Saturday, January 30, 2010

And What Is It That You Swear You Would Never Do?

You have a mother. No, I haven’t been spying on you. I figured this out all by myself. If you are female, your relationship with your mother may be, or has been, relatively intense. There is something about that mother-daughter relationship that is extra, either a gnashing-of-the-teeth extra or fearful extra or wonderfully-comfortable extra. But your relationship with your mother is like no one else’s – and you don’t really want to have to explain it.

My wife has a mother too. Their relationship has bordered on the horrendous at worst to simply platonic at best. Part of it had to do with the time. Propriety was the paramount to Marilyn’s mother. She was the daughter of a judge and wife of a Navy officer which was a position that required propriety. One always dressed elegantly, set the table with the silverware in the correct place, and “mind your posture!” was very important. Part of it also had to do with her wealthy sister. It was important to be equal and regal. But most of it had to do with an intense need to Marilyn’s mother for everything to be alright and everything in place. Marilyn’s mother got this from her mother. Marilyn’s mother could not contend with controversy or anything that violated the rule of how things had to be. Feelings and emotions should be kept to oneself. One could talk of books and opera and stand in judgment of others, but not talk of boyfriends, the issues of puberty, and the angst of teenage years.

But the facade of propriety was at odds with their station in life. Marilyn’s parents were not wealthy. They lived on her father’s Navy salary, much of which was invested in her father’s drinking. In fact it has been said that he drank himself to death. But this reinforced the need for Marilyn’s mother to be as good as, if not better than, everyone else.

There are a few other ingredients in this mix. Marilyn’s mother could not, and would not show interest in cooking. Canned goods were the order of the day and housework was beneath her. She believed the family place was in the home – and was disdainful of other people’s vacations. She couldn’t understand the hoopla surrounding Christmas or birthdays. That upset the normality of the routine.

Marilyn was rebellious and was always in trouble. Part of it was fighting against the suffocating family life, and part of it was due to her undiagnosed bi-polar condition. One took their daughter to the doctor for fever or a broken arm, but never for an emotional ailment. Marilyn had no one to talk to. The wild and rebellious Marilyn got pregnant when she was fifteen. The solution required that propriety be maintained at all times, so she was shipped off to an unwed mother’s home and the child forced into adoption. When Marilyn returned, the subject was not to be mentioned. It was proper that bad things disappear from their universe.

This is background.

How do you escape the chains of your childhood? That is when the blueprint of your life is sketched out. Pile unto that the confusion and inexplicable turmoil of your brain synapses not firing ‘normally’ because of a brain chemical imbalance…bi-polarism? One rule is imprinted: You cannot qualify, cannot meet the standards. You cannot achieve your potential. So Marilyn bounced to and fro from giddy self-destructive highs and image-dashing lows throughout most of her life. She had no grounding, nothing to hold on to. After four marriages and five children, we met. We married and she is under treatment. For the first time in her life, she has stability and can talk and share her feelings and has come to understand the forces that shaped her. She has found home.


The horror of childhood came roaring back.

Marilyn’s mother is almost 94 and is in the advancing stages of dementia. There was no one to care for her. Marilyn’s sister expresses hate for her mother and will have nothing to do with her. Marilyn’s brother has a drinking problem and wants nothing to do with anyone but himself. Marilyn’s mother had no one. What was Marilyn to do?

We took her in. Marilyn’s mother lived with us for ten years now. And her mind is shrinking. Marilyn is taking care of her.

Listen in on this conversation.

Marilyn: “Now mother, when you finish with your bowel movement, wipe yourself.”

Mother: “What?”

Marilyn: “Wipe yourself. With the toilet paper.”

Mother: “Toilet paper?”

Marilyn: “Yes. That roll of paper right beside you.”

Mother: “Where?”

Marilyn: “Right by your hand. Wipe yourself with it when you finish and put the toilet paper in the toilet. Okay?”

Mother: “Okay.”

Marilyn: “And don’t forget to pull your pants up when you finish.”

Mother: “Pull my pants up?”

Marilyn: “Yes Mom.”

Twenty minutes later the conversation resumes.

Marilyn: “Oh Mom, what have you done?”

Mother: “I don’t know.”

Marilyn: “There is poop all over the floor and on your feet. You’ve walked through it.”

Mother: “I’ve been a bad girl.”

This is a daily story. The “incidents” change, but the general effect is the same.

Five days a week we have a Care Giver that comes in the first thing in the morning to take care of Marilyn’s mother. She is here for an hour each day. She takes care of her with aplomb and bossy understanding, bathing and cleaning and trying to explain things to Marilyn’s mother. On weekends and the other 23 hours a day Marilyn assumes those duties. The effort has reduced Marilyn to tears at times.

