In which Robin hates everything except her friends, then doesn’t, then does, then doesn’t, and goes to nerd camp.

Yesterday, we brought Robin to Advanced Studies and Leadership camp at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. It’s a terrific program, serving about 200 7th and 8th graders from public school districts on Cape Cod. For three weeks (coming home on weekends), they’ll do a mix of STEM-related classes and activities, a humanities course, team games, music-making, and all kinds of other stuff.

Robin and her friends call it “nerd camp.” They couldn’t be happier or more excited. They’re living in dorms, and assigned roommates not from their own town so that everyone gets to know as many new kids as possible. It’s right on the Cape Cod Canal. A dorm is a dorm, but the view from this one is pretty cool.

I am so proud of her and thrilled for her to have this opportunity. It’ll be the first time she’s been away from home longer than overnight, so a major step for our family, and particularly for her sister. The girls have been fighting lately, which is unusual for them.

Robin can be bossy (first child…), and her emotions can get out of proportion when people don’t behave as she wants them to. Josie can just shut down and refuse to engage. They each get how they get, and know when to give each other a wide berth. But lately, Robin’s been picking fights, and overreacting to things even by 12 year-old girl standards. And the mood swings… omg. Yesterday she was screaming and crying about how she hated everything and nobody understands or listens to her. Ten minutes later she made us all oatmeal cookies. Today, she picked the same fight with Josie as yesterday — ending in the same screaming and crying and self-indulgent wallowing outrage as yesterday, saying how she’s DONE. DONE! with having a sister. Then she asked if they could watch a TV show together.

I think (warning: amateur psychology ahead) that a lot of their fighting has to do with getting ready to be apart and miss each other. It’s easier to be OK with a separation if they’re not feeling so happy together, sure. But more than that, both girls are at developmental stages where each is beginning to see and define herself in the world apart from her family, and apart from her sister in particular: I am like this. You are like that. I am not like that. It is OK for me to be away from that. In fact, I don’t even like that very much, so there.

All normal, I think, but it’s exhausting.

As much as we’re going to miss Robin and the house will feel incomplete while she’s not home, we could all use a break from the whole tween psycho routine. I have whiplash from following the mood swings too closely. I can’t wait to hear how nerd camp is going when she comes home for the weekend, by which time I hope to be out of my neck brace.

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Baselines

A friend joked with her forgetful mother on Facebook. She said, “how will we know it’s Alzheimer’s, Mom, if this is the baseline? LOL!” Good-natured family banter ensued.

I thought about my own mother, and her diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia. Mom’s diagnosis was an aha! moment. A lot of things made sense in retrospect. Now I know why she was so extraordinarily hostile and disoriented after surgeries. Now I understand why she insists she hears neighbors talking about her, and says such hateful things about them.

But what about the behaviors that have always been? Rick and I shake our heads over this sometimes. How could we know it’s dementia, if this is the baseline? Our mother has always been kind of dopey when it comes to anything managerial. She’s always been self-centered and lazy. She’s never been great with the truth. She’s oddly dismissive of Rick to this day — he doesn’t even take it personally anymore. She’s always said mean things about neighbors, and been critical of our friends to the point of embarrassing rudeness. (These days I just tell people ahead of time to be prepared. When it happens, they sort of blink in astonishment, then remember I’d warned them, and don’t experience it as a direct hit. Later I say, “told ya.”)

Maybe — especially if you can’t imagine saying such things about your own mother, or if your mother has passed on and you’d give anything for more time together — you’re thinking I’m being too hard on her. Maybe you’ve met Mom and think she’s a lovely person, which she can certainly be. There are people she doesn’t cut down behind their backs. I might even be one of them. (When people say to her “you’re lucky to have such a great daughter so close by,” she says “It’s not luck. It’s management.”)

I try not to be hard on my mother for the hollow satisfaction of it, but I don’t feel inclined to make excuses for her, either. She’s got that part covered. A very indulgent therapist in the 1980s encouraged her to “set aside feelings of inadequacy and guilt.” At the time, I would have preferred she focus on being less inadequate and guilty, but what did I know. I was a child, and some of her inadequacy and guilt affected me in ways I am just beginning to understand, as a mother of daughters myself.

My daughters’ childhoods are several orders of magnitude happier than mine was. Maybe mine was several orders of magnitude happier than my mother’s, and maybe with more insight, I’d achieve a gentler mindset. As truth-challenged as she is, there’s no point in asking for it. I piece together clues as they come.

Sometimes, when the clues make me realize, deduce or remember things about my childhood, I am furious anew. I am nowhere near being able to write about what these things are. But what do people do, with anger at their mothers? When they realize, as parents themselves, how much power there is in that role? When they look back on parts of their childhoods and think, how could you. How could you?

Probably, they see therapists.

