I know you’re not a therapist—you’ve been saying that for years—but I’m struggling with some real issues and looking for help or insight everywhere I can think of. You might just be the one to tell me something useful or perhaps make me feel not so alone. Besides, you’re free.
My mom has Alzheimer’s. It was obvious after several events (her walking out in traffic and setting her kitchen on fire) that she was no longer able to live at home by herself. I hired a part-time aide for a while, but she needed even more care, so last June I moved her into my apartment. I got a friend of mine to watch her during the day until I came home from work. When my mom stopped sleeping at night, life became unlivable. She’s now in a memory unit at a nursing home in Forest Hills. It’s a pretty dismal place. The people are kind but she pretty much wanders the halls all day looking for her “parents.” I visit her on the weekend. I don’t know what else I can do.
To add to this, I have many unresolved feelings towards her. She wasn’t the greatest mom. She was a drinker and distant and blamed me and my brother for getting in the way of the life she was meant to live. Obviously, there’s no point in talking to her now about my issues. She’s not sure who I am most of the time. On a good day, she calls me by her sister’s name.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I know you’re going to tell me to see a therapist or find a support group. Is there anything else I can do?
Not So Dutiful Daughter
I am so sorry for your loss. I know she’s still there for you to touch, see, and talk to, but a big part of what made her your mom is not there anymore and that is very hard to experience every time you see her. Add to that your unresolved feelings and you have a very complicated concoction of sadness and anger.
Even if you feel alone, you are not. I venture to say that many of the people you pass on the street are going through some version of your experience. What puts you in a special category is that you are the primary caregiver, which brings with it some serious stress and the feeling that you can never do enough for your mom. But here’s your new mantra: I can only do what I can. In other words, don’t try to do what you think you should or what someone else did. Do what you can do. You can only visit her on the weekends. So do that. Get to know her nurses, take her on a walk outside, bring her flowers…then go home and take a shower, see a movie, or have dinner with a friend. You need to extract the guilt from that cocktail of sadness and anger that’s already lodged in your chest. I do have some thoughts on sadness, however.
Yesterday I went for a walk around the track of a nearby school. It had just rained and there were big, beautiful earthworms crossing the track to get back to the soil. The only problem was the majority of them were headed toward the artificial turf that was in the center of the track. I couldn’t simply walk over them knowing they were going to a place that had nothing for them, that couldn’t sustain them.
My father has had Parkinson’s for fifteen years and I have a fourteen-year-old dog that is blind and deaf and can’t hold his urine. Seeing these worms cross the road to a place that would do nothing to keep them alive was more sadness than I could bear. It took me five minutes but I whipped every one of those worms back to the side with the real soil. A woman in full Lululemon passed by and asked what I was doing. When I told her she gave me a sad little look, not a judgmental one, but a look that said, “You poor woman. You feel too much.” At this point in my life, I do. Saving worms seemed the only option at that moment. I’m sure to Lulu I’ll be forever known as ‘The Worm Girl,’ but as nicknames go, it’s not a bad one. I’ve had worse.
We like to think we are in control of our lives. We keep our houses clean to the best of our abilities; we fill our days with errands and appointments to keep surprises to a minimum; we complain when teachers, food, or service fall below our standards. But all the while, as Carlos Castaneda said, death stalks us. There is suffering for those doing the dying and for those who bear witness to it. The witnesses have the job of easing the suffering of those fading. It’s normal to feel like you can’t do enough. But we do what you can. For my dog, I can change his food, give him cuddles, and take him to his favorite park. For my dad, I can visit, comb his hair, give him a massage, and buy him a pillow for his wheelchair. For the worms, I can fling them onto the grass.
To ease our own suffering, we need to get sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise while knowing that the pain of sadness is something that we have to go through. But my dear daughter, you shouldn’t go through it alone. Here’s what you were expecting: find a therapist and get a support group. You need help. Get out there and meet people who are going through the same thing.
Again, I am so sorry you’re going through this. I know how it feels. My dad is not getting better. He’ll die this year or if not, the year after. And it will be unbearably sad. Somehow I will get through it. But until then, I will do as much as I can for him and ask for support from friends, family, and my therapist who is worth every penny of her astronomical fee.
Before I go, I have a question. Where is your brother? It sounds like the majority of the weight of caring for your mother is falling on your shoulders. Can you enlist him in more help? Can you let him know you’re feeling overwhelmed? Can you send him this column?
Daughter, I’ll be thinking of you. See you next time.