Asking God to fix it

There was a time when my non-belief in a supreme supernatural being would have upset (offended?) my mother quite a lot.

It’s not something we talk much about. When my daughters were babies (OK, Josie was 2 1/2…) I had them baptized in the Episcopal church, mostly to check that box for my parents’ sake. When Mom noticed I wasn’t taking them to church much afterwards, I explained why it wasn’t right for us without touching on the “because there is no god” part. When she said “well, it’s not like you’re an atheist. That would be really painful for your Dad and me,” I let it go, because it doesn’t matter. It’s not about her, or Dad (whose true feelings I don’t actually know). It’s not a position I need to defend or discuss. I don’t proselytize.

Fast forward a decade: In the car last week, she was talking about how my Dad’s suffering (blindness, ostomy) upsets her. “I love him so much. Every night I pray to God to heal his eyes, and nothing ever happens. I don’t know what to make of that.”

I didn’t say that what to make of that is that prayer is futile, unless doing it makes you feel better. The “power of prayer” isn’t in getting what you asked for.

Instead, I said “that’s a better question for Brian than for me, Mom.” Brian is the rector of my parents’ church. He’s checked in with them a couple times a year since they’ve been homebound. While it’s is not a role I hold in particularly high esteem, this is certainly his area of expertise. You bring taxes to your accountant. You bring questions of faith to your priest.

“So, would you call yourself a non-believer?” Ah… a direct question. I’m not gonna argue, but I’m not gonna lie, either. “Yes, I would say that.”

Pause. Then she talked a bit about how she’d been going to church and taught about Jesus since her earliest childhood. Faith, she was saying, is part of who she is.

I thought more about that. My mother’s always been a churchgoer, and an involved one. When I was about 6, she hosted a small serious gathering in our home at which a woman (the horror!) performed the Eucharist. It was the early 1970s and such things, I guess, were Not Done. I had the impression that we were breaking serious barriers in our dining room, behind drawn shades. It felt subversive and important and right. We were feminist radicals!

Through the years, she served on vestries, search committees, and, always very proudly, as a lay reader. In retirement she enrolled in a program for laypeople called “Education for Ministry.” It’s a four-year study, and I don’t think she finished it, but still: This is someone who wasn’t just a parishoner, but who actively pursued theological understanding, to some degree.

Now, she’s puzzled that God doesn’t fix what’s wrong with her 87 year-old husband, because she’s asking REALLY HARD AND A LOT.

It would be senseless and cruel to get into this with her. In the years when she had the wherewithal for the conversation, she was a critical and judging person with whom discussion would have been pointless. Now that she’s more agreeable, she hasn’t the brain power.

I just can’t help but wonder what the human condition could be if some of the energy that goes into pleading for divine guidance were directed instead into action here on Earth. Yes, I know that’s flawed reasoning… “energy” isn’t finite and you can pray and act, both. But still. Still.

To our bus driver, on the last day of school

Dear Ben,

I am remembering Robin’s first day of kindergarten, when she was barely 5 years old, and so serious, brave and quiet, and so focused on riding that bus. Her little frog backpack was firmly in place and her little gaze so determined. You pulled to a stop at the corner, and she marched right up the bus steps as soon as the door opened! And you could have waved and gone on, but instead you said, “oh sweetie, give your Mommy a hug first. She needs one today.” You were so kind to do that. She was a little startled that she’d forgotten, and left for school happier after that hug. And oh yes, I did need one that day.

The seasons passed and every day, Josie would come to the bus stop with us to see Robin off. She’d wave at you and show you her favorite mittens (every day, all winter long) and tell you the latest news. I have no idea if you could hear much of what she babbled over the bus engine, but you always responded as if it were the most important news you’d hear all week. One day, she announced at the top of her lungs, “I’M 4! AND I’M GOING TO PRESCHOOL! AND I CAN WIPE MY OWN BUM!” and you said, “OH, WOW!” …because, well, wow.

Those have become treasured family stories, and you’ve been a treasured presence in my girls’ young lives. I know we are only one of many families who feel this way. We are so grateful. Thank you.

Have a wonderful summer. We will see each other around town, and we’ll always wave at the bus!

 

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.

Hey, I was going to eat that (in 2001).

Today, I decided to use a few extra moments at my parents’ house to check out their refrigerator. I do that from time to time to keep them from eating food that might kill them. I never know what I’m going to find, or whether it’s going to ooze out onto the kitchen floor under its own power. It worries me that Dad, who can’t see, won’t know the difference between a new tub of macaroni salad and one from, say, last August, until it is too late.

We could chalk it up to my mother’s dementia, but Rick and I can both remember looking in the fridge as kids and seeing cases of Tab and Fresca (remember Tab and Fresca?), but no milk. Tubes of slice-and-bake cookie dough, but crispers full of rotting vegetables. Deli drawers from which the safest bet was individually wrapped slices of “American cheese product,” because in my mother’s kitchen, preservatives are your allies and pasteurization is your friend.

After scanning for invasive species growing on the items on the main shelves, I turned my attention to the bottom shelf of the fridge door. (It’s a side-by-side model, and it’s been years since any effort was made to access things below hip level.)

Nothing I found was younger than 2007. The median expiration date was probably 2003. For those playing along at home, here’s what I threw out: a big bottle of Bloody Mary mix, two open jars of shrimp cocktail sauce, two open bottles of hot sauce, one jar of withered capers and another of rancid pine nuts, two open bottles of lemon juice and two of lime juice, and a near-empty bottle of balsamic vinegar. Dumping all that stuff down their garbage disposal was really, really satisfying. So satisfying that I don’t mind filling up my own recycling bins with the huge bag of jars and bottles I brought home.

It’s no mystery why, in my own home, I am pretty vigilant about what’s in the fridge and when it needs replacing. There are never two of the same thing open at the same time, and all the condiments are from the current decade. When we use something up, its replacement gets brought up from the pantry and it goes on the shopping list so the pantry item will be replaced. As long as people put things on the list, the system runs like clockwork. Sometimes they put olives on the list right after I’ve bought olives, just to plague me, because I hate olives. But other than that, clockwork.

Now please excuse me while I go check my pine nuts.