Sunday January 21 – 7:15 A.M.
The marimba ringtone alarm from my nightstand iPhone jolts me awake. My elderly mother’s uber-tiny bedroom feels like I’ve awakened inside a doll house. I sit up in her bed to reorient, the persistent sucking and beeping sounds from an oxygen machine faintly audible from outside a bedroom door. I remember where I am.
My weekend solo trek home to check in on mom was wrapping up. I needed to get up and on the road soon. Back to my own life. A day of heavy traffic and endless podcasts awaits.
I lie back onto a bed probably not slept in since my last visit, mom now preferring to fold her small, bony frame onto her living room couch every night, closer to her oxygen, the all-important bathroom, the ever-present television that showed non-stop reruns of Blue Bloods or NCIS, the volume cranked up high. My own mornings usually begin in a spacious kitchen with my favorite blue coffee mug, the view of my back woods, maybe some stretching in the basement, then a bit of light reading before starting a workday in the home office.
But that wouldn’t be today. I brace myself, and as I slowly open her bedroom door, all those faint sounds immediately amplify. And then I feel mom’s presence, standing in perhaps the world’s tiniest kitchen, a trail of clear plastic cannula tubes snaking across her carpet.
“Goooooooood morning… did you get enough sleep, honey?” Her volume and alertness at this hour is jarring, suggestive of a sleeping pattern more in keeping with a vampire.
“Yeah, mom. All good. Went out fast last night.” Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlburg are still on the TV screen, working another case. “When did you get up?”
“Oh, you know me. I had to get into the bathroom, well I think four times and I tried so hard not to wake you dear you have such a long drive ahead of you today I’ve been up since 4:30 there’s so much to get ready and I know you have to get on the road they’re gonna want to see you and I don’t want you to have to drive in the dark and I was up all night worried sick about this weather that’s supposed to roll through here you’re probably gonna hit it….”
“Mom… mom… MOM. Easy.” COPD somehow hadn’t limited her ability to extract so much verbiage out of just one breath. “Look, I’ve got a little time. Relax. I’m just not used to…”
“Now, are you ready for your bagels?” I spot an assembly line of food-related items blanketing the limited kitchen surface. Feeding me right now, and all along my six-hour drive, is a task my mother must desperately accomplish. As has become her practice on these visits, she no doubt had been game planning this for hours.
1) At 81 and no longer able to drive, mom has lost control of just about everything in her life.
2) Going through this borderline psychotic exercise is existentially important to her.
3) To deny her this performance would not be saving her limited precious energy. It would be hostile of me, maybe even cruel.
Even as my sides ache from being overfed the night before, I watch the words escape my mouth. “Sure, mom. Sure.”
“I have two in the toaster, shall I start them?”
“Mom, one is plenty… I never eat that much in the…”
“But you hardly ate last night, now I think you can eat…”
‘Okay, mom. Go ahead.”
Mom was used to getting what she wanted. Not getting her way in any given moment often provoked what I now affectionately refer to as a “psychotic event.” Minimizing psychotic events is now the goal, in fact my ONLY goal, for the next hour. The best plan is total acquiescence, and to hopefully keep my head from exploding.
“And are you ready for some coffee? I refilled the machine, so let me know when you’re ready. Now, I have three kinds of cream cheese here, so tell me what kind you want me to spread on these, or do you just want butter?”
I eyeball the Big Hug Mug in her Keurig, the Dunkin’ Donuts K-cup chambered. It’s the only thing I really want in this moment. The thought of everything else causes me literal pain.
“Do you want them cut in halves, or….”
“Sorry, mom. I don’t care much about that. I usually don’t even eat, so…”
“But I don’t want to get it wrong you just have to let me know honey that’s all, now look, I have…”
“Mom, I’d really love that coffee, and it would be great if you’d just put some butter on those two bagels, and cut them in just halves. And I’ll take that little plastic fruit cup. I don’t need it in a dish. I don’t need a second fork, or an entire stack of napkins. And I don’t need you to cut the pineapple chunks into even smaller slivers, because I simply shovel that stuff down without thinking and frankly…” Mom’s laughing hard now. Another psychotic event deftly averted.
With the tension broken, I take a moment to study her. I’m struck with just how much weight she’s put on, particularly in her middle. All her life a glamor girl, a drama queen, the life of the party who turned the head of every man. But the cumulative effect of a lifetime of dysfunctional choices have brought her, brought us, to this peculiar moment. I flashback to a memory of a young boy watching his pretty, single mom managing her own crazy mother. The bizarre, destructive symbiosis that connected them. She would be molded in her own mother’s image, and no man—and in fact, no person—would ever get between them.
When the transformation into her own mother was finally complete, and another transfer of generational dysfunction seemed assured, I could see my own future. And the solution became crystal clear – a profound change in the dynamic between us.
It was a conscious act of self-survival. That evil spirit, that devil in a bottle that possessed most of my lineage, had stood firmly between my mother and me for my entire adult life. But now, in this tiny kitchen, it felt good to see her completely free of it. As if there was one fewer person in the room.
Since the demon departed, these dances between us were easier, even funny. I let her go a while, helping her like she’s adding real value. Then I let her go a little further. And then she pushes it so far that I reach a point where I’m that close to losing it. And this is where I reach deeply within myself and remember that she just desperately needs to feel like a good mother. For too long, she wasn’t able to feel that.
I sip my coffee in the Big Hug Mug and smile, watching mom organize.
“Okay, now, let me show you what you’ve got for your trip.” And mom walks me through a breathtaking array of wrapped sandwiches, mini Tupperware containers with nuts and pretzels and grapes, ice containers, soda and water bottles, fruit cups, and a variety of plastic cutlery. Everything has actual adhesive labels on it with my name and what it is, in very neat all caps lettering.
“Wow, mom. Amazing. Only you could have made this.”
I finish my coffee, force down the bagels and share a final bit of small talk. Soon, we both know it’s time for me to leave. With my bags already packed and in the car, I slowly make my way to the living room to say goodbye. We’d already gone through her lengthy checklists just to make sure that her 58 year-old son didn’t forget anything.
From this overly dramatic woman who started every casual conversation for the last 30 years with, “In the event of my death…,” we’d finally reached the point where that was a real near-term possibility. As she stands before me, hunched over a bundle of oxygen tubes, she seems to understand and appreciate just how much she missed out on. But there is no trace of meanness, or malice, or grievance, over the way her mother went out. And as I hug her goodbye, mom’s mouth quivers. She begins to cry hard tears. Prideful to a fault, I couldn’t ever remember seeing her cry like that.
As Pennsylvania gave way to Jersey, then New York, my thoughts drift, but keep returning to the past. When I finally cross into Connecticut, I glance over at all the detailed labels and plastic wrappers.
God bless her. I’d eaten nearly everything in the Mom Box.