My Mother’s Keeper

You’ll notice I haven’t posted here since September of 2017. I hadn’t even realized that until I came to make this post, which works out because the reason I stopped posting is also the reason I’m coming to post today: My mom.

On Facebook, I’ve been sharing a lot of the journey I’ve been on with her declining mental health over the past two years, but especially the past three months, and I’ve had so many people reach out I decided to share with a wider audience.

So, let’s start in September of 2017 and I’ll get you up to speed.

Actually, let’s start in October of 2008, when my mother was recovering from colorectal cancer in my home and I realized I was not a nurse, I was not a natural-born caregiver, and my mom was a double-fisted handful of impossible to please when she’s ill. I mean, I already knew that last part. I had remembered that from my childhood. What was new was realizing that my patience level had changed.

In October of 2008, my son was three, my husband was working full time and going to school full time. I was also working a stressful, full-time job, caring for my little family, and then driving 1.5 hours every night ONE WAY to visit my mother in the hospital, until I brought her home after a series of events in the hospital nearly killed her.

I learned that I had the patience to be my son’s mother or the patience to be my mother’s caregiver, but I did not enough for both–and that’s probably the healthiest realization I’ve ever come to and set me up for success in the following years. I don’t feel bad about that. I have limits and I know what they are.

From 2008 through 2014, at intervals, I would ferry my mother to and from appointments in order to be the detail-keeper. I took her to the MRI appointment when she took 3x the dosage of valium they had suggested and then behaved so cruelly and so badly that I chose not to connect with her for a couple of weeks after I was sure she was back to normal. (She needed the MRI because in a bout of what was increasingly erratic behavior, she had “playfully” charged my son like a bull, tripped, and busted open my front door with her head, pile-driving my then-7-year-old first-grader into a flight of stairs. She hit the door so hard, it knocked out a chunk of drywall when it hit the wall. A couple of years later, while “playfully” grabbing at my son, she would trip, fall, and break her arm.)

In 2014, when she had open-heart surgery, I reprised my role of caregiver both before and after her hospital stay, and was there when she went absolutely apeshit in the ICU for three days. I stayed at her house with her to help her settle in and it was pure, unadulterated misery for both of us. I couldn’t do anything right for her, and she couldn’t find any relief. My mom suffered every emotional side-effect associated with open-heart surgery, without the willingness to do anything the doctor or I asked her to do.

When we made our 6-week return to the surgeon, my mom (whose recovery had been arduous and unending) admitted that she had stopped taking any of the medication that had been prescribed after surgery because she didn’t think she needed it, and I lost my shit. I sat through the surgeon berating me for not taking better care of her, and not making sure she was taking her medication (I would ask, she would say yes, that was that.) I sat through her truculent response to his insistence that she take her medicine. And, I sat through at least five red lights on our way home before I absolutely lost my shit.

I was furious that I had spent so much time and expended so much emotional energy into her health, only to have her scoff and say she could cure herself with herbs. I was enraged that I had missed important things with my son so I could sit by her side while she recovered since she was just going to kill herself with a refusal to cooperate with the doctor after the fact. I was livid about all the pieces I had been forced to pick up before and after her surgery, and what all I’d had to give up and do just to make her home habitable for when she returned from the hospital. I had poured money, time, sweat, and a lot of tears into her health. All she had to do was take some pills.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. It always is.

A transient ischemic attack (or, TIA), is what kicked off the ER visit that led to the heart surgery. Now, I know that a TIA can also kick off or kick up levels of Vascular Dementia. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I can see that in the weeks and months after the TIA, my mom’s mental health was never the same. I can see that she honestly could not understand the importance of her medication routine. I can see that the part of her mind that helped her plan for the future, and helped her reason was crippled. I can see that my mother’s current diagnosis of vascular dementia probably got its start in 2014–maybe earlier.

All I knew then was that my mother knew she had Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease, and she wasn’t willing to do the work to manage either issue, and I had a child to raise and a marriage to foster. I had to work, and I had my own physical and mental health issues to deal with. So, unless she needed me for transportation due to anesthesia (colonoscopies 2x a year) or wanted company at the doctor, I released her to her own healthcare. I worried, but I let go of responsibility.

Over the course of the next three years, I saw (but did not recognize) all the symptoms of dementia in my mother:

  • Confusion
  • Trouble paying attention and concentrating
  • Reduced ability to organize thoughts or actions
  • Decline in ability to analyze a situation, develop an effective plan and communicate that plan to others
  • Difficulty deciding what to do next
  • Problems with memory
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Unsteady gait
  • Sudden or frequent urge to urinate or inability to control passing urine
  • Depression or apathy

I started scouting senior living facilities because I was worried about her house falling down around her, and her not being able to manage or maintain it (and also because I plan in advance like I’m playing chess with Death), and I started trying to convince my mom that she needed to move.

