Be careful what you wish for

A year ago, Mom needed me. She was losing her ability to call me on the phone. She wasn’t remembering to change her clothes or her underwear. I brought her cat food, and scooped the cat litter. I flushed her toilet and tidied up her little apartment from time to time. I brought her cookies sometimes, and I maintained her disposable underwear supply for her. She was running out of money but didn’t know it, and I was taking care of her finances for her – as I had been for years by this time. She was more emotionally fragile then and was comforted by my presence. She had friends that she enjoyed spending time with at her assisted living facility, and spent most of every day sitting in the lobby chatting with them. But she still needed me. And I felt the burden of that need.

If you had told me then that within a year, Mom would be content and settled into a new nursing home and busy with a boyfriend who occupied virtually all of her time, I would have carried myself for months on that promise that someday, she wouldn’t need my help anymore. I also would have been skeptical, after I had been Mom’s focal point for several years, that she would so easily let me go.

Last Friday, it occurred to me that this is just what has happened. I visited Mom before lunch. She was sitting on the couch with Mr. R, and they were engaging in some deep kissing when I arrived. Another family member of a resident who spends lots of time at the center told me that Mom had “turned Mr. R into a one-woman man.” Meaning his other girlfriend apparently isn’t in the picture anymore. I actually haven’t seen her around lately, and that could mean any number of things. But apparently Mom and Mr. R are now monogamous.

And what that means is that Mr. R is now Mom’s primary source of companionship. As we sat together, me in a chair next to Mom’s side of the couch, she and Mr. R held hands, and he sang along with Elvis tunes playing on the sound system. “He’s my best friend,” Mom said. “I love him.” “I can tell,” I replied. “That is so nice.” And I felt what I guess was the sting of a little bit of rejection. My eyes teared up just a little bit. Mom used to tell me that I am her best person. But I guess that is no longer the case. What she did continue to tell me during this visit, though, was that I am beautiful. And every time she said it, I told her I am beautiful because she is beautiful – that I take after her. And she did look good on this day. Her hair was wavy and clean, and she looked very rested. She had white pants on, and a pink striped T-shirt, and her pink Crocs. Despite our friendly exchange, I fear that I became sort of bad company during this visit, sitting quietly and absorbing the facts of this transition.

The thing is, Mom’s devotion to Mr. R and his devotion to her are good things. Talk about quality of life – they are engaging constantly in expressions of affection for each other, whispering to each in a language that they can understand. Mom is at peace, more than ever before in the course of this illness. She doesn’t need my presence to feel comfort or safety. That is good for her, and frankly, it is good for me. My new once-a-week visitation schedule is making room in my life for more exercise, daily walks with Patrick and the dogs, errands for my own needs rather than hers. And Mom-free weekends, something I haven’t had for about four years. So this is really a win-win. But I think it might be common to caregivers of all kinds, to feel sort of sad that someone could possibly replace them as the best person in their loved one’s life.

This is not to say I will stop visiting. A conversation with a friend recently clued me in to how many people think about Alzheimer’s – that when the memory is completely gone, and the patient no longer recognizes family, there is really no point to maintaining a connection to that patient. That is so completely not the case. Mom still remembers me for the most part, either my name or that I am her daughter or both, though she doesn’t really know what having a daughter means anymore. But when she no longer knows my name, or can no longer say it, she will still know that somehow, I am hers. Several people in my support group have talked about this, and I see it when I visit the center, that patients with very advanced disease can still experience the comfort of a familiar face, sound or touch. They may need it then more than ever. And whether Mom needs me or not, the truth is, I need her. It is part of my life now, to look after her, and I get more joy from the relationship than I ever would have predicted.

I can’t imagine that Mom could sense anything about my emotions on Friday, but the visit ended in a very fine way. Mom’s lunch arrived, and she moved from the couch to a table. I poured her milk for her and put her bib-like towel around her neck. Mr. R came to the table to wait for his tray to arrive. I said, “Now that you’re eating, I’m going to head back to work.” I leaned down to kiss her goodbye, and she turned her face up toward mine and said loudly, “I love you!” And I said, “I love you, too.”

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9 comments so far

  1. Mary Jane Metz on

    Your situation reminds me of what I’m going through now with the twins. I really do feel, much more than with the other kids, that the twins are my little boys… and they hardly need me at all anymore. That hurts. And it may well be what your mom felt when you became independent. Ironic, really, that you now feel that loss of “mothering” too.

  2. Sherri on

    I guess it’s always hard when a loved one has “another” in his or her life – a parent has another baby or remarries – your son or daughter finds a close group of college friends and doesn’t eat dinner at home anymore …. And, though it is hard not to be TOP in their lives anymore, it doesn’t mean that you’re replaced (can you tell I have a kid going to high school next year – tug tug). I know with Alzheimers, all this interaction is more important – changes in behavior hold more weight, but… I think she still seems to expect you there – LOVES to have you, but… when you’re not there, she has her new boyfriend. I’m really learning from your blog – and enjoy hearing of your Mom’s progress – her challenges and her exploits :-). I’m so glad you’re feeling better these days too.

  3. HP on

    This is really beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Glenna Miller on

    Love your blogs.You will always need your mom & she you.Mom had not said my name for over a year & on the Day she went to be with God she said my name.That was a gift.My Mom was widowed at a young age& never had another man in her life until she went into a nursing home.It was there she she started to live & love again.I don’t regret to say she was not monogamous:),This disturbed my siblings.I embraced it after awhile& it was a source of comfort Knowing that Mom was having a good time&being of service to others:)& your Mom is right you are beautiful.Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. momsbrain on

    Mary Jane: I do feel sometimes that I am experiencing something that resembles parenting pangs with Mom. I’m sorry you’re feeling sad about those growing twins. I bet they still do need you…

    Sherri: I guess you’re right that I’m not replaced, technically… And I cannot forget that this is a good thing for mom and me. It’s different for an actual mother of a teenager!

    HP: Hello and thanks! I hope you are doing OK re: your G-ma.

    Glenna: Thanks for commenting. I am so glad your mom said your name on that last day. It’s as if the disease, for just a moment, gives these poor people the opportunity to reach into their brains and find the one thing they want to convey before they go. Something similar happened with some of my support group friends. I’m so glad your mom had a good nursing home experience – something else I think many people cannot fathom.

  6. plettahar on

    this *is* a beautiful piece, and it’s good to process some of these tangled feelings of relief, sadness, happiness and loss. it’s been such a fraught ride and i’m sure there will be more complications and emotional highs and lows. thanks for sharing your journey

  7. momsbrain on

    Hi, plettahar – thank you! The feelings, they certainly are tangled, that is true.

  8. Jeff on

    Emily – it’s interesting to have this insight into your world. Besides being beautifully written, it reminds me of the vast experiential differences we’ve had. Being so physically distant from Mom for such a long time, I’m not as obviously impacted by these changes of the past few months. I love reading these blogs. It has helped illuminate so much of YOUR life for the past several years. I’m so excited to see what happens with you now. As this chapter ends, so much potential for you exists.

  9. momsbrain on

    Hi, Jeff. Thanks for saying it is beautifully written! As for what happens with me – well, I like your high expectations. I don’t know what to expect…


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