Last Wednesday, I upset my mother and made her cry.
If you know me at all, you’ll know how devastating that was for me, and how difficult it is for me to admit it. But the whole experience illuminated some interesting aspects of our particular relationship and how it affects this aging/caregiving journey.
It all started with a routine visit to the ophthalmologist, although doctor visits are never “routine” for my mother, because she simply abhors anything to do with medical procedures or personnel. So even going into the office at all raises the anxiety levels for both of us. She has been complaining for months about her eyeglasses - they’re too big and keep sliding down so the bifocal line isn’t in the right place. “I know I’m going to fall because of these stupid glasses,” she said the other day in utter frustration.
The word “fall” is a huge red flag for me. “Falls" are at the top of my list of Things to Prevent where my mother is concerned. “Then you need to order new glasses at Dr. Zuckerman’s office,” I said.
My mother always has an reason (read that excuse) about why she can’t do something. “I can’t get glasses there because they dilate my eyes and I can’t read the eye chart."
“But they can do the optical exam before they dilate your eyes,” I replied. I even called the office before we went to make sure they did that, and reminded them when I signed her in for the appointment.
Due diligence, that’s my middle name.
I stayed in the waiting room while she had her exam, and it was nearly 90 minutes before I saw her appear back at the reception desk. She was obviously worn out by the experience - she has glaucoma which requires a field vision test, and those tests are a pain in the neck (literally) for her. There were vestiges of the eye drops apparent in her eyes, and I could tell her eyes were still dilated so she wasn’t seeing well.
When she started for the door, I immediately said, “What about ordering new glasses?"
And then she did something I think she’s been doing somewhat frequently of late - she lied to me.
“The doctor doesn’t think today is a good time for me to get them,” she said.
That’s when I kind of lost it. “What do you mean?” I questioned, in that exasperated tone of voice I generally save for husband if he’s been particularly obtuse. “If you don’t get them today, then we’ll have to come back!”
“I know,” she said, “I’m so sorry you have to keep taking me places.”
“I don’t mind taking you places,” I answered tersely, “it’s just that it’s so hard to get you to go to doctor’s offices!"
Then she got teary-eyed. “Just forget about it, I don’t care,” she said with deep resignation, opening the door and making her way to the car.
“Well I care!” I’m right behind her in the parking lot and nearly shouting. “You could fall with those old glasses, and then where would we be?"
She’s in the car and sobbing now. Immediately, I’m filled with anguish and remorse. I’m still annoyed, but filled with anguish and remorse nonetheless. This kind of interchange never happens between us. We are always gentle and kind and respectful of one another.
I get into the car and start the engine. I sit for a few minutes, backpedaling in my mind over what just happened. “Don’t cry,” I pleaded. “Listen, I’m sorry,” I finally said. "I just get frustrated when I can’t help you do something that I know you need. I feel like there are so few things I can do for you, when it’s something like this where I can help and then it doesn’t happen like I plan, I get upset."
Naturally she accepted my apology and calmed down, but there was a definite pall in the air on the ride home and she went into the house without even saying goodbye.
I feel an enormous sense of responsibility for my mom, for trying to keep her safe and keep her life intact as much as possible. It gets harder all the time as she becomes more frail and has more physical problems to contend with.
But this heightened sense of responsibility isn’t really new, or even because she’s elderly. It’s a trademark of my relationship with her. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, or because my Dad wasn’t around much when I was a child and it was just the two of us, but I’ve always felt as if so much of my mother’s wellbeing depended on me and what I did. Even when I was as young as four or five years old, I would turn down her offer to play board games or cards because I didn’t want to run the risk of winning - it made me feel bad for her to lose, but I had no such compunctions about playing with any other member of my family. This sense of responsibility is a big reason I didn’t go away to college, the reason I moved into a house right around the corner from her when I got married and stayed there for 35 years. I didn’t want her to suffer the loneliness of my departure.
These long-standing emotional patterns lead to certain behaviors, all of which are exacerbated by the ramifications of the aging process and the role of the caretaker. The stakes are really high, and I want to do a good job, so I get overprotective, controlling, and defensive.
I hold myself to an impossibly high standard.
And then of course, there’s the guilt. I NEVER feel as if I’m doing enough. My mother is undemanding to a fault - despite repeated requests, she hardly ever asks me directly for anything, leaving me to intuit what she needs and when she needs it. There is added pressure in that, trying to anticipate these needs and then process and schedule them into my days. On her part, she feels pressure to keep from inconveniencing me, while she wants to retain her independence and sees it slipping away a little bit more each day.
I know I’m not alone with this. So often when I’m out and about with my mom I see other women my age shepherding an elderly parent. We glance at each other in passing, offering a surreptitious nod of support and empathy. We’re in this together, our eyes say to each other. And I recall doing the same thing when I was a young mother, noticing the other moms in the grocery store or at the mall, acknowledging each other as members of this particular group of soldiers in the family field.
When I talked to my mom the day after the ophthalmology appointment, she apologized for “not doing what I wanted her to.” I, in turn, apologized for not recognizing that she was tired and in pain, and didn’t feel like picking out new glasses that day.
The real truth is that we will all fall short in some way, no matter what standards we set for ourselves as parents and especially as caregivers. The person I really need to apologize to is myself. Because even though I make mistakes, I’m doing the best I can, offering the most I can offer. I also have to allow my mother the grace to make her own decisions as long as she is mentally capable of doing so. Unlike those days long ago when I refused to play a board game with her, this game of life is for real, and I have to be prepared for her to lose occasionally.
Most of all, in this as in all things, I must be tender with myself. My stress, anxiety, and guilt will help no one.
And, as she reminded me the other day, I’m the only one she has left.