physically-compromised 88 year-old-woman in the once happy, healthy home that has become a hazard-ridden hollow of confinement.

Dangers abound for my fragile, sight-impaired mother who is dependent on a walker and part-time caregivers to meet her basic needs. Hot tea from the microwave, a displaced throw rug, inability to see the numbers on the phone, virtually anything that requires sight or reasonable reflexes could compromise her safety. And yet my sisters and I continue to succumb to her ultimatum that she live in her home, at all costs.

Here’s the thing about the cost, though.  She will not be the only one to pay the price. She isn’t now.  We uncomfortably acquiesce at the personal cost of anxiety and guilt – especially the two of us who live nearby – as we worry about her well-being , chastise ourselves for our inability to persuade her to move and feel sick – down to the pits of our stomachs sick –  each time we walk out the door and leave her there alone, unsafe and vulnerable.

When that inevitable event occurs, we will knock ourselves around and forever play the “if I had only realized, if I had only come earlier or stayed longer,  if I had just moved that box…” whatever game.  Because by allowing her to stay in her home, we virtually accept responsibility for any unfortunate or fatal, even, thing that happens. And that’s a legacy our mother is perfectly willing to leave us.

 So the tug of war continues as this diminutive octogenarian doesn’t give an inch and her four irresolute daughters lose ground. I really question which is worse, feeling guilty about her absolute vulnerability at home or feeling guilty about relocating her to a safe place against her will. And, personally, if I’m going to feel guilty either way, why not just move her and allow her an opportunity to thrive and us the opportunity to feel like responsible adults.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, or so they say.  Our intentions are good and admirable, I think, as we plan to assure mom’s well- being by moving her to a safe place. But they will be empty and worthless and forever haunt us, if that bad thing happens while we drag our feet. 

Our lives would be much easier if we just didn’t care. Too bad that’s not an option.    

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The silent connection

I’m going to visit my dad again this Father’s Day. I know how it will go. We will sit in relative silence, despite each of us giving full attention to the other. We will smile and nod and when I recount some childhood memory, he will respond with a shrug of his shoulders or with his eyes searching mine for some clue as to what I’m talking about or what he should say.
Seldom do we have a conversation. His repertoire is limited to the occasional questions about whether I know my mother or what he should be doing. It’s not that he’s rude or disinterested or joking around. He simply can no longer connect. Alzheimer’s Disease has made sure of that.
But still we are lucky. Most residents of his memory unit are anxious, aggressive or actively trying to escape. My dad just smiles and thanks everyone who speaks to him or comes within view. When asked about my dad, I often reply that he’s the happiest guy in town. And he is. He doesn’t agonize over the disease as we are prone to do. He has no idea that he’s traded his Brooks Brothers suits for perpetually-stained sweatshirts and ill-fitting pants that I’m sure don’t belong to him. No, he knows neither where he is nor who he was – nothing, really, that happened before the last moment. So I have no sense that he remembers his life before the disease consumed him or that he grieves for that life. And that is a blessing.
His ever-bright blue eyes and endearing smile are enough for us now – it’s all he can give and we lovingly accept that. But we remember his 63 Father’s Days, bask in a lifetime of good memories and take solace in the fact that the disease has done little to change his demeanor. If anything, he is more calm and pleasant and, well, happier now. That’s unusual, I realize, but then my dad always did things his own way.

So Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I have no expectations that you will know me or the cause for this celebration. But in the course of exchanging nods and smiles, maybe we will connect, if only for moment, and I will find some sense of us that endures reflected in those expressive blue eyes – a Father’s Day gift for your daughter.


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The eyes have it

I’m perfecting the art of eye-rolling. I realize it’s not as much of an accomplishment as, say sword swallowing or creating the perfect soufflé. But it’s a practical skill and part of my personal worksite wellness program.


Not sure when I chose eye-rolling over teeth-gritting, as the politically-correct solution to tacit disagreement or open hostility. I guess it’s been more of an evolution than any kind of conscious choice. But it serves as a non-confrontational response that reveals what I’m thinking when it suits me or affords an undetected protest, when it doesn’t. 


Eye rolling also serves as a “do you want to rethink that” suggestion that, when appropriately applied, could deter hasty decisions or heat of the moment actions. Think about it. Taking such a pause might have saved Marie Antoinette’s head or caused John McCain to leave Sarah Palin gazing out the window at what she thought was Russia or dissuaded Geena Davis from wearing that ridiculous dress to the Academy Awards in 1992.


And, although I hate to admit it, my eye rolling has saved my sanity, as I dutifully listen to my mother’s repertoire of complaints and news flashes about my dimwitted cousins in California. Same old stuff. Because she doesn’t see well, I can roll my eyes until they’re spinning around in my head like pinballs and she doesn’t have a clue. I know. I disgust myself, too.


