My mother feels abandoned.
She is 77 years old, and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, or at least, that's the best guess of doctors who have been trying for over two years to figure out what exactly is going on.
This is not a post about who she really is, or how unfair it is that dementia has so utterly altered her. I am positive I have words upon words to fill up posts on that topic, posts that may or may not ever get written. Suffice to say that I cannot think about my mother without a torrent of thoughts and feelings about the difference between what she is like today and what she was like before "the troubles." I think she would appreciate that reference, scholar as she is of all things Irish.
This is a post about watching my children struggle with watching their grandmother struggle.
I've read things before about the so-called Sandwich Generation, that place in a person's life when she is both dealing with aging parents and raising children. Before being one of those people, I only ever thought about the difficulty of doing both. But over the past couple of years, I've realized the emotional challenge of (a) not having my mother around to talk to about raising the children and (b) having to help my children deal with what's happening to their grandmother. This part of the sandwich is all about feeling the weight of the two generations on either side of me.
It has scared me, having to tell my children sad and difficult details. It has scared me, imagining how they will react to her continual decline. But two experiences recently have helped me realize that these children of mine are strong, and that helping them "deal" with all of this is actually helping me as well.
A few months ago, I took my two youngest daughters, ages 7 and 9, to visit my mom. Honestly, I wouldn't have done this if I didn't have another errand to do near my parents' house and the timing was such that I couldn't go without them. I wouldn't have done it otherwise because visiting mom is hard enough for me, and I couldn't quite imagine what it would be like to have my little ones along. I took them first to the local park, to swing and play and grab a snack. When I realized it was almost 6pm, I hurried them away from the park, saying: "Come on girls, we need to hurry. I want to make sure we get to the bakery before it closes."
7 year old, almost brightly: "And, we want to make sure we get to grandma's house while she's still alive!"
Kind of a shocking thing to hear. I tried to take it in stride and hear it for what it clearly was: acknowledgement that things are not OK for grandma. I told both girls that while grandma was sick and having a hard time, I was sure she would be there and happy to see us when we got there.
When we did get there, it was a tough visit. The girls hadn't seen grandma in months, so there was the obvious and striking physical decline for them to deal with. Also, my mom was feeling lonely, with my dad away for the day and her usual caregiver out for a few hours. So she kept telling me and the kind woman filling in as caregiver that she has been abandoned. We assured her this wasn't true. But when it came time for me take my daughters home, it was pretty tough to be telling her goodbye while she kept wailing "Abandoned! Abandoned!"
I was devastated that my girls had to hear all of that. We talked about it on the way home. They talked about it with their dad over the next few days. Our seven year old, in particular, wanted to talk about it being sad.
But a few weeks later, when I was again going to see my mom, my youngest daughter begged and pleaded to come too. She wanted to see grandma. She wanted to tell grandma that she loved her.
She was not scared off by the dementia or the sadness: she wanted to run back into that house and be a force for good. I tell my children, almost every morning, when I leave the house or drop them at school: "Be a force for good in the world today!" Usually, I'm being goofy, although I do mean it, every time. Apparently, the little one is listening. Actually, it's probably not me: it's probably just her natural instinct to hug people who are sad.
The other story comes from my oldest. He also came with me to see my mom recently, and he hadn't seen her for over a year. He was shocked. I was sad for him, and still am, because I know that what he saw that day is staying with him. I know this from the questions he has asked me every couple of days since that visit. First, he told me that it was really hard for him. I told him I knew that it was and that I was so proud of him for being able to talk to her directly and kindly, even while it was hard. Then he asked me these questions:
What is this like for you, mom?
Is grandma in pain?
Does she laugh anymore?
A few days later:
How is papa (grandpa) doing with all of the stuff grandma is going through? Is he OK?
A few days later:
Does grandma remember her friends? Does she still care about them?
A few days later:
Does grandma get to go places anymore?
Does she enjoy things still?
Each of those questions gave me a chance to say a little more about my mom and what she's going through. And surprisingly, articulating the answers helped me realize that I was worrying over many of the same questions. His questions also made me (again) marvel at the way his mind works, at the way he always pushes us, always wants to understand what other people are going through. Talking to him about my mom is helping to demystify for me the whole scary process of helping my kids deal with what's happening to grandma.
These two stories from my children make me grateful. Grateful that despite being uncomfortable and nervous and fearful, I have had the chance to talk to them about what's going on. It has helped me more than it has helped them, I think. They have what they need: the instincts to love the people they love, and the need to ask all the right questions, the ones about laughing and pain and remembering our friends.
All I have to do is pay attention.
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