We fought a lot. A LOT. Our usual daily communication dwindled because her behavior was so erratic and unsettling. She was not emotionally reliable, and I started pulling way back on the time she spent with my son because I felt like she was using him to fortify herself. It wasn’t healthy for him. She started asking him to lie for her, and that was the end of that. She thought I was mean and condescending. I thought she was stubborn and killing herself.

And that’s where we were in September of 2017, when after three days of her not answering her phone, I went to her house and found her wandering around pantsless and weeping.

And that’s the day I became my mother’s keeper.

A Mighty Hunter is Our Dog

Somehow or other, the Hooberry caught a bird over the weekend.  I know he caught a bird because he laid its headless body at the doorstep and danced around and around it to show me what he had done.  Our mighty hunter, showing his love and devotion to us by giving us the best meat on his kill.  I haven’t been so simultaneously grossed out and in love since the time infant-Thor pooped into the palm of my hand after days of constipation.

I get dry heaves thinking about either.

But, Hoo’s gift made me think about all those love languages again.  I like to think I am not a Gifts person because it seems so materialistic and twee to be a Gifts person.  I want to be something cool and selfless like an Acts of Service person.  Alas. 

Whenever I go somewhere, be it Target or Del Taco, my first thought is, “What can I get [insert name]?”  Not because I think [insert name] needs anything, but just because I love him/her/it and want him/her/it to know I am thinking of them.  Usually, that person is Thor, and he’s easy.  I can buy him a stick of gum and he feels pleased.

I really have to fight the urge–and I mean really fight the urge, you have no idea how difficult this is for me–not to just buy random things for other people all the time.  I feel a swell of fondness, and my answering nature is to buy something.  Cake pops at Starbucks, Carmelo bars at the gas station, post-it notes at the grocery store, $1 bin items at Target, rawhide bones.

You’d only have to know my husband a day to understand why my GiftsGiftsGifts personality could get wearing.  So, I quit trying to buy him presents, and just limit myself to grabbing him a Milky Way dark chocolate bar now and then, instead.

But I get it honestly.  My mother brings random, sometimes useless gifts home for my family all the time.  My grandmother did, too.  I don’t know how many little crystal boxes I ended up with because my grandmother saw one for 25 cents and decided I needed it.  When it wasn’t things, it was food.  Krystal burgers, to be exact.  It is one of my happiest memories, remembering the look that would fall across her face watching me eat a Krystal burger.  I think I ate them more to see her look happy, than because I liked them.  (I don’t like them.  I eat them only out of nostalgia now, and they never taste as good as they did–and they were barely edible then.)

My mother watches Thor that way.  I suppose I do, too. 

He told me, last night, “I love you too much, Mama.  I just think you are perfect, and nothing could make you better, and I want to hug you so hard because I love you, too much.”  I’m thinking my boy is a Words of Affirmation type.

It’s cute that I ended up with a Gifts dog.  At least someone in my family will understand my language!  I just wish he’d learn to shop.


Pinpricks of Joy

A few of my friends have suffered miscarriages and still births recently, and several of my friends have lost babies in the past.  Losing a child is a heartbreaking, world changing thing no matter at what stage or age the child.  When you are looking forward to life with this little person, moving ahead once that dream is shattered is a challenge for both mothers and fathers.

I thought we were losing Thor right after we found out we were expecting him.  That’s part of how he got his nickname.  Not only had he prevailed against birth control, he had prevailed against a flood of cough syrup and a Zpack–you know, because I thought I had the flu, not a case of the babies.  He was a mighty Viking in the making, and I pictured him in there, wearing his horned helment and hanging on to my insides with his pic axe.  The Mighty Thor was born, both figuratively and literally, healthy and wonderful.  However, for those days I thought he might be losing his grip on the axe, I was frantic.

Like many women, I think I became a mother the moment the stripe turned pink on the pregnancy test.  Immediately, I was someone’s mother.  It was my job to protect and nurture this life.  I changed my diet.  I changed my patterns.  I gave up coffee!  I gave up coffee (which is probably why I was always so irritated with Ryan slurping his in the next cubicle–I had jealousy!)

  When I thought I was losing my baby, I went to the doctor to find out what I could do to save it.  Would I need to stand on my head?  Did I need a cork?  Could I drink something?  Take a pill?  Lie in bed for 8 more months?  Yoga?  Meditation?  Animal sacrifice?  Oh yeah, I’d have gone there.

The doctor was removed and pragmatic.  He was pulling off his rubber gloves and he said, “At this poing, there’s nothing we can do.  If you’re going to lose it, you’re going to lose it.”  Then, he sent my shellshocked self to the nurse for bloodwork, and that poor girl was new.  She told me all about how many pregnancies end in miscarriage, I guess hoping to make me feel not so alone in my probable fate?  She figured out that was not helping when I burst into tears.

