My mother has lived 1500 miles away for over 20 years. She comes to Boston once a year, a few weeks in the summer, and stays too far away to be convenient for visits. Convenience being a relative term of course. I think I saw her once two summers ago. I’m not sure I saw her at all last summer – her visit having been interrupted by one of her tantrums, after a fight with the one friend she still had (an old high school boyfriend she likes to torment every so often), after which she ended up changing her flight (for an exorbitant amount of money) and flying home early. Usually she flies, her husband and the dogs trailing behind in the car, arriving a few days after her. This trip though she rode in the car, her husband deeming she was not quite fit to fly alone.
I have minimal contact with my mother for lots and lots and lots of reasons. Since our 12 years of no contact, I’d say we now speak by phone once a month or so. I have certainly pieced together in the last year and a half the fact that she is *not well*. Though what that actually means in real life is harder to pin down than mercury.
In addition to having mental illness, my mother has always been a fairly creative and agile hypochondriac. Her hypochondriasis has intensified in recent years as both her anxiety and her age have risen proportionately. I have learned from a life lived with her to discount at least three quarters of her somatic complaints out of hand, knowing they are phantasms of one kind or another. With the last quarter being exaggerated magnifications of microscopic ailments (papercuts being referred to as gaping wounds). But I have no idea at this point what is real, what is imagined, what is fear or what is intentionally contrived for attention and dramatic effect. Our last 3 or 4 phone calls have been strange, though not completely out of character. She has simply cried inconsolably, babbling like an overtired child on her end of the phone as she recounts various calamities she has endured. She claims to fall down whole flights of stairs, breaking ribs, toes and wrists, at least weekly.
What I do know for fact is that she sleeps. A lot. I know she cries a lot. I know her husband has hired *caregivers* to be with her while he is at work. I don’t know what these *caregivers* actually do or who they are. She has referred to them as her babysitters. She has referred to them as her friends. She has also referred to them as her maids. Without being in more frequent contact with her, I have no idea what is really going on. And I’m not willing to be in more frequent contact with her. As I’ve said, to nauseating extremes, contact with her is not for the weak. Even texting with her is an exercise in frustration. I am no longer surprised by text messages from her that are strings of indecipherable gibberish, a line of nonsense letters. I stopped calling after receiving those texts because every time I did she swore she had no recollection of sending me a text. When I would direct her to look at her phone (offering incontrovertible proof) she would burst into a stream of sobbing psychosis, claiming to have blacked out.
I received several of these nonsensical texts as they drove up the coast. I ignored them. She finally texted three days in, “Took an Uber home. Delirious.” With an eye-rolling sigh, I texted her husband to ask what was up and if he and the dogs were ok. Mother called me 25 seconds later. “Why are you checking up on me with my husband?!” she chided. When my response was a steely reference to her text, she sighed dramatically and said, “I was joking for Christ’s sake. You have absolutely no sense of humor. You never have.” But then she launched into a discursive description about how she’d gotten a temporary crown on one of her teeth before leaving and how in the course of the 3 day car ride both that crown and another temporary bridge both broke, fell out, snapped in half, she swallowed one, half choked to death on the other and was now in excruciating pain and missing a good half the teeth in her mouth. “Ok,” I said, “See you when you get here.”
I didn’t hear from her for several more days and when she finally did call she sounded groggy and drugged. Again, not out of character, but. She said she “desperately” wanted to see me, but explained that she took a “major fall” out of the car when they arrived and her “entire body was bloody and beaten and bruised.” She also claimed to have knocked several teeth out in that fall. “In addition to the broken crown and bridge?!” I asked incredulously. She hesitated. Clearly forgetting the details of the story she’d told me. She decided to ignore the blip, telling me that she’d been in town a few days and had been sleeping since her arrival. She asked what the children were dressing as for Halloween, bursting into tears when I pointed out that it was July. And she ended the conversation by telling me how exhausted she was, that she needed to sleep and that she’d call me in a few days when she felt better.
