Parenting a parent

I just returned from Nashville where I was celebrating my mother’s 94th birthday.

Mom has lived for the past five years with my sister and brother-in-law in an apartment they built onto their home so she wouldn’t have to move to an assisted living facility. She is still in robust health and, in the instant, seems totally present and sharp. She carries on a conversation, responds appropriately to questions, laughs heartily at jokes.

When I come to visit this is where we start:

“So, tell me what you’ve been up to lately…” she asks. “How are you spending your time these days?”

The first time she asks this, I give her the full rundown of my five most interesting activities.

She nods approvingly, asks a couple of questions, which I answer.

However, two seconds after the conversation has ended, its content has disappeared without a trace into a hole where her memory used to be.

“So, tell me what you’ve been up to lately….”

We go through several iterations of this, and each time my answers get shorter and a little wackier.

Finally my sister rescues me. “Mom, we’ve already covered this. She TOLD you what she’s doing.”

Mom is embarrassed for about two seconds then immediately forgets that she’s been chastised. Fortunately my sister has become so skillful at managing her that she is ready with some potatoes: “Here. Sit and peel these.”

This is the least of what my sister has to put up with though. Mom can no longer follow the long arc of a magazine article or TV show nor does she do any handicrafts so she gets bored easily. She meanders into the kitchen every few minutes to ask when the next meal is happening, or if we’re going to the store, or if there’s any tea in the pot.

These are minor annoyances compared to the question she asks at least a dozen times a day: “May I be of any use?”

My sister saves up little tasks for this question. Setting the table, cutting up celery, washing lettuce, refreshing the flowers in a bouquet, wiping off a counter. But it’s like having a two-year-old – without the pleasure of seeing him grow ever more skillful as the months pass. I can’t believe how patient she is. Her husband too. So kind.

I’d have killed Mom by now.

I appreciate my sister’s saintliness especially because our mother was never one of those wonderful parents for whom no payback is too great. On the contrary, she was supremely focused on our dad and on her music career – we three kids were an afterthought – a duty she never got into, except as we reflected positively on herself. In fact looking over her scrapbooks – you’d hardly know she had kids. (Ditto grandkids.) They’re all about her.

Perhaps that’s why my sister and I have been such attentive parents. Our other sister was wiser than my mother and knew right off the bat that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood and chose to have no kids.

Of course if Mom had made the childless choice, I wouldn’t be here to write this blog.

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