I found a new doctor.  Thor hung in there.  We have a lovely boy.

Back last September, I got a new pink stripe on a pregnancy test.

People ask me if we plan to have other children pretty frequently.  I don’t think they are being rude.  It’s just conversation.  I have one child, so I must not be opposed to the idea of children, and if I am not, then might I not want more?  I would love to have more children.  It just hasn’t worked out that way.

So, back in September, we got excited.  We had our moment of shock, and I did my dance of trying to pretend it wasn’t that big a deal because when things are really important to me, I am a weirdo.  We had about 24 hours of being very excited, talking about names, and a new nickname–just enough time to fall in love with the idea and the potential for reality.  It was a Saturday.  I planned to call the doctor on Monday and make an appointment.  But, on Sunday all the plans changed.  It simply was not to be.

I was too sad to talk about it at the time.  I told a couple of select people, but I didn’t even tell my therapist about it.  I sat on her couch just a few days later and thought, “I should be talking about this, but it seems silly. It wasn’t dramatic.  It wasn’t even a big enough deal to go to the hospital.  It’s over and done, and nothing can change it.  Why talk about it?  Why trivialize what other women go through, when this was such a simple-to-lose loss?”

You all know that I’m not an “all things happen for a reason” person.  I’m a “sometimes shit happens” person.  I have faith in biology, and oddly enough, in natural selection.  It simply was not to be.  And, it was simply sad.  And, quite simply, I was broken-hearted.

So why talk about it now?  Because you all also know that I am a “talks about everything eventually” person.  It all comes out sooner or later, and because my friends who have so recently suffered have said, it helps to know someone gets it.  Because it’s the damnedest thing how attached you can get to something that isn’t the size of the head of a pin, and what a huge hole that pinprick leaves when it goes.

There is joy in remembering the excitement, though.  And joy in the knowledge that the capacity to love is endless.  And joy in other friends who are expecting.

What is Sexy: Part Five and Final

In just a couple of days, on May 22, you’ll see The Outside Lane featured on theNickelodeon Parents Connect Sexy Mama Boot Camp.  Leading up to that, I’d like to introduce you (and any new readers) to some things I think are sexy.

1.  Taking care of yourself is sexy.

The older I get, the more truth I find in the addage, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”  And, mama can’t be happy if she is sick, tired, or sad.  I find in my own family that my attitude affects everyone.  Last year, around this time, I felt like I was mired in a mess of myself and tired of making excuses for putting off taking care of Lane.

  • I had not taken time to exercise because I already had working-mother-guilt about leaving Thor in daycare, and I couldn’t stand the thought of him being in someone else’s care for even five minutes more than was absolutely necessary.  This was an excellent excuse to avoid the gym!
  • I had neglected my eating habits because I didn’t have time to shop, prepare, or cook decently.  This was an excellent reason to order pizza!
  • I had completely ignored my emotional self because I was trying to be a soldier.  This was an excellent reason to…uh…blog?

A friend’s divorce (that mirrored my parents’)  pushed me over the edge.  I was reliving the same hurt I had experienced with my parents’ nasty split, and old splinters from that broken heart were working their way into the present.  It jolted me and forced me to really take stock of what I had, and what I needed to have in order to get me through the next fifty years of my life.

Breaking points don’t have to be bad.  You remember Glow Sticks?  The only way to get anything good out of them is to break the capsule inside, release the chemical compound that catalyzes illumination, then shake like crazy.  The potential to glow is in the stick the whole time, but until you crack the hard shell surrounding the hydrogen peroxide and let it out into the phenyl oxalate ester and fluorescent dye (thanks, Bill Nye, Science Guy!), activating the potential, you’ve just got a whole lot of nothing at all.

I think a lot about glow sticks when I’m having a rough patch.  How will I shake up what’s been broken, so that instead of being bitter, I can be brighter?  Sounds corny, doesn’t it?  Rave on!

Last year, I quit making excuses for not taking care of myself. 

I got into therapy, joined Weight Watchers, started working the menus I had through my membership to, and I hit the gym.  I worked on healing my heart, my health, and the circumference of my hips.  I swam laps.  I did yoga.  I substituted apples for Doritos.  I went for long walks with my family.  I changed jobs.  I made changes in relationships.  I learned to say no to other people, and yes to myself without guilt.  And I like to think I am brighter for it.  I know I’m happier.  I know I’m healthier.

Following is a list I can highly recommend for sexy, sexy self-improvement.  Some of it is local to me (in Dallas/Fort Worth), but it’s a starting place of what to look for if you’re outside the area.  Take care of you, Boo.  No one else is going to do it for you, but everyone around you will benefit when you get started.

