“Mother!” she yells, her frustration with me all too apparent in her tone. Sitting in the overstuffed leather chair across from her bed, I turn my head slightly so that I’m out of her line of sight and roll my eyes.
“DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME!” oops. I sigh that exasperated, exhausted sigh of mothers everywhere. You know the one – the one reserved for toddlers and tweens who refuse to listen, the one reserved for the night before science fair projects are due when glue and poster board and cranky fifth graders all collide to make you rethink this entire parenting gig. It’s a sigh I have perfected over the last decade.
Luckily, her anger with me is fleeting
“Mother!” she yells again. “Where is Terry? Where is my brother?”
“I don’t know”, I answer.
Here’s the thing. I do know where Terry is. Terry died four years ago. Telling her won’t help. She’ll just ask again next week, tomorrow, in an hour. Here’s the other thing – she’s not my daughter; I’m not her mother. In fact, it’s just the opposite. She is seventy years old and I am her daughter. At least once upon a time I was.
My relationship with my mother has always been difficult at its best, ridiculous at its worst. Her lifelong struggle with depression and her insatiable desire to prove her worth to everyone made for an, at times, interesting childhood. Because she couldn’t let others see her faults, she turned to me as her confidante. Because she couldn’t admit any type of failure, my brother, sister, and I could not fail either. Perfection was expected. The perfect daughter. A label that I have strived to earn my entire life. A label that I have never, ever come close to achieving. There are times when I have wondered if I was ever even a good daughter, a decent daughter, a passable daughter. My mother loves me – this I know on some guttural level, but practically, I always wonder, would she love me more if I was a “better daughter”? The mantle of daughter is a difficult one for me to wear.
Over the last year, my mother’s health has taken an atmospheric decline. Between the infections and the falls and the grave injuries, dementia has wrapped its heartbreaking vines around her. Subtle at first, noticeable only to those who know her well, it has been a roller coaster. In the last year, she has disowned me twice, called me names, begged for me to help her, cried because I’m there for her, cried because I’m not there for her, called me screaming in the middle of the night to rescue her from the doctors. I have been an evil villain, a saint, a caregiver, a withholder of kindness, a fool, a genius. I have been labeled more things than a Roget’s Thesaurus. Scratch that roller coaster analogy. This last year has been a hurricane. Now, my mother is in long term care in a nice private room at the nursing home where my husband works. It is the best possible scenario for a difficult situation. And, now, for reasons unknown to me, my label is mother. Oddly enough, this feels easier and truer than daughter. I wonder about labels, about who we call what. Sister, brother, wife, daughter, mother, friend….
“Mommy?” asks Abigail from the back seat of our van. Abigail is eight years old. She is also extremely precocious. This is just a euphemism for you never know what in the world will come out of her mouth.
“Mommy, why did you name me Abigail? Why didn’t you call me Faith or Hope or maybe Holy Spirit? “
I choke on my diet dr. pepper and try not to run the car off the road. Her sister, Gracie, always my deadpan child says, “Holy Spirit? Holy Spirit? Now, that would have been awesome. Then when you were born, Aunt Dianne could have posted on Facebook, let’s all welcome little Holy Spirit into the world.” And I am laughing and Gracie is laughing. And Abigail?
“Welll….”, Abigail says, “It doesn’t matter anyway. As soon as I’m eighteen, I’m legally changing my name to Stephanie Einstein.”
And there it is….labels don’t matter to Abigail. She is Abigail or Holy Spirit or Stephanie Einstein. I am mother or daughter or sister or friend. I am caretaker or villain or saint. The labels don’t matter – the love between us does.
We are back in my mom’s room at the nursing home. It’s time to leave for the evening, so Abigail is pushing her wheelchair out to the nurses’ station and I am walking ahead.
“HEY!” My mother calls. I stop and turn around. She grabs my hand and pulls it to her face.
“Hey!” She whispers, “You are a good mommy.”
I lean down and kiss the top of her head as tears fill my eyes. “And you are a good daughter.”
She smiles a small, lopsided smile and somehow these labels work and I love her and she loves me.
It was the last conversation we ever had. Within days, she was non-responsive and within a week she was gone – all the labels of all the years reduced to nothing but the love and those last sweet words, “you are a good mommy.”