On Mothers and Daughters…
One of the first stories I published in this country was Caroline’s Prince . It dealt with my daughter, little Caroline, who was learning how to swim and thus developed a toddler crush on her teenage swim instructor. Click on the link above if you want to laugh.
Driving back home with Caroline yesterday and taking stock of the weekend, I was happy to come to the conclusion that my daughter and I have a very good relationship (yes, even after publishing that story): we’ll never be best friends, but we have a very open and candid relationship, we share a similar sense of humor and we’re very supportive of each other.
Sadly, I didn’t have a similar relationship with my mom. I mean she was loving and loved me in every way possible but we were very different, too. We didn’t click in the same way that Caroline and I do but I also think I lost certain opportunities and in the later years, didn’t try hard enough to connect with her. Lately, I feel a certain guilt about that. I mean, I moved to this country in my late 20s and although I tried to visit the Netherlands once a year, and my parents visited me here, I realize I should have tried harder, called more often and spent more time with both my parents.
Then, when she spiraled down into dementia the last few years of her life, I obviously wasn’t one of her many caretakers as I lived faraway and my career didn’t allow me any long-distance family leaves. Excuses, I know…
I’m dwelling on this because last night I saw the Carrie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds HBO documentary special. It struck me that these two women had done something extraordinary in terms of their mother and daughter relationship, i.e. even though their relationship had been rocky which Fisher wrote a book about (and which was turned into a movie, i.e. Postcards from the Edge), they had made peace with each other, lived in adjoining houses and really were there for each other until the very end. So much so, that they seemed joined at the hip. Obviously, startlingly different (Reynolds, always the glamor queen, never letting her guard down, always pleasant, gracious and elegant versus Fisher the realist, with shocking and disarming humor, but compassionate and down to earth) these two women connected and cared for each other until the very end.
The only consolation is that I could be there for my mom when the end was near. I wrote a little piece about that just to process it at the time. I’m reposting it here, to tell all of you who have mothers still: Make the time. Call her. Send her a card. Be there for her— I failed miserably in some ways on that front…
Making Time to Say Goodbye
© 2013 Inez Hollander, Ph.D.
When I was a child, time was never linear. It would move along in loops, stall or drag all summer long. Time would make geometric patterns on the ceiling, as counting sheep would no longer do, and time, at times, was synonymous with utter boredom.
Now, at 47, I would steal for that kind of time.
Boredom has become a rare commodity for the sandwich generation, sandwiched as we are between the ATM needs of our ornery teenagers at home and our aging parents down the street, or, as in my case, abroad. Although we are supposed to start long-term care insurance for ourselves, we hardly commit to our own short-term care, for there is… no time. But then, all of a sudden, something happens and once more, time stands still.
“I cannot tell you what to do,” my sister, Laurine, said on Skype, tears welling up in her eyes. “But it may be time…”
My mother, hospitalized in a nursing home after a fall at home, was in the final stages of Lewy Body dementia, an aggressive and debilitating form of dementia, which destroys cognitive function, stiffens muscles and produces hallucinations. The hallucinations were hilarious in the early stages of the disease. When my mother visited me in the Bay Area one Christmas, she came off the plane telling me there were “monkeys hanging from the ceiling… and in business class no less!” She also commented upon the lovely sheep I had in my garden and asked me one night who “those men” were “playing cards in my kitchen”.
When she said one morning that a black man was running away from my front door, I said she was delusional and racist to boot, but when I opened my front door moments later, there was a UPS package sitting on my doorstep: our UPS guy is an African-American who always runs, not because he is on the run, but because UPS seems to believe (like we all do) that time is money.
But the hallucinations grew worse, and far more scary. The toddlers in the room changed into Serbian rapists and the furry rabbits morphed into bearded chainsaw killers. “A living hell,” my mother told me on the phone, for amidst moments of sheer insanity, she was lucid too, realizing full well the destructive progression of her disease.