Dress Boxes in my Mind

One of the things I like about Thor’s pediatrician is that before she does any part of an examination that requires touching below the belt, she says to him, “Thor, I am about to examine your privates.  It is okay for me to examine them because I am your doctor, and because your mother is in the room with me.  If anyone else asks to look at, or touch your privates, you tell them no, and you tell your mom and dad.  These are your private areas, and no other grown-up should ever ask to look at, or touch them.  And no other grown-up should ever ask you to look at, or touch their privates.  Okay?”  And then she does the exam, and as she completes it, she reiterates that it was okay because it was for his health and because I was there to make sure he was protected, and that no other grown ups should be putting their hands on him. 

I like that because the first time it happened, he was barely five, in kindergarten, and it gave me an excellent lead in to having deeper discussions with him.  “Remember when Dr. H said…”  And it helped me give him gentle information to protect himself at an age when he could completely understand the concept.  No longer a baby in diapers, or a toddler/pre-schooler in a daycare setting where I trusted the staff, he was on his own as a child in a school full of people I didn’t know, in bathrooms alone, going on field trips with strange adults, and in classes with children who may have already been hurt by someone else.

A recent event made me question whether or not I had given Thor enough information, so I struck up a conversation with him that started with, “Remember when Dr. H said…” and wrapped up with, “Do you know that sometimes other children might ask to look at, or touch your privates?  And that it is okay and good to say no to them, too?”  He was quiet for too long, and gave me side-eye from the passenger seat.

“Yes,” he finally said.

“Has that ever happened to you?” I asked, glad for the years of acting that kept my voice light.

He considered, again for too long.  “No.”

“Has another child asked you to look at, or touch him or her?”

And, bingo.  Yes, that had happened as recently as I thought it might have.  He was stoic about it.  Said that it had made him feel a little funny and he thought it was weird, but he said no because–gross.  I agreed.  Ew!  Germs!  We laughed.

Then, we talked about how some kids are curious and don’t have the same idea of privacy, and that doesn’t make them bad kids, but those are still his private areas, and not for anyone else to fool around with.  And, I told him if he ever felt worried or afraid to say no, he could use me as an out, and say that his mother told him he wasn’t allowed to do x, y, or z because it was germy–and we both laughed again. Ew!  Germs!  I try to keep it light.  Those little shoulders are too small for it to be heavy.

I was younger than Thor the first time I was bad-touched.  I remember it like this:  I was wearing my new underwear and a man’s voice told me to take off my panties.  I was confused and embarrassed.  I climbed into a dress box, pulled the lid over top of me, and shut myself in to hide.  Once I was in the dress box, the man insisted I take off my panties.  I was afraid to take them off, but I peeled them back to let him look.  It happened three times, then he told me what a bad, dirty girl I was–that seemed like a horrible trick to play for my cooperation.  If I told, everyone would know I was bad and dirty.  And then he went away, and I got out of the box.

It’s a memory I didn’t talk about openly until last year because it has never made sense to me, and because I had an extreme sense of shame attached to it.  From that day, I thought I was a dirty, bad girl, and I was obsessed with nudity–something else I kept a secret.  I thought that the incident was proof that something was wrong with me, and throughout my childhood, I honestly believed I had been visited by The Devil because I was so evil. 

As a grown-up, I understand disassociation, and I understand that when a child can’t make sense of a traumatic situation, they might build a situation that does make sense–I couldn’t tell you who the man was, or what the man looked like.  I couldn’t tell you who the voice belonged to.  I could just tell you exactly where I was, exactly what I was wearing, exactly how my hair was styled, exactly what he said to me, and how the dress box seemed to appear out of nowhere.  In my case, what made sense to me was hiding in a dress box from Kirvin’s–a store that was a thousand miles away. 

Because of that, and subsequent abuse by a babysitter–something else I didn’t really talk openly of until last year–I have no idea what is normal childhood curiousity, versus traumatized child curiousity.  It is very important to me that Thor never feel ashamed of his body, or ashamed of having natural curiousity about his, or other people’s bodies.  It is important to me that he never feel dirty or bad.

It is also very important to me that Thor understands healthy boundaries, that he knows it is okay to wonder and be curious, but not okay to ask for access to anyone else’s bits.  It is okay to ask questions–it’s great to ask questions!  But you need to ask the right people.  I want bodies to be as normal and casual as hair.  We’ve all got it, but we all style it a little differently, and it’s only okay to touch it, sniff it, or ask questions about it in certain situations.

Exploration of self and sexuality is part of life, even way before we attach any notions of desire to it.  I just don’t want Thor to be in positions where someone else, more precocious and more prepared, pushes him off cliffs he’s not yet ready to dive.  I don’t want any dress boxes in his head.