(this is my entry for Blogging for Books, #13. For this month’s Blogging for Books, write about a pivotal point in your life as a parent, OR write about a pivotal point in your relationship with one of your parents.)
My mother has become a child in need of a good mother. Where do you find a good mother for an 80 year old woman who is far, far smarter than you, on any given day better read, better informed and more savvy on world affairs but still thinks that perhaps another Darvocette and a swig of Jack Daniel’s is the best thing for cardio-pulmonary dysfunction? And, if sober or tipsy, she has decided she wants to stay put in a winterized cottage 550 miles from her children, in a rural community where the Schwann’s delivery man is the closest thing to social services, how am I to care for her?
Mothering was and is not, my mother’s calling. She was never warm and fuzzy, rarely comforting and never, as far as I could tell, very interested in trying to discern our needs or feelings. She married young, had 3 children quickly and saw parenting as a job, not a career. After divorce, she went back to college to become a teacher and poet and left me to care for my younger sister. Later, when I was fifteen she found herself accidentally pregnant, but with abortion not so much an option at that time and this child being my new stepfather’s only chance at a child, she had Laurel and promptly returned to teaching. Again, I found myself the stand-in mother for a younger sibling. Within 18 months I had enough and my life was calling so I left home early and attained independence at the expense of any time as a carefree older adolescent or young adult.
When I was thirty, done with graduate school and expecting my own first child, my mother and stepfather moved to the outer most reach of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the Keweenaw on the edge of Lake Superior. At that time I didn’t have many close ties to my family so I wasn’t really fazed that they were moving to someplace I could never get to conveniently. However, they up and left me with Laurie, now age 14, to finish raising. Laurie didn’t want to ride the bus for 3 hours a day to get to and from Calumet Mining High and I could hardly blame her for preferring to live in Ann Arbor. These were precisely the sort of “me first” decisions my mom had been making for as long as I knew her. And here I was, doing my mother’s job again at a time when it would have been nice to have a mother for me, a mother to help guide my first weeks with a new infant son of my own.
My mom never did materialize into either a nurturing mother or a doting grandmother when my children were little. I came to realize that she really didn’t know how to be a mother. She couldn’t play at childlike pastimes, she could never relax amidst toddler commotion and chaos and she was never going to comfort a distressed or feverish child. She was never very eager to come visit. Additionally, she failed to comprehend that a tiny Lake Superior cottage buried in 8 feet of snow with two hot wood-burning stoves, a composting toilet and a litter of 7 Keeshonds puppies was not the ideal place to turn a crawling child loose. So we saw little of each other.
A while back there was discussion in the weblog neighborhood about parents and children and redemption. That dialogue had stirred me to write a post about how my overly stern father and I made a good and loving peace as he became a gentle grandfather before he died young at 65 years of age. With my mother it has been different. Ultimately, what had been several decades of resentment and anger gave way to an understanding that I needed to just let go of it. The resentment was cramping up my life, my ability to be an open and giving person and hindering my marriage. I was such a toxic mix of being fiercely independent and overwhelmingly needy that I could barely move and it was spilling into my relationships with the people that I love. So I got some professional help and did some heart wrenching and serious letting go. I let go of the idea that my mother would ever be the mother I longed for, I acknowledged that I was an adult who could be responsible for meeting my own needs and I realized that I had reaped some mighty benefits caring for my little sisters. Most importantly, the light of acceptance came on and I discovered that my mother- a person I shared my lifetime and space with- had a lot to offer me, not as my mother, but as a person in her own right.
During those years, as my two children were growing up and I saw little of her, my mother was also growing: into the person I think she was destined to be. She continued to be a wonderful teacher of English literature and language at Michigan Tech. She had always been a gifted writer and, free of children, she continued her writing. More, she became a mother in the only way that she really comfortably could: she became a caretaker of nature. My mother became the best mother the Keweenaw Peninsula has ever had and she and my stepfather championed land preservation there in a way that has allowed one of the most beautiful places in the United States to remain pristine and clean. She wrote petitions, attended endless zoning meetings, and enlisted the aid of legislators and lawyers. She developed an organization of fellow environmentalists and used her incredible writing gift to help people understand the full implications of re-opening a mine, of building and development and the impact of human encroachments in areas where wolves breed and eagles nest. She was sued by the largest mining company in the State and won. I believe they thought that they could easily intimidate elderly retirees living on meager teacher’s pensions into backing away and they were stunned to discover that she was not backing down and she had done her homework. She came within a hair of landing in jail at the ripe old age of 73 for disturbing the peace.