I am always heartened to see women hanging out with their moms, each enjoying the other’s company. It shows that it’s possible. It means everything to me that my daughters and I should have that when they are grown women as well. I tell them I’m not perfect and try to own and improve on my shortcomings (except for swearing. I can’t seem to clear that particular hurdle). I include in our “prayers” every night a request to the Universe for help being a good mother to them, because they deserve the best mother I can be. They deserve it.

Only my mother knows whether she was the best mother she could be. I seem to have turned out all right, even if sometimes I feel broken (and I don’t imagine many people get through this life without feeling that way sometimes). I don’t hate her for her limitations, but I don’t have to respect her for how she’s addressed them, either.

And now, it’s hard to know where her personality leaves off and Lewy Body Dementia begins, which is both funny and sad.

Hot flashes (no, not mine) and other things for the birds.

On the way to visit my parents this week, I picked up a rotisserie chicken at BJs for their dinner. If they like it, I will do that more often. It’s quick and easy for me, and considering they mostly eat prepared or frozen meals, it’s relatively inexpensive for them ($5 for a whole cooked chicken? You can’t beat that with a stick). I threw in some of the ginger snaps they love from Trader Joe’s. (I don’t know if my parents ever eat any vegetables but that’s one of the things I file under “not my problem.” If my 85 year-old Dad never wants to eat another vegetable again, I’m not gonna make him.)

When I entered their house, Dad was sitting with his head down on the kitchen table, complaining of a “hot flash.” He said he’d woken during the night and the heat had been turned on. He knew Mom did it, and he kept trying to get her to say that she’d done it. Mom, never a big fan of admissions of truth, denied it and kept trying to get him not to obsess over how it had happened. It was certainly warm in the house. She said she’d turned it “back down” to 72F. Great. I got Dad an ice pack, and set the thermostat to 70F. The a/c came on: sweet relief.

I put the chicken in the fridge, and spied a bag of Romaine lettuce that had been left out since whenever they’d had groceries delivered. “Shall I put the lettuce away, Mom?” “Sure, in the bottom crisper.” The bottom crisper was already occupied by a sad, tough loaf of white bread dated December 7, possibly of 2013. That is where things go to die. So I’ll give the lettuce a couple of weeks, then retrieve it and compost what I can’t use.

I paid the bills, then at Mom’s request, tried to help renew her driver’s license online. Turns out the RMV won’t let her do it. In fact, they’re planning to revoke her license if she doesn’t attend a driver retraining class. Evidently she’s racked up an unacceptable number of moving violations. Mom is a terrible driver — not due to age or illness, but for as long as I can remember. I’ve been nervous about her driving since I was 6, and have never allowed my children in her car. So, she’ll go to driving school this Saturday. Maybe the instructor will remember her from last time.

The December 7 bread came home with me, along with a tote bag full of books about Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography and other such nonsense. Mom has always liked buying books about doing stuff more than actually doing stuff. Week by week, I’m chipping away at this lifetime’s accumulation of worthless print via my local library’s donation shelf. I hope they’re making some money off it at the weekly book sale.

Josie took the bread when she got home from school, and happily threw it (“like Frisbees!”) to the crows in the woods. “Did that come from Grandma’s?” she asked. “Of course it did. Where else would you still find bread from December,” replied Robin.

Where, indeed.

Visiting Mom and Dad

I spend a few hours each week at my parents’ house, usually on Mondays. (For someone with a memory disorder, routine is key.) This week I went on Tuesday, because Mom and Dad had back-to-back dentist appointments on Monday. All I can say about that, folks, is FLOSS. FLOSS WHILE YOU’RE YOUNG. The more you “hate the dentist,” the more you should care about flossing. Go floss. I’ll wait.

OK? OK.

When I visit, I bring my parents lunch, pick up prescriptions, pay the bills, change light bulbs and batteries, and fix whatever random things needs fixing. (It’s a mystery to me why there is almost always at least one light bulb or battery that needs replacing. In decades of home ownership, I don’t think I’ve replaced as many bulbs and batteries as I have since I started doing it at my parents’ house.) And, of course, I hear what’s been going on with them, and help where I can.

Mom’s been having auditory hallucinations again — she is convinced that the next door neighbor’s son is watching her every move, and she hears him narrate everything she does. She says he killed his “gay lover” in the backyard, and now he’s going to kill her and my Dad. She says he watches her with stolen binoculars. In real life, this is a nice kid who just graduated from college and wants to be a priest. Mom has, on occasion, called the police to report his evil plans. The police check in with the neighbor. The neighbor calls me, understandably beside herself. I try to calm everyone down.

The hallucinations are so real to Mom that she does not feel safe on that side of the house. She relates them as if they are real: “he said,” not “I heard him say.” When I point out that he can’t see through walls, and there’s no way she would be able to hear him speak, she can perceive that it’s her brain doing this to her. But, it still does it to her. Her psychiatrist has instructed her to double her dose of the medicine that’s supposed to keep the hallucinations at bay.

