The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

That Old House September 16, 2013

Feels like I’m banging my head against a wall. Just when will my mother stop making excuses, and when will she stop making this into a bigger deal than it is? Just what will it take for her to get one lousy in-home nurse to come out and do an interview? Make one call, make one appointment. Then sit back and wait for the person to come to her. Seriously, just one phone call. But no. She can’t seem to get this done. There’s got to be more going on here than meets the eye. I suppose it might be hard for me to give way too if I were in her position – after all, I do like my personal power. I like having control over my little world. Yeah, I guess I understand. Seems I’m just a chip off the old block I guess. Man.

Had felt there was some progress being made, but now I’m not so sure. Although my mom’s been adamantly denying her need for outside help with the household and with my dad’s care for the past year, she’s recently begun to acquiesce. And I felt some relief at this; it seemed we would finally make some progress. But it doesn’t seem so from my vantage point in this moment. She seems a bit stuck. Not sure why, exactly. I really don’t know what’s in my mom’s head. She and I might talk for hours about things that need to be done in my home and what project is next on the list, but at the end of it all, we don’t talk about her own future in any real detail, her own plans or expectations for the near future. We talk about wills, yes, and how things will work after she and dad are gone, how Andrew will be provided for and our property divided, but we don’t much discuss that delicate nether world that comes in between now and then. I have no idea what her personal hopes are for her future. I just don’t know what’s going on inside her head. For we have never, ever been a family that talked about such things. It’s probably at the root of the reason my marriage failed; I didn’t address head-on issues that I knew were brewing under the surface. Yeah, the Conants are really really good at acting like things are just fine. Does my mother fear my father dying? Does she fear him moving to a nursing home? Might his death actually give her relief? Does she wish for dad’s own relief? Or would she experience relief if he simply no longer lived in the house with her? Or does the prospect of him moving out frighten her? Does she envision a solo, late-in-life travel chapter? Does she secretly wish she had more freedom from her job as caregiver so that she might do things, go places?

Honestly, I don’t think she thinks any of these things, but I can never be sure. I personally suspect she’s comfortable with things as they are. With her doing everything, with dad at home, with things getting just the smallest bit more challenging as time goes by, in increments that she can still stay on top of. Regardless of my impressions, I won’t leave this conversation unspoken – I certainly intend to ask her about her true feelings, but not right now.  Recently, she’s been quite upset with me. She feels I’m on a jag to get her to move faster than a pace at which she’s comfortable. (When I’d move a bit too fast as we tackled the attic recently she’d cry out “I’m not dead yet!” or “You can do that after I’m gone!” The martyr meter was peaking to be sure.) My God. It’s kinda like dealing with a hoarder. Things go at a snail’s pace. Can we please get moving here?  She understands this is a conversation started a few years ago, but only now is she beginning to even accept that she needs to do something about it. I’m trying to get her to make an action plan. To consider the landscape of the next few years. Look, I know it’s not as easy as I make it out to be. These are the final years of her life we’re talking about here, and although not a one of us will ever say as much, we all know it. Can’t be easy hearing a conversation that involves the end of your partner’s life – and ultimately, the end of yours, too.

I will give her props for tackling the attic a little while back. She went ahead and had a roll-off container delivered, and even paid for a few extra days as we sat on stools and waded thru stuff that had remained in storage above the garage for the past 25 years since they moved here from Chicago. It was a good ninety degrees in that attic, and a good ninety percent of the stuff there was covered in cat pee which had been reduced through heat and time to a sticky amber goo…. I tried not to find fault with her housekeeping – or rather her keeping of five cats – but the pee was so prevalent and so vile that I found myself getting slightly angered as I worked. I had to tell myself it was no one’s fault, this languishing, forgotten, smelly mess… I reminded myself that life gets busy, things out of sight become out of mind, and cats, well, they pee on stuff that’s outdoors and covered in dust. How can the cats possibly tell that these are decades-old family treasures? Hell – how can we even tell? I talked myself out of a bad mood more than a handful of times, and found that the heat and stink were worth it when we’d unearth something with a story or a memory. I knew it was good for mom to do this herself, to see these things again. No one would ever dare say such a thing out loud, but it was a form of closure. This was a process that was enabling mom to go forward from here with some renewed energy. I know personally a good bit about taking stock, assessing the inventory of a house and how invigorating it is to know just what you have and where it all is. It is empowering. I kept this forward in my mind as I toiled in the heat, in order to be as present as I could for mom; to witness her things, her life, her keepsakes, her stories and rememberings. This was important stuff. I know I was a bit crabby, and I hope I didn’t ruin the whole experience with my mood. And at least I took pictures. So we’ve still got those. Plus some nice little mementos. That should help.