Once in a while, the mother in me leads me to “Google” my son, an up and coming saxophonist starting to get his due. Recently, on a whim, I also “Googled” my 80 year old mother and I was surprised to find numerous references to her and Bud’s work in environmental advocacy. She has become a mother dedicated to caring for Mother Earth.
So now: my mom and stepfather live at the very edge of a large cold deep lake set a couple miles in from Lake Superior. There is a Bald Eagle nest in the tall tree nearby and in the summer the guy from Fisheries and Wildlife comes and climbs the tree and puts the eaglet in a pillow case and brings him down to band. They get to watch as he weighs the bird, takes blood and feather samples, gives him his bracelets and replaces him safely back in the nest. They have a bear that comes and steals their bird feeder. They have a porcupine that eats the outhouse seat. They have a pair of Common Loons who nest, year after year, in the marsh grass by their dock and then drift on the lake through the summer months with little balls of baby loon parked on their backs. They have Mergansers and Buffleheads and the lake is full of giant Pike and Sturgeon. This year Bud got my mother new picture windows and a lounge chair so she can sit and watch life on the lake.
And now: They are 12 hours by car or hundreds of dollars in plane fare from me. Their IGA is 30 minutes away. They live 3 hours from the nearest medical center. There is no local ambulance service. My mother is tethered to oxygen 100% of the time with advancing emphysema and CPD. She is addicted to pain medication. In one short year she had a heart attack, he had a heart attack, they were in an auto accident and she fractured two vertebrae. He has no bladder but he has diabetes. She is losing her ability to eat solid foods She is going blind and they are both going deaf. Each emergency requires transport to Marquette, 160 miles away. During one of these hospitalizations I found myself wiping her clean after she lost control of her bowels rather than have her suffer the humiliation of a “stranger”- the nurse- take care of her. It was a stark moment in the middle of the night; me reassuring, her apologizing. Surprisingly, I found it was like changing my children’s versus other’s diapers; family shit doesn’t smell nearly as bad as non-family. More surprisingly, I found I could easily and willingly mother someone who hadn’t been able to mother me in conventional ways.
Last year my brother and sisters and I did all we could to persuade them to come south and be near us. I tried to lure them to our winterized cottage 45 minutes from Ann Arbor so they could have a lake, bring their two cats, enjoy their independence and still be close enough to medical care and the love of family. Another sister tried to help them move into the nearest town in the Keweenaw for the winter. We nudged, argued, intervened, begged, reasoned and pleaded. They are staying put. In fact, Bud has successfully petitioned the State to have a permit to turn the only piece of their land that perks into a private cemetery. They’re not leaving. Ever.
This past weekend I went for a visit and although I could go into great and humorous detail (my siblings and I call it The Bud and Jan Show) suffice it to say that they are well. For old, sick people. Bud still drives and he goes the distance to town to find her a single precise thing- a brand of throat lozenge or a certain moisture lotion or a can of soup. He bathes her; he cooks for her. He still lusts after her with gentle humor (“Buuuudd! I’m cold! Could you get me a sweater?” “Oh, my dear, would you like a little ‘cover up job’ from your darling husband?”). He brings her the cats to sit on her lap. In short, he mothers her. Together they watch endless news and world affairs programming and have loud and boisterous opinions on every issue. They forget nothing. They ask for detailed updates on their grown grandchildren and pour over photos they can barely see. They read my weblog. And we have become friends.
I hate that they have put themselves and us in a position where we can’t care for them consistently. I live anxiously, knowing that one of them will die in that cottage,sooner rather than later. But I have also come to respect their choice. They don’t wish to burden us (we tell them it wouldn’t be but who knows?). They will not consider assisted living- and why should they? There is no nursing home anywhere or at any price that will provide the care for my mother that she currently enjoys. And they will not leave their home and their passion for nature in the Upper Peninsula.
On some days I feel hopelessly wedged: I have young adult children who still need me as the mother I never had. They need advice, car insurance, college tuition, leases co-signed, sometimes groceries and meals. I have my mother and stepfather who don’t say it but long for the company of their children and now that we have become good friends and they are people I respect and enjoy, I long for their company. On other days, I resign myself to living with their decisions about how they will live out the end of their lives.
Many days I wonder who will care for me in old age and I hope that I have what they have: the courage to stay independent and my partner to love me so dearly.