She called a few days later asking if she could see me and the kids. She still sounded a bit befuddled, but better than she had in the last phone call. I told her directly but nicely that I was hesitant to let her see my children before I’d had the chance to spend time with her myself, explaining that her rather erratic and dramatic behaviors were not something I was comfortable exposing my children to. She reluctantly acquiesced.
I wasn’t prepared for what greeted me. Shuffling what appeared to be dropsy feet, she approached me as I got off the elevator. Her skin seemed loose, wrinkled and grayish in pallor. Even her hair and nails seemed straw-like, dry and brittle. Could this be the fierce tornado-esque woman who ruled in chaos and spread fear in the hearts of those who knew her? This certainly was the oldest 74 year old I had ever encountered. Frail and fragile, she barely reached out to hug me as if afraid of unbalancing herself. Her feet did not leave the carpet as she led me at a glacial pace down the hall to the apartment where she was staying. She literally walked as if there was lead in her several-sizes-too-big shoes. Her arms tucked in to her sides at the elbow, her hands held limply out in front of her. “What’s with the walk?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, “Jerry says I’m shuffling, but I don’t think I am.”
She screamed at her dogs as she opened the door, “Get the fuck away from me you son-of-a-bitching assholes!” She swatted at them with unsteady hands. “Now that’s more like it,” I thought to myself. She gingerly lowered herself onto the couch, telling me, without much affect, about her poor health, her falls, her visit with Peter. There was very little emotion and even less liveliness in her being as she talked, in run-on non-stop sentences, without taking a breath. She looked to me like she was mummified, corpse-like, rotting from the inside.
I spent less than an hour with her. Thankfully her husband Jerry was there to take up the slack in the conversation. For long periods she would space out, staring off blankly, devoid of even a hint of either intellectual functioning or vitality. When she did join the conversation it was to ask for clarification, offer something totally random and irrelevant or to ask the most basic questions (my children’s names, ages, birthdays). She apologized to Jerry for “missing his birthday” and promised to get him a gift soon. His birthday, the same date as her beloved mother’s birthday, is in January.
I left with very mixed feelings. It was so strange to see this once all-powerful emotional giant weakened, withered, wasted. In moments I felt pity. I also felt sadness. For her, for me, for whom I wasn’t sure. There were also, though I am ashamed to admit it, flashes of “what goes around comes around”, shrugging at the karmic consequences she has laid out for herself. I felt somewhat disconnected, unaffected, like watching a faraway scene of impending expiration.
She slept for 3 more days before calling and asking if she could see my children. I suggested a brief, early dinner at a restaurant and reminded her she needed to behave without antics or hysterics.
I only brought the older girls, leaving Emily home with Ruby. Again I found her to be vacant and shuffling dully, zombie-like and lifeless. She followed conversations with troubled eyes clouded by confusion. She asked repeatedly if people – us, the waitress, people at other tables – were talking about or laughing at her. She took only 2 small bites of her shrimp before crying out in pain and grabbing her mouth with both hands. Through clenched jaw and gritted teeth she claimed to have broken (yet another) tooth. She began to whimper pathetically, rocking in her chair and muttering to herself. The girls looked to me for guidance. “She’ll be fine” I said noncommittally. With her teeth awkwardly clamped, making her look and sound like a caricature of Marlon Brando, she said, “Yesh, I’ll be fine.” She sat quietly without eating through the rest of dinner.
I’m not sure what to make of it all. I’m not sure how to feel. Jerry called me to say that he thinks she has Alzheimer’s. I’m leaning more toward either Parkinson’s or medication toxicity. But that doesn’t address how I feel about watching the significant and pitiable decline of a once malicious and mean-spirited parent. While I don’t feel obliged to get involved or help in any concrete way, I do feel compelled to be kind and gentle with her. My anger seems to have evaporated over these many years I have spent creating my own life. It will undoubtedly be interesting going as this plays out. Glad I have you (readers) journeying with me.