It was my most recent visit to the house that pushed me over the edge. As I sat idle for a few moments while waiting for dad to sit up on the side of the bed so he could stand, then finally let me assist him in getting on his robe (which he asked me about three consecutive times each less than a minute apart. Talk about short-term memory loss!), I began to look around. There was a layer of dust and cat hair covering every single surface within my gaze. Truly, every last item and inch of space was coated in grime and grit. It’s no wonder my kid needs two benadryl just to make a thirty minute visit! Just like I had in the attic, I began to get angry. Why the hell couldn’t my mom just ‘break down’ and call someone to help her clean? But more importantly – how was is she didn’t even notice it? I do understand how it’s hard to be objective about things you’re around every day, but come on. At the very fucking least think of your grandson! Wouldn’t you like him to be able to visit for more than fifteen minutes – and without having to leave in an asthmatic episode every time? My mother seems to have all of her wits and discretionary powers fully on board – except when it comes to the filth in which she and dad now live. And I don’t get it… or do I? Maybe her pride won’t let her fully accept that things are finally beyond her ability to fix. Yeah, I guess that’s got to be a crappy and powerless way to feel. If she even realizes she’s feeling it. Her generation winces at such self-inventory. Part of the problem as well, I think….

It began to strike me as selfish that she should realize this and yet do nothing. I thought of her ‘to do’ pile on the desk downstairs; the desk she tells me she hasn’t managed to sit down at all week, but which is overrun with things she must get to. Her ‘urgent’ business? To wade through the dozens of appeals for money from native american groups, animal shelters and campaigns to fix cleft palates for children in far-away countries….  Thank-you gifts from past donations litter the office; silly miniature dream-catchers, cat magnets, calendars and more useless stuff that stays where it is because of course to simply throw it all out would be wasteful. ! It’s all crap that nobody has room for, let alone a person with almost eighty (sorry, seventy-eight) years of accumulation on her hands already. A foot-high stack of envelopes sits waiting for her attention, and she feels its pull. Yet somehow, arranging for a nurse come out and help out with dad for two hours a week doesn’t compete with the pile. Nor does calling a cleaning service. And while I’m capable of doing such things for her, she gets angry and frustrated should I bring it up. My hands are tied from helping. And if I begin to think about it much, I too get very upset.

Thankfully, with my son’s allergies, I don’t have to actually face this dilemma in person too often. Sadly, Elihu and I have long since given up the idea of coming over for regular, weekly dinners. Too much cat dander to battle with. And with school, homework, music lessons and life in general – all that plus dad’s late waking in the day (he’s usually just getting up as we’re having supper) it doesn’t always work out too well. Today, after Elihu’s first bass lesson we did pop over for a visit. Elihu sang to dad, and told him about the lesson, and the two banged out some fun rhythms on the counter together, but with little to say, homework yet to do and the allergies mounting, we were gone inside of fifteen minutes. I think back to just a year ago, when it might still have been possible for dad to get out for a visit. I think two years back, when he himself walked over to our house to say hello. And now he’s hard-pressed to get from the island to the couch. His spirit is recognizeable, and even more so when mom’s not around – but any real-world level of functioning I can now sadly recognize is gone. I feel the pall of regrets sneaking in on me, and I have to remind myself that I’ve always done what I could. Perhaps I could have done more, been a better daughter, lobbied harder to get him in the car and out into the world, but my own life has been full these past few years. So I try not to go there. Rather, I try to give dad our love and good cheer when we visit, and Elihu and I are both sensitive to our role as carriers of delight and entertainment. We haven’t much to share, but a new song or story from our week seems to lift dad’s spirits. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s much we can do. I think we’re doing the best we can, and it’s done with love. But still, it’s just so sad.

I remember when my parents built their new home. A post and beam, passive solar beauty of a house with hand-cut pegs joining massive, exposed timbers. They had a lofted living room long before two story great rooms were the rage. Filled with harpsichords, art, oriental rugs, plants, cats and guests, it was always a comfortable, earthy home to visit. There were post-concert parties in the summer, wood-stove warmed holidays in the winter. The front door has never once been used by a single guest, save a confused visitor or a Jehovah’s witness. Everyone had always come in through the garage and into the kitchen. For years it’s been a house well-lived in, but these days not so much. Thankfully the tv is on much of the time and does its job of keeping the airspace filled with an energy of some sort which downplays the emptiness. Without it the house rings with silence. Not even the Bob and Ray CDs or the recent harpsichord recordings of a colleague are listened to anymore. The technology of a boom box is beyond my father now, and when my mother comes home the tv becomes the soundtrack to the busyness of the kitchen. But it’s what works for them, and that’s what matters now. God bless Turner classics. Those old movies keep them comfortable. The movies remind them of a time in their lives in which they ceased to grow older. And who could blame them for insulating themselves like this against the coming changes? I can’t blame them for staying with what’s comfortable, and I can’t begrudge them for not trying to keep up with the rest of us.

I also can’t help but indulge in a moment of poignant reminiscing whenever I visit. I still think of this place as mom and dad’s new, post-retirement home… the place where they were to start their new life after Chicago… and in my heart it almost seems like only a couple of years ago. It’s hard to understand that this place isn’t mom and dad’s new house anymore. It’s hard to imagine all the life that’s transpired since then. And it’s hard to understand that my parents – as well as their beautiful home – are finally getting old.

 

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