Dementia surprises me on the regular. I meet aspects of my mother’s personality that were previously hidden to me. We have conversations I don’t think we ever could have had before, but now, I’m having those conversations with someone who cannot understand what they do or mean to me.
The week we moved my mom into memory care, she had a really hard time. After helping her with a shower that she did not want, I started helping comb out her hair. She’s tender-headed and I was being as gentle and slow as I could be.
She just fussed and snarled, and complained. I flashed back to the number of times she had left knots on my head, cracking me hard with the backside of a plastic Goody hairbrush for complaining, or moving, or–God forbid–crying while she teased my hair into a bouffant style. For a second, I hesitated and considered whacking her with the flat side of the comb. Her scalp looked so pink, though. That would really hurt.
I told myself I didn’t want to hurt her, but an ugly little part of me reared its head and said I did. I pushed that part of me down and satisfied myself by threatening it instead. “Hey, now. Do you want me to do what you used to do to me and whack you on the head every time you fuss?”
My mother scoffed and pouted. “I didn’t do that to you! Your mother did.”
I was still in the memory of sitting on my knees on the toilet lid, trying to cover my head and getting my knuckles cracked for my trouble. I laughed, “Yes. My mother did.”
Mom sighed then, and shook her head, making it harder to comb. I urged her to be still and she said, “I used to tell her, “Don’t you hit that little girl!” But she never listened to me. She never listened to me. She just hit that little girl again and again. All the time.
“I tried to protect that little girl from her mother, but I couldn’t. Please tell that girl. I’m sorry. I really tried.”
I was frozen, not sure what to do, but she was so plaintive and sincere, and I realized I was getting an apology. Sure, it was from a disassociated personality, but at least somebody in there realized I needed one, deserved one.
Patting her shoulder, I went back to combing. “I will. I will tell her.”
She went back to fussing that I was pulling too hard.
It is true that my mother used to hit me.
“Don’t you mean she spanked you?”
When I worked up enough nerve to tell someone, that’s what they asked me. More than once. It was a rhetorical question. “Your mother loves you more than anything in the world. She would never hurt you. I’m sure you just mean she gave you a spanking.”
I quit telling anyone. No one wanted to hear it.
It is also true that my mother loved me more than anything in the world.
So, it’s weird. My mom doted on me, lived for me, adored me, and also beat the shit out of me on a regular basis. She did call it spanking, and she explained that I just had very fair skin and that’s why I ended up with bruises and weals. It wasn’t how hard she was hitting me, or with what. It was just that I was pale. It was normal. And face slapping and backhanding, well…I was sassy. If I learned to watch my mouth…
She had this thing she did where she would do the “spanking” part, then she would make me sit in her lap and she would cuddle me and tell me how much she loved me. It became a ritual. Family remarked on it. “Look how much that little girl loves her mother.”
When I was three, we lived in Colorado.
My mom tells this story and she laughs. I used to laugh with her because I thought I had to.
I wandered away from her in the fabric store in Cinderella City Mall. I remember being lost, but I knew the way to the store owned by one of our neighbors. I asked someone to take me to that store, and that’s where she found me. Along the way, I lost my little blue sweater. It had a hood. A part of me still keens for that sweater–I really loved that sweater. I know where I left it. It was on the back of a chair.
I don’t remember the part between my mom finding me, and my mom taking me into the restroom. I do remember how afraid I was when I realized she was angry. She carried a wooden spoon in her bag, just in case. I do remember trying to get under the sinks in the restroom. Surreally, I remember the way the acoustics amplified my voice when I screamed. And, I remember two ladies rushing in and trying to stop her.
I remember her posture and the way her back looked when she got between those ladies and me, and I remember her threatening to flush one of them down the toilet if she didn’t mind her own business.
I also remember worrying and crying more, and saying, “I’m okay! Leave her alone!”
The ladies left and my mother resumed, and finished “spanking” me.
My mom loved this story because she thought it was so funny that the other ladies ran away, and she loved that I had defended her against them.
I was three.
I was three, but I knew the anger really well. I was used to having my face slapped. I was used to being taken by the shoulders and shaken until my teeth rattled. I was used to being slung around and just generally hurt. And I was used to being cuddled and petted, and adored after the hurting stopped.
I was sitting in the activity room with my mom and she was telling me about how terribly everyone in the facility treated her. “No one likes me. And they are all mean to me. They push me and they pull me, and they won’t let me go where I want to go.”
One of the first things I learned was that you can’t reason with Dementia, so I just let her talk and didn’t try to explain. She went on, her credibility dipping as she told me that my aunt had called her that morning to ask her to come fix her car, and how she had driven all the way to Alaska to do so. My aunt lives in San Antonio. She left Alaska when I was a toddler. Also, I know they haven’t spoken in quite a while.
“I’m telling you, Lane, I am telling you. I’m going to hurt someone here.” She veered swiftly away from a three-level parking garage in Juneau and back to the memory care–which she believes is a prison. “I’m just starting to realize how much…anger…I have inside of me.”
“Just now?” I laughed.
It was like that time she told me she was mellow and easygoing and I nearly ran the car off the road laughing because those are the last two words anyone who’s known my mother for more than five minutes would choose to describe her. Mellow. I’m laughing right now.