But I’ve come to think of twirling the old blues (or in my case, greens) up into my head as a kind of a release valve, where I can stay true to myself while silently, albeit vehemently, opposing what’s being said. In my experience, screaming “my God, have you lost your mind?” or banging my shoe on the table like Khruschev affect quite different outcomes, neither of which have advanced my career or enriched my relationships.


Guess I’ll stick with the orbiting eye balls until some other untapped talent reveals itself. Removing my own tonsils or patching the driveway with my culinary creations wouldn’t look nearly as good on a resume.







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Housewives of Freeborn County

When I was a kid, my mother was a housewife. Not a stay-at-home mom who went to yoga class, played “Words with Friends” or drove an SUV sporting a “my child is on the honor roll at Oakwood School” bumper sticker. No, she was a real, honest-to-goodness housewife who tended to her husband’s every need, made a nightly dinner that included every food group and darned our socks. And that was okay with her.

It all seemed mundane to me and, honestly, I never really considered that she might have rather been an archaeologist or a trapeze artist. I seldom wondered what she did all day when we were at school. B-o-r-i-n-g, I figured. Until that fateful day in 1959, that is.

I had high-tailed it home from school, ducking out of line and sneaking out even before the bell rang. As I burst in the back door, the scene before me stopped me in my tracks. Women, my mother included, were dressed in long, white robes – some laughing, some changing back into street clothes and others looking likely to add an eye of newt or an eight-year-old’s left ear to whatever was brewing. Coffee, I found out later. But egg coffee.

Unabashedly, they changed out of their robes and swept by me to resume their double lives as housewives, all the while sizing me up as a potential meal for the warlock king or a sacrifice to the witch queen or something equally evil.

I stood there frozen, in some kind of a trance (probably a spell cast by Mrs. Nelson) broken only when my mother turned to me and said “So how was school today, honey?” What?! Did she think acting all normal would keep me from exposing her secret life?

Well, two could play at that game. I regained my composure and replied, “Well, Scott threw up and Nancy fell down and ripped her precious poodle skirt and someone put a fake spider on Val’s cupcake. Nothing much.”

Cool as a cucumber, I proceeded to ask about her day. “Well, I had PEO here today,” she said.

“PEO?” I said, unconvinced. ”Yes, dear, you know,” she said with a straight face. “It’s kind of a club where we get together every month to talk and drink coffee – that kind of thing.”

“Oh, sure,” I said, nonchalantly, determined to investigate further. But Bart’s Clubhouse was about to come on and I didn’t miss that for anything. Later, maybe, after I watched Make Room for Daddy or baked more spiders in my creepy crawler set or drew faces on my sister’s math homework, I would go on some kind of reconnaissance to look for other clues of her extracurricular activities.

But I guess I didn’t really put it out of my mind because that night, I dreamt my mother was a stripper. I didn’t actually know what a stripper was at age 8, just that in my dream she took her clothes off to a cheering crowd in our dining room, while were safely tucked away at school. I tossed and turned all night and felt sick to my stomach, totally disgusted by the whole thing. And, in the morning, I purposely didn’t wave or say goodbye to that person masquerading as my mother.

But I couldn’t get those nagging thoughts out of my mind all day. I didn’t even laugh when Mrs. Schwartz tripped over Paula’s show and tell (really, what’s so special about a pink hula hoop?)

When the bell rang, I sauntered home, in no hurry to face my mother. But she could tell something was wrong and, when she asked about it, I blurted out everything – my dream, the whole white robe thing, my irrational fears about her true identity. “Oh honey,” she said. “That was just a dream, nothing to worry about. And the robes, well that’s just part of PEO, it doesn’t mean anything.”

The relief I felt was immediate. Like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My mother’s life was predictable and ordinary and, well, b-o-r-i-n-g. No conjuring or casting of spells, pole dancing or dollar bills stuffed into her apron. She was a bona fide housewife. And that was okay with me, too.

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Mad about me

My mother is mad at me – although she would never characterize it that way. No, she would say she was cross or irritated or use some kind of euphemism that would somehow soften her blow, while getting her point across that I had crossed the line.

And how did I do that? By saying I worry about her. A caring, daughterly thing to say, I thought. But in her mind that phase is synonymous with plotting to move her out of her house and into one of “those places.”

True, she would be safer and my sisters and I would rest easier if she was in some kind of assisted living or care facility, but I intentionally didn’t broach that subject, lest she think I had an ulterior motive for expressing my concern.

But the fact is that she hadn’t eaten – again. She either had no appetite or didn’t have time between sleeping late, taking a nap and visiting my dad in a memory care unit. Or, as I found out tonight, because she couldn’t open a can of soup, couldn’t read the buttons on the microwave and didn’t want to open the refrigerator because it was too bright inside.

Just because she doesn’t have total mobility after a broken hip and is losing the sight in both of her eyes due to macular degeneration, that’s no cause for alarm, really. Why should I needlessly worry that she will fall again, forget to take her medications or invite the paper delivery guy to fix her thermostat because, as she told him, she lives alone and can’t see.