In the meantime, she said, she came to the kitchen this morning and saw a skillet in the sink that had obviously been used to cook scrambled eggs. She said she had no memory of having cooked or eaten the eggs — the whole experience was a blank. “Well,” said Dad,”you should probably add that last night also included you drinking an entire bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and singing along to Burt Bacharach’s Best during the PBS on-air fundraiser.”

So, yeah. There’s that. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that based on the empty carton in the trash, the sell-by date on those eggs was in February. The damage, if there was any, had been done.

Most weeks, I end up bringing something home from my parents’ house. This has become kind of the fun part — you never know what it might be (especially if I’m making progress cleaning out the kitchen). For a long time, it was garden hose. My Dad had an astonishing amount of garden hose stored who knows where, which he parceled out to me in 25′ lengths over a period of about 6 months. Aaron and I were pleased at first, because our own hoses were wearing out, and Dad’s arrived just in time to save us buying new ones. As more hose appeared week after week after week, we went from delighted to baffled to mildly inconvenienced to actively trying to pawn it off on our lovely neighbors, who are enthusiastic gardeners who know other enthusiastic gardeners and seem to find homes for such things.

There have also been countless little cardboard boxes filled with tiny things about which Dad says, hopefully, “maybe Aaron can use these?” Fittings and connectors and adapters and washers and bearings and screws… the detritus of a lifetime’s puttering around a workbench. Aaron, fortunately, is just the guy to sort through all this stuff and put a lot of it to use. To say he’s handy is the understatement of the century. To say he’s frugal is also inadequate. Best, though, and what makes me proudest to be married to him, is that he understands. He makes a point to tell Dad when one of the little thingamajigs has served some critical function without which we would all have been lost for sure. This makes my Dad very, very happy. We are making those moments happen whenever we can.

Today’s haul included a Canon printer/scanner/fax machine, which Mom says was “broken.” As near as I can tell, whenever Mom’s computer stuff doesn’t work for any reason, her “computer guy” advises her to buy new stuff, and she does. All I ask is that she not give her computer guy the old stuff, because often there is nothing whatsoever wrong with it. I fully expect the Canon to be humming away productively in our home office as soon as I plug it in. That would be cool.

I also brought home open containers of All Bran cereal from the year 2000, instant coffee from 2009, and Quaker oats from 2003. It was Josie’s turn to take out the compost, and she was not thrilled.

It turns out some friends aren’t “forever.” And it turns out that’s OK.

According to daysoftheyear.com, today is “Best Friends Day,” which makes it as good a day as any for this post, which has been brewing for a while.

I’ve been letting go of an old friendship – one I once described as a “best” friendship – that isn’t healthy anymore. ­­­I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to this kind of thing. Sometimes things aren’t right for a long while before I realize that hey, this shit needs to stop (see also: husband, former). I think in my relatively dumb youth, I burned too many bridges out of carelessness or callousness – too lazy to do the heavy lifting that being a friend sometimes entails – so now in middle age, I’m reluctant to let fall even the ones that have had giant orange “CONDEMNED” signs on them for years.

My friendship with Jane has, if not a “condemned” sign, at least caution tape strung across it. It took years for me to see how out of balance things had become — to realize that I wasn’t just being used, I was being used up.

I had been reluctant to say, “hey, it hurts my feelings when you do [this thing she kept doing], would you please stop?” – and then one day I finally said it, just as clearly and specifically as I could… and it made no difference. So I said it again. And she did it again. Lather, rinse, repeat…  and finally, I thought oh, I see, now. There is no room here for my feelings. It is OK for me to let this go.

Still, I fretted. I told some other friends a story or two to get their take on it. They said, dude, that is not how a friend behaves. I’d gotten so used to thinking of Janie as the definition of “friend” that it took me by surprise to see that by objective criteria, she’d not been that to me for a very long time, and that when I need a friend, I don’t call her.

It still bothers me. Years ago, she’d been a dear and true friend, and I am not a “what have you done for me lately” kind of person. It’s been hard to give myself permission to let this friendship fade into friendly acquaintanceship, but I’m coming around to it. It’s liberating, in a way. What a relief to let those calls go straight to voicemail instead of answering with a kind of dread: what is going to be drained from me this time? How am I going to be dismissed in return?

It seems I’m not alone. Over the years, Jane’s other friends have dropped by the wayside, some backing away slowly, others cutting off contact as if with a machete. While validating, this does not make my best self feel better. I maybe should’ve been able to find a better balance. All these years, though her physical and mental illness, through her marriage and divorce, I’ve been her unconditional support – and it turns out that “unconditional” was a mistake. I should’ve had conditions, and the first one should’ve been to put my own oxygen mask on first, just like they say on airplanes. My allowing myself to be disproportionately used is just as much to blame as her doing the disproportionate using. It took two of us to get where we are.

Which is where, exactly? Well, I don’t intend to tear down this bridge. Time may make some repairs, the caution tape might come down, and Jane’s life and mine could reconnect on healthier terms. For a while, though, I’m going to heed the warnings, and quit crossing at my own risk.