Suddenly, she was right there in the moment with me. For a second, her eyes cleared and she tilted her head and regarded me shrewdly. I picked my chin up from where it rested in my hand, and looked back at her.
Slowly, seriously, lucidly she said, “I have used that anger to hurt you. I have really hurt you with that anger, haven’t I?”
“You did the best you could,” I answered. I didn’t want to upset her, but I couldn’t deny it either.
“Oh, Sweetie. I am so sorry. I am so sorry. There is so much I would change.”
“I know.” I took her hand. “You did the best you could–and look! I turned out okay.”
“You turned out more than okay. Oh, Girl, you are my heart. You are my world.”
“And these people here are so jealous of you,” she snorted, and she was gone. Dementia regained possession of her and she shared her belief that her nurses were trying to drive a wedge between us because they were jealous of our relationship and wanted her to themselves.
I put my chin back in my hand and let Dementia rattle on until she tired herself out.
My son was around two the first and only time I slapped him. He was in the backseat of the car and he had been screaming non-stop in a tantrum for 45 minutes in traffic. I lost my temper, reached back and struck him in the face with my open palm. As soon as I’d done it, I wanted to die. I wanted to pull the car over, gather him up out of that car seat and hold him and love him, and beg him to forgive me. I can still see his eyes in the rearview mirror. He was so betrayed. I vowed I would never do that again. I’m still sick over it.
My son was about three the first and only time I ever spanked him. I gave him five swats on the butt–mostly hand to diaper through his tiny shorts. I’ve never done it again. He was so small, and I was so big. I made a decision to never lay a hand on him again.
Have I wanted to hit him since then? YES. Yes. That time he purposefully headbutted me in the face so hard I saw stars? He was three then. I was holding him and he was pissed off. But he was so small, and I was so big.
I handed him to his father and walked away.
He has smarted off at me as a tween in such a way that I have wanted to haul off and backhand him into next week, but we don’t hit. We don’t hit.
The last time my mother hit me, I was fifteen. We were standing in the kitchen. We were disagreeing. She said something. I said, “Duh,” and rolled my eyes. Next thing I knew, there was blood in my mouth and my glasses were on the floor.
My mother was abused as a child. She told me about it regularly. She gave me great detail about the whens, the hows, the whos of her abuse, and she told me how lucky I was that she only hurt me a little bit, when I deserved it. She told me how lucky I was that she never loaned me to other people to abuse. This, as she rocked me, stroking my head after she’d hurt me.
By the time I was three, I knew how badly my mother had been abused, and that I was lucky she loved me so much and only beat me a little bit.
I was lucky. She could have done me a lot worse. And, at least by over-sharing all that information, when I grew up and faced down the demons that were haunting me, I could understand why she wasn’t able to win against the demons she’d been fighting.
She did the best she could.
I’m doing the best I can.
My son will do even better.
The best I can includes sometimes staying away.
In the past couple of years, my mother’s increasing helplessness and attending neediness, clinginess, and anxious drowning-man grip have threatened my grasp on kindness and keeping of gentle hands.
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Man–I feel that as an adult who is trying to give patient care to a parent whose patience was best described as thin. I have had every opportunity to do unto my mother as she did unto me.
So far, I have not given into the temptation, but I have to work against it. Old bitterness, and a Greek chorus of ghosts from my memories shove me toward cruelty like boys pushing their friend toward a fight. “Do it! Say it! She deserves it! Get her!”
I have forgiven, but forgetfulness is a challenge. I remember. I can’t help but remember, and then I want to avenge myself. For a very real moment, I want to fight for the child who could not fend for herself.
But then I look at her. She’s so small now, and I’m so big. She is so weak and frail, and I am so strong. I could break her. It would be easy to break her.
But, we don’t hit. We don’t hit with hands, and we don’t hit with words.
So, I hand her over to professionally trained caregivers and I walk away.
My grandfather didn’t have a father, and from all accounts, his mother did not care for him very well. He was the love of my life until he passed that torch to my husband, and Thor came along. I’ve often wondered what he could have been if he’d had a loving family.
When I had Thor, the goal I set for myself as a parent was to be the kind of mother to him that I thought my grandfather had deserved. I figured the best way to honor my grandfather was to treat my child the way I wish he had been treated. I wanted my son to have the chances my grandfather didn’t have.
I wanted to parent into the past to make a better future.
My mom was grossly abused. Grossly. Shamefully abused. I have often wondered what she could have been if someone had protected and cherished her.
When I took over care for my mom, the goal I set for myself was to be the kind of mother I wish she’d had. Because, if she’d had that mother, my mother might have been able to resist those demons that always got the better of her.
I am parenting the moment to heal the past–hers and mine.
(My mom did the best she could. And this isn’t the whole story of who my mom was. A big part of that story was told on the stage of Listen to Your Mother Austin, when I shared how my mother’s love shaped some of the best parts of me. Watch the video at the link above, or read the story on Scary Mommy here. My mom had issues because of untreated trauma, but she tried really, fucking hard to do better than had been done to her. And I always knew that I was loved. She’s not a monster or a saint, just a human mom who sometimes failed, and sometimes knocked it out of the park with parenting.
If you know a child who is being abused, this is a great resource.