By Martha Wegner
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Part of caring for an elderly parent is confronting one's own mortality. Martha Wegner admits her first reaction to her mother's aging was childish anger and denial. Now she's resolved to care for the woman who took such good care of her.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Frankly, it was a little embarrassing: 45 years old and my parents were taking my sister and me on a vacation.
But who was I to argue against a free trip away from the stresses of parenthood and daily life? At least we weren't traveling in the family station wagon. This time it was a big cruise ship, four nights and five days through the Caribbean.
This cruise business is something my folks do a lot of. They're retired now and spend half the year in Appleton, Wis., and half the year in Naples, Fla. Cruises fit in with their very active, very healthy lifestyle. When my dad gets into port he looks for the nearest golf course. My mom might catch a tour bus with the new friends she's met on the ship. My folks have always been that way. Busy, healthy, vigorous. And they were meant to stay that way.
But something happened to my mom on the way to turning 75 and I hadn't even noticed it. Her hip started hurting. She stopped swinging her arms when she walked. Her handwriting got so small as to be almost illegible. Her son-in-law, my sister's husband, the doctor, took one look at her and said "Parkinson's." And darned if he wasn't right.
When I tell my 7-year-old son that "mommy is sick," his first reaction is: "So, does this mean we don't get to go to the swimming pool like you promised?" No words of consolation, no attempt to make his mom more comfortable. Instead, it's, "How is this illness going to affect me and my world?"
It's funny that no matter how old you get, when it is your mother getting sick, you still want to stomp your foot and demand, "OK, so how is this going to affect me?"
That's how it was for me on the cruise. I couldn't help it. I was annoyed. Annoyed that she couldn't climb the steps to the top of the lighthouse, so I had to do it all alone. Irritated that she couldn't go shopping with me. And just a little disgusted that we had to rent a wheelchair to tour the town.
I am a loving, dutiful daughter. I tried hard to conceal my irritation on this trip. I hope she didn't notice it. I hope she doesn't notice it now.
After I returned from the cruise, I talked to my friend, Kathie, about this new development. She told me that a few years ago she went to Las Vegas with her mom. Kathie found herself feeling impatient with her mom's slowing pace. Her mom said, "You're mad at me." Kathie denied it, but her mom stood firm. "You're angry with me because I'm getting old, and you don't want me to get old."
That's it. Exactly. I am angry. My mother is not supposed to get old. Like a child throwing a temper tantrum at the candy counter, I'm yelling, "It's not fair! You're supposed to be around forever. You're supposed to bake cinnamon rolls at Christmas and teach my son how to ride a bike. You're supposed to give me advice about my job and play with my kids at the pool. You're supposed to be there whenever I need you."
I don't want to feel this way, but there it is.
So it seems the tide is turning and I will need to start taking care of my mother, just as she cared for her own aging mother and just as women do for the generation that came before them. It's a new passage for me, caring for the woman who cared for me all those years. It was a threshold I hadn't even considered crossing. But cross it I must and cross it I will.
Already I am taking her arm when we walk, helping her out of her chair and doing some light housework whenever I visit. The future is uncertain, but it is safe--and very sad--to say that she will become less and less able to do things for herself. Cooking, cleaning and even her beloved painting classes will become parts of her healthy past. She will need my help more than ever.
My parents had a room down the hall from mine on the cruise ship. One evening as I emerged from my room, I looked down that hall and for a split second I saw myself in the mirror. But it turned out not to be a mirror image of me at all. It was my mother, whom I have always very closely resembled. There she stood, an older version of myself. Instead of paying for a digitally enhanced computer image of myself in 30 years, I got a look for free.
The picture I saw was a lovely gray-haired woman who was walking slowly down the hall toward me, a big smile on her face. The gait was slower, but the spirit and joy she had while I was growing up remained.
She was herself. She deserved to be loved and cared for, just as she has cared for me all these years and just as I hope someone will care for me in 30 years.
It will be difficult. And I will still be sad and angry about it. But after all the tears and denial are done with, I know I can act like a grown-up after all. I'm getting ready to cross that threshold.
Martha Wegner is a freelance writer whose work can be found at http://www.marthawegner.com/. She lives with her husband and two children in St. Paul, Minn.
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