“But, do you,” I asked my sister over Skype, “think the end is near…what does the doctor say?” Of course this was an impossible question to answer, so I closed the call with anxiety and doubt. I asked my husband; he did not have the answer either. Especially when I mentioned all the time it would take. I was in the middle of the semester, teaching three classes, and leaving seemed undoable. And then there was the cost of an airplane ticket to Amsterdam, but mostly there was a lack of time and looming deadlines.
To torment myself even more, I posted the question on Facebook, and I was barraged by friends and family who guilted me into going. But will it be the right time? I kept asking. An old friend (if you read this: thank you Sue!!!) and nurse clinician wrote me an e-mail after the Facebook post: “one should not rely,” she said “on one’s siblings, nor the doctors to say when it’s time to go. It’s true that they have the advantage of being ‘on the ground’ but the most important thing that I learned is the burden, which comes with ‘making the call’. They think of the substantial expense that is incurred by traveling such a distance, and on short notice. They feel a burden associated with making the call too soon. The fact is, that that burden often causes them to make the call too late.” That night I booked my ticket.
My sister Skyped me the next morning: “Did you book?”
“Yes,” I said proudly.
“Well,” came the answer, “She rallied. She’s the queen of the nursing home. Giving orders, and basically… being herself. Did you really book?”
I had a sinking feeling. Had I been too impulsive? I looked over at my husband. He could read my mind. “Go,” he said, “Better one time too many, than one time too late.” He sounded like an oracle. And he was right.
By the time I arrived at the nursing home, straight from the airport, my once-proud and dignified mother was hunched over in a wheelchair, conveying an attitude of defeat. She recognized me though, received the picture I brought of the kids with tenderness, and then started complaining about pain. One of the nurses told her she would get her medication at lunch.
“Oh lunch,” she said, as if we were in a restaurant, and then she turned to me and said with a loud stage whisper “But everyone needs to open his own tab. I can’t pay for all these people.” Seconds later, she seemed to have forgotten about lunch and ordered me to bring the car in front. “I’m ready to go home,” she said, but home was a passed station, and with pain in my heart, I had to leave her in a room full of demented strangers—zombies, who all used to have busy lives, as parents and professionals, but now incontinent and having lost the ability to be coherent. They had plenty of time on their hands now, but what good was time in this waiting room of death?
My mother’s pain increased over the next few days, and as snow started falling, my mother received her first morphine. It was my last day in the Netherlands. Hours later, when we had all stepped out of the room for a bit, to get a quick bite, we returned to find two nurses leaning over my mom’s bed. One of them looked up:
“Her breathing became quite irregular… for a moment… some people die in privacy; others want everyone around them, and it seemed your mother picked privacy.”
Since it was my last night, I offered to sit with her that night. As everyone left and the nursing home became dark and quiet, I told my mom I would stay with her, all night long. I held her hand and asked her if she could hear me. She squeezed my hand. I reminisced, played music, told her I loved her and said that I, her youngest, was a big girl now, and that it was OK for her to let go. At 2 AM, as the snow outside would no longer stick, I wrote her a poem and read it to her. She squeezed my hand again when I read these lines:
So here you are…
But I know that you, with a lot of
Sinatra swing, unleash a dance
and go upstairs, a glass of Prosecco
balancing in your hand.
Your head brims over and your speech is restored,
as you sneer at the emptiness that was.
You are like new
and I almost envy you
because as you rejuvenate
and become the mother of the child.
So here you were…
Safe travels, oh no, you were humming Vera Lynn
So yes, I know we’ll meet again…
Time that night moved along just right; not too fast and not too slow. When my brother arrived to take me to the airport, I said my final goodbye:
“I am going now, mom…to the airport. I love you.”
For the first time, my mother uttered a sound. She had heard me. I told her that my two sisters would return that day, as well as my brother.
As I was changing planes in Seattle, my husband called.
“Your mom has died,” he said, “Five minutes after your brother left the room.”
I went to the bathroom and in one of the stainless steel stalls, I wept. Wept over my mother’s passing and wept because I had made the time to say goodbye.