Marilyn had shed the chains of her youth. Now she has reluctantly taken responsibility for her mother. She argues with herself. She should undertake this responsibility with love and tenderness on the one side, and on the other she doesn’t understand why she can’t escape the grip of her mother. It is a constant battle. Marilyn is at the age of financial independence and should be free to travel and see things and luxuriate in the wonder of living a comfortable and the blessed life she had finally achieved. Our plans for travel have been put on indefinite hold. Now she dare not leave the house for more than two hours at a time.

Marilyn: “Mom. Jerry and I are going to our grandson’s birthday party.”

Mother: “Why?” (She cannot comprehend that we would want to leave the house. Why would anyone want to leave?)

Marilyn: “It is our grandson’s birthday. We need to go.”

Mother: “You have to go?”

Marilyn: “Yes Mom. We will be back by five, in time for your supper.”

Mother: “Five?”

Marilyn feels the chains tightening. She works hard to find humor and a sense of accomplishment in the situation. This woman that seemingly never really cared for Marilyn now requires Marilyn’s care. It’s hard.

I can only stand by and offer support to Marilyn. I can offer encouragement and listen, but it is all on Marilyn’s shoulders. I cannot be present to tend to the private needs of her mother. In fact, she doesn’t recognize me. I am “That Man”.

Senior Care Center? Aside from being terribly expensive, Marilyn can’t bring herself to condemn her mother to such impersonal care. What little molecule that Marilyn’s mother grasps onto is that she recognizes Marilyn as her daughter.

Marilyn suggested that I write this post – that maybe I could express a new perspective and may even find some humor in it. That way perhaps Marilyn could feel refreshed and find a new enthusiasm. I think I have failed.

But, it has taken extraordinary courage for Marilyn to do what she is doing. It is not simply doing what is right, but confronting a personal horror and working hard to put it aside to do a good thing. Her mother’s health seems to keep holding on. Sometimes I think “Why won’t she die?” This would release Marilyn…then I chastise myself for being so crass. But I suspect Marilyn wonders the same thing.

So I guess this is simply a tribute to my wife. She is doing something that I don’t think that I could do. From a larger perspective, this is a temporary diversion in an otherwise comfortable life. I am so very proud of Marilyn. I know that ultimately come out of this and that she will feel stronger and will come to realize the good that she is doing. And I know our family is amazed and humbled.


  1. It certainly was a tribute to your wife! And she is to be commended for everything she's doing. It's really really hard to get past those chains of childhood. It took some major therapy and a bi-polar diagnosis for me as well. I completely understand the manic highs and crushing lows. And the medicine seems to take away your "youness". I am lucky to be able to do without medicine anymore but my husband and I are still ever watchful for signs of either pendulum swing.

    I understand her concerns about putting her mother in someone else's care but really it's too much burden for her. Sometimes you have to do what's best for yourself. I think she's done a remarkable job of putting the past behind her and she deserves a break. There are some good facilities out there and organizations to help with the funding. And it sounds as though her mother needs round the clock care. Sometimes the hardest choice is still the best one.

    I think she's lucky to have your support. And I wish you both the very best. My heart goes out to her.


  2. My heart goes out to Marilyn. What a brave woman she is to have risen to the responsibility that none of her siblings would care to do! How easy it is to just shuck off the burden and hide behind the mistreatment of the is a strong person that can brush all that aside and do what her heart tells her to do. I'm sure Marilyn is doing what she'd hope someone would do for her...and I'll bet she's got nothing to worry about there.
    I cannot imagine how hard this must be...but I can appreciate that little voice inside that wishes for it to be over...for the debt to be paid. I think it's only human to feel that way...Give her a hug from me-

  3. Freeing yourself of childhood chains is difficult enough. I can't even imagine how hard shouldering them again would be. Your Marilyn is a brave and big-hearted woman, and shows genuine love and caring to her mother for taking her in despite the stormy past.

    A despondent yet hopeful story, brilliantly told.

  4. Marilyn's story really touched me. My mother in law developed Alzheimers and though she hated her mother, her daughter, (my SIL) took her in to live with her. In the end, she had to put her mother into a home, as she could no longer care for her. I don't know what to say, it is a road I am so glad I have never had to walk.

  5. I'm stunned, not only at the tribute to your wife, but to the burden she is carrying. I, too, have a dysfunctional past, and even at the age of 61 I find it shadowing my life.

    My adoptive dad had alzheimers, and I moved him from Texas to here in Georia to a nursing home...there was no way that I could physically or emotional take care of him in my home. He had nothing except social security. All of his nursing home and medical was paid for with nothing from my pocket. But I did visit him regularly (he was 15 minutes down the road) and saw that he was well taken care of and gave him the best human connection I could under the circumstances.

    Is it possible that your wife is trying to do for her mother what her mother wasn't able to do for her? A reversal of roles to fill up that empty spot left by their dysfunctional relationship? I don't know but that I wouldn't ask her to relinguish her role of primary care giver to the mother and send her - lovingingly and with the best of intentions - to a nursing home.

    What a rough situation - for both of you.