My mother spent most of her life taking care of people. She cooked and cleaned for them. She shopped for groceries and clothing for them. She made doctor and dentist appointments for them and even took them to those appointments. She took temperatures and gave medicine. She changed diapers and sheets. She put hair in ponytails…really, really tight ponytails.
Mom began her caretaker role at a tender age. She was just a teen when my grandparents split up. My grandmother had to go to work full time, so the care of her younger siblings fell to Mom until she married my father. Then she had to take care of him…and eventually three kids.
Mom once told me that she’d dreamt of being a secretary when she was in high school. Of course, being a secretary was one of the few jobs that were accessible and socially acceptable for women of her station back then. She’d taken all the secretarial classes her high school had to offer. I remember seeing steno pads of shorthand that she’d saved. But Mom’s secretarial career was not to be, and I remember thinking that those steno pads were mementos…keepsakes…symbols of unfulfilled dreams.
My mother spent most of my childhood as a homemaker, and she was pretty good at it. But as the world changed around her and it became more and more common for women to work outside the home, I knew there was a longing inside her – a yearning for what might’ve been. Don’t get me wrong. Mom was okay with being a wife and mother. But there was a small part of her…deep down inside…that secretly resented, just the teensiest teeny bit, automatically being expected to forego her own dreams and ambitions to become a caretaker.
Once all her kids were in school and the financial demands of a bigger house out in the burbs made getting a job a necessity, she finally got her chance. It wasn’t exactly what she’d dreamt of in high school and it certainly wasn’t a “career,” but it was her opportunity to have an identity other than being “just a housewife.” Mom went to work in the customer service department of a retail store. Unfortunately, because, like Mom, I was several years older than both my siblings, her joining the workforce meant I would have to pick up the slack and, like her, become a caretaker. It was understood. The first-born daughter to the first-born daughter, the mantel had been passed, and I took it up. It wasn’t like I had a choice.
Mom might not have been completely in touch with that tiny bit of herself that resented the role of caretaker that had been foisted upon her, but I was. And it made me a shitty, shitty caretaker to my siblings. It also made me wonder if I would ever be able to love children of my own or care for them well. Happily, I was able to do that, and the caretaker mantel I’d taken up as a teen served me well in many, many ways. It helped me serve developmentally disabled adults when I worked in mental health. It helped me in my career as a teacher of young children, and, yes, it helped me be a good mother. Mom had set a certain example of sacrifice. She wasn’t the most loving and nurturing of mothers. She wasn’t warm and fuzzy by any stretch of the imagination. Her mothering had sharp edges, and, as what we now call a “highly sensitive child,” I was often cut deeply by them. Looking back now though, as a fellow caretaker, I respect the sacrifices she made…for her siblings, for Dad, for my siblings, and for me.
When Mom got sick, I think my dad finally recognized the sacrifices she’d made over the course of her lifetime and how she’d lovingly taken care of him too, for more than half a century. He tried his best to return the favor, but he just couldn’t do it at home. Caretaking requires a level of selflessness he just never had, through no fault of his own. Instead, he made what one might consider a more meaningful sacrifice – that of time. Not a day went by when he didn’t visit her at the nursing home, spending entire afternoons and evenings just sitting with her. I tried to return the favor, too, in small ways and tiny instances. I remember taking Mom to a doctor appointment on a day when Dad couldn’t. Rheumatoid arthritis had ravaged Mom’s joints by that time and walking was difficult for her. She asked to hold my hand as we walked into the doctor’s office. It made me acutely aware of how our roles had changed. I had that same feeling, more intensely, most recently at the nursing home. Mom had been put on a full, thickened liquid diet. All her food had to be spoon-fed. I came in at meal time one day to find Mom’s meal set before her but without a CNA available to feed her at the moment. The caretaker in me, the one she’d help create, took over. I instantly began to feed her. I said, “I bet you remember when you use to do this for me, huh?” She just nodded, as if to acknowledge a debt absolved.
On Christmas Eve of this past year, my husband, my kids, and I were watching the Pope say Midnight Mass on TV. Yeah, I admit that I’ve devolved just that far as a Catholic – from devout to Christmas Catholic to the worst kind of Christmas Catholic – one that watches Midnight Mass on network television on Christmas Eve. My cell phone rang at five to midnight. The nursing home had had a history of calling for less than urgent matters, so I wasn’t overly concerned when I saw the number on the caller ID. Mom had looked particularly good and alert just a couple days before. We’d planned to see her Christmas Day and bring her Christmas presents. But this call was different. “Come,” the nurse said, “We think it’s time.” I felt confused for a moment until it registered. “Okay,” I said, “We’re on our way.”