After all, North Korea has nuclear weapons, bullying is on the rise and the Dow is down again. Now those are real worries and I have about as much control over those things as I do my mother’s safety.

So when the day comes that something bad – the inevitable – happens, because I didn’t do anything to prevent it, I will be cross with me, too. In fact, I will be absolutely, categorically and unrelentingly mad. That’s just how it is and I’m not afraid to say it.

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Born ready

Everywhere I go people ask whether I’m ready for Christmas. Not sure if they’re just making friendly conversation, are truly interested in the status of my Christmas preparations, know I’m a procrastinator or simply assume that I’m not. But, as I think about it, I’m not really sure what “ready for Christmas” means.


Maybe it’s a question about me holding out for the price slashing and final markdowns before purchasing gifts, then having to pay for next-day shipping. Or it could be a comment about decorating, which I sometimes find myself loathe to do because I have to rearrange the whole living room to accommodate the tree and have to practically secure a walkway to the kitchen. Another possibility is that they know I’m not much of a baker and that after three failed attempts at making spritz cookies, I resort to eating the dough. I mean, come on, my hand freezes into a claw-like position after cranking away for hours, with dough that won’t dislodge onto the cookie sheet. What’s the trick?


Or perhaps it’s about getting a dumpster – I mean straightening up the house. Or  tripping – I mean joining – frenzied shoppers at the grocery store for the last pound of butter.  Or sampling – I mean selecting  — wine at the liquor store. And the menu is always a challenge. Our family has no Christmas meal traditions, but most favor homemade egg rolls. An interesting choice and not easily understood by other Scandinavian families serving Swedish meatballs, lutefisk or oyster stew.


And if ready includes mailing out Christmas cards, I will never be ready. I gave that up in an attempt to simplify my life about 20 years ago. The downside is that I don’t get Christmas cards, either, anymore. I guess it’s a reciprocal thing. The upside is that I don’t get Christmas cards anymore. One more letter about vacations into the heart of Africa, grandchildren on honor rolls or the joys of retirement in the Caribbean and someone may have to talk me down off the ledge.


So how do I reply when asked whether I’m ready for Christmas? I usually say either “I was born ready” or “I’m never ready.” Neither of which is true, but who really knows or cares, even. Besides, what fun would ready be, if I couldn’t panic when I realize I forgot where I hid some presents, didn’t label others and there’s no oil to fry the eggrolls. Now that’s a Christmas rush.



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Nothing to fear but fear itself

I knew I was in trouble as soon as the pilot announced turbulence was expected and the flight attendants would be required to stay seated during the flight. Great. I wouldn’t have the reassurance of them pushing their carts cheerfully down the aisle while I sat white-knuckled, my seatbelt securely fastened. I felt queasy the minute I heard “turbulence” and wished I could rethink my decision about the glass of wine I had an hour earlier that was intended to relax me and calm my stomach and the fact that I skipped the Dramamine this flight. Queasiness led to outright nausea, as I anticipated the bumpy ride and my inability to enjoy the smooth part of the ride because I knew I was fixated on turbulence.


Adding to my distress was a pizza the woman across the aisle had carried on and stowed under her seat. The smell of the pizza, whether real or imagined, caused me to search for that little bag in my seat pocket and to hope I wouldn’t wake up my seat partners with the retching. I was also debating the merits of not having eaten before the flight and figured that with my stomach doing flip flops, it was probably a good thing.


To hasten sleep and escape from the dealing with turbulence in total consciousness, I clenched my eyes shut for the entire flight, as if the harder I clenched, the better my chance for deep and immediate slumber. The only result such intense furrowing of my brows produced was a wide-awake headache.


The flight was eerily quiet, but every once in a while, I would sense the shadow of someone gliding past my seat and was relieved to think that if I had to make a mad dash to the bathroom, no one would wrestle me to the ground.


A pilot once described turbulence to me as just like waves on the water – kind of literally going with the flow. Much as I’ve tried to wrap my head around that, all I can think of is our fateful trip on the barf barge (yes, that’s what they called it) sailing fromCopper Harbor,MichigantoIsle Royale.  The horror. Visions of group motion sickness danced in my head and accelerated my nausea.


Turbulence has never killed anyone, so that same pilot went on to say. Uh huh. But there’s always a first time and a person could die of fright, maybe. With my eyes shut, my stomach on edge and my wide-awake headache, I waited for the inevitable bumps and drops and rocking of the plane, but it never happened. Nope. It was a pretty smooth flight. Even though I imagined the worse and fretted and planned to lose the lunch I hadn’t had, I realized that I had literally and figuratively made myself sick. Either that or I had really slept through the flight and the whole ordeal was just a dream. The bag was still in the seat pocket, the pizza was still across the aisle and I was now inMinneapolis. Huh. Makes me wonder about the time I dreamt I ate a giant marshmallow, only to wake and find my pillow missing.


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