Mom was still hanging on when we got there. I asked my husband and daughters to give me a moment alone with her. Her breathing was labored, and physically she looked clearly to be on the dark threshold. I said her name and for some strange reason, I had great difficulty modulating the volume of my voice. No matter how hard I tried, every time I said, “Mom,” my voice sounded like it did when, as a child, I would lose track of her in a store. It sounded loud and frightened. After a few moments, I was able to compose myself enough to tell her, through tears, that it was okay to let go. I told her that I knew she was tired. I told her that we would all be okay and that she could go be with Dad. It was then that she took one last gulp of air and did just that – let go.
I think she waited for me that night, but I don’t think she was waiting for me, her daughter. I think she was waiting for me, the fellow-caretaker. I think she was waiting to ask – one caretaker to another – for permission to lay the burden down. After she got sick and went to live in the nursing home, it might’ve appeared to most people that her caretaking days had ended. They hadn’t. She was a caretaker right up until the day my dad died. Visiting her gave Dad a purpose. God only knows how lost he would’ve been had she gone before him. Once he was gone, her earthly mission was complete and, on the night she died, I think she looked to me for confirmation of that fact.
Today is Mom’s birthday, and I am missing her. I am missing her more than I ever thought I would. As complicated my relationship with my father was, the one I had with my mother was even more so. All my early memories revolve around her, and most of my memories begin and end with her. As I mentioned, Mom was not a particularly affectionate woman, and looking back on that fact now makes my heart ache a little. I would like to have had her hugs and kisses and cuddles when I was a child. I would like to have given them to her, too.
Home is the epicenter of my memories of Mom. The first home I shared with my parents was a tiny second-floor apartment in the building my grandparents owned. Of course, as a child’s experiences will, those memories mostly feature me, with my mother’s presence in the background. Still, it’s Mom that is in most of the memories…not my dad…not my siblings…Mom.
Though Mom stayed at home until I was a teenager, I honestly have no memory of what she actually did. I remember dinner being on the table shortly after my father got home from work every day. I remember having clean clothes. I remember living in a relatively clean house. I just don’t remember my mother actually making those things happen.
What I do have is snippets of memories – short mental “video clips” of Mom. I remember her washing my hair in the kitchen sink as I stood on a chair in that little apartment. I remember talking to her on the telephone when she was in the hospital when my sister was born. I remember turning back to look at her when she dropped me off at kindergarten…only to find her gone. I remember how beautiful and slim I thought she was compared to me. I remember her irritation at having to deal with me getting my first period on Thanksgiving Day when she was trying to prepare the holiday meal. I remember her sending me into the bathroom of the store she worked at to try on the dress for my first wedding. We had ordered it there because she got a discount. She sent me in and told me to let her know if it fit because she “didn’t need to see it.” I remember how much that hurt.
I remember hugging my mother tightly when my 16-year-old daughter died. “They killed my baby, Mom. They killed her,” I sobbed. In a rare moment of nurturing, she patted my back and whispered, “I know. I know,” as she returned my embrace. I felt her sorrow for me.
I remember the blank expression on Mom’s face when I had to tell her Dad died. I couldn’t tell if she understood or not. I remember the time tears suddenly began rolling down her cheeks one day after Dad died, when she, my husband, and I heard a loud altercation break out in the hallway outside her room at the nursing home. It seemed that, in a rare moment of clarity, she finally realized exactly where she was and that she was without him. My final memory of Mom is the empty look of her sky blue eyes as she took one final labored breath on the night she passed. It was like she was someplace else…already.
For some people, their relationship with their mother is simple – pure and loving. Mine was not. For most of my life, it was strained…and strange. I use to feel jealous of women that were “best friends” with their mom once they reached adulthood. I don’t feel that way anymore. I know my mother loved me, but I accept the fact that part of her secretly resented me and my siblings for robbing her of her dreams and for me then going on to pursue some of mine. She was human and humans are complex beings.
A song has been going through my head as I’ve been writing this. It’s Prince’s song Strange Relationship. The refrain goes like this, “Baby I just can’t stand to see you happy, but, more than that, I hate to see you sad. Honey, if you let me, I just might do something rash. What’s this strange relationship we have?” To be clear, this song is about a dysfunctional romantic relationship, but, in many ways, it’s applicable to my relationship with my mother.
Love is a strange thing. Its expression takes many forms. It can be expressed in words. It can be shown through deeds. It can look like affectionate gestures such as a touch or a kiss. But it can be expressed subtly, too – through the giving of time or resources or a sacrifice of self-interest. The words “I love you,” were not often spoken in the household I grew up in, and that once made me question the sentiment’s presence there. Time, age, and wisdom have shown me otherwise. I hope, wherever she is, Mom now knows the gratitude I feel but never expressed to her. I’ve come to understand that her love took the form of hard work, sacrifice, and all those little ordinary deeds of care. The expression says that deeds speak louder than words, but our hearts must be open to understanding them. My mother was a caretaker for almost all her life. I like to think of caretaking as a whispered language of love articulated through deed. And in the words of a song by my mother’s favorite band, The Beatles, “All you need is love….