Essaying the Situation
Sunday, January 16, 2000
That's Mom, This Is Me
    Two months ago I met with a family friend whom I've known since before I became my mother's companion. "Come on over," he said. "I'll bet you could use a break."
    I wasn't sure what he meant by "a break", but I always enjoy talking with him so I excused myself to my mother and headed across town for an evening of stimulating conversation.
    A few hours into the visit Doug leveled his gaze with mine, hunkered into his thoughts and said, "I really admire you for what you're doing with your mom. You're a real martyr."
    First I snorted on an untimely swallow of beer. Then I laughed. The last thing I am is a martyr. Further, what I'm "doing with [my] Mom" isn't so much admirable as it is, well, simply living.
    I came by my current situation serendipitously. Of all Mom's daughters I'm the last one anyone would have guessed she'd have trusted to be with her when she was no longer comfortable living alone. While my sisters settled into family, career and children in the typical manner, life, for me, has been a determinedly eccentric sojourn. I decided at thirteen that I wouldn't marry, announcing precociously to my astonished mother, "I can't imagine sleeping with only one man for the rest of my life." I decided not to have children. I liked children and had remarkable parents so I knew I would make a good mother. It just seemed that there were already a lot of people and more than enough other adventures to pursue. I figured I could safely delegate the propagation of the species to my fellows.
    I spent the next thirty years educating myself in an eclectic variety of subjects but refusing to collect degrees; practicing what were, to me, glamour professions (journalist, ghost writer to university students, freelance editor, telephone operator, advertising assistant then advertising director, computer software specialist, administrative assistant, office manager, freelance brochure designer); living any place that struck my fancy; and loving almost everyone who appealed to me. I've preferred to live and spend a scandalous amount of time alone, have collected few possessions and haven't set aside any resources for retirement. I haven't, by temperament, even considered retirement. How, after all, does one retire from living except to die, which, despite our religious qualms to the contrary, doesn't require preparation. I've been amazingly fortunate in regards to my health and circumstances. I've developed a dour view of civilization yet take robust enjoyment in being human even though I sometimes wish I'd been incarnated as an ocean current or a polar bear. My rich network of family, friends, lovers, and colleagues consider me, alternately, foolhardy and inspired. Oddly, no one worries about me. I'm the one people consult when they are worried about their own lives.
    When my mother proposed that the two of us home together I was honored and surprised that she considered me companion caliber. I've never been labeled nurturant. Although for six months I tried to convince her to live with me in Seattle, my home city at the time and one of the loves of my life, I had few reservations, all with which I easily dispensed, about accepting the assignment; I was bothered mostly by the geography. I considered her proposal another adventure. When it became apparent through a disastrous trial that she was not going to be comfortable in Seattle I acceded to Arizona. I'd lived here and knew I could deal with the desert much better than she could deal with my beloved Seattle Wet Grey.
    Perhaps she'd anticipated my reaction from her fundamental knowledge of me. Perhaps she sensed that I would not reorder her routines or her pleasures, would not bully her to become, in her later years, someone she had never been in her early and middle years and that the very particulars that rendered our lives seemingly discordant would, under the same roof, play harmoniously.
    When we initially set up mutual housekeeping I continued to work for others. Due to a series of escalating events upon which I'll later expound, two years after taking up residence with my mother I quit working outside the home and became my mother's fulltime companion. This would probably seem restrictive to many. It has, to me, been liberating.
    I've always found the yoke of employment abrasive but I've borne it with resolve to stay alive. Now I find that, for the last few years, I've done nothing I don't want to do. Very few people experience this. Most of us, including a previous version of me, believe that doing things we don't want to do builds character and that we have no choice in the matter if we want to survive. How often have you or your acquaintances harped on how you met this or that challenge and, by God, you're glad you did, even though it lead you through Hell? How often has that list of challenges included: Giving up a dream in the name of adult responsibility; betraying fellow humans at the behest of an employer; ignoring restorative involvement in family and community; talking yourself into believing that following the rules is the best policy; knowing, dejectedly, that in order to subsist you will not be able to pursue a skill you've always fancied, take the time to turn toward the beauty you glimpse in passing or wallow in your emotional responses to life? I don't kid myself. I'm privileged in that I'm able, as my mother's fulltime companion, to avoid all the above burdens as I indulge my interest in my mother's welfare.
    Neither my mother nor I planned or foresaw our present circumstances; we lucked into them. My mother is lucky in that she and her husband were born into a country, a society and a generation which encouraged preparation for old age without onerous sacrifice. She is also lucky to have a daughter who remained single as well as self-possessed, thus does not consider her mother's needs exacting. I am blessed by my mother's financial standing, the relationship we've forged over the decades and the fact that it never occurred to me to walk a well-worn path through life nor plan for the future. If anything were different, including the quirks of our individual characters and stories, life would be immeasurably altered for each of us. Whether we would be reaping the same harvest is a moot point. Humans are infinitely adaptable. Who's to say whether a change in circumstance would or would not render a more felicitous life?
    What is important is that both of us know we are lucky. My mother knows our arrangement is much preferable to an assisted living facility. She also knows that since all my routines (none of which I've sacrificed) are personal rather than domestic she has an autonomy that she would not have if she were hosted by the families my sisters have generated. I know that in being my mother's faithful and final companion I am able to keep my mother from becoming a fretful mystery to all of us who love her.
    It is not just that I have a hand in her life, it is that we have joined hands in order to proceed through life as beneficially and joyfully as possible. I can't imagine doing anything else. This isn't martyrdom. This is a gift.
A wonderful post Gail. I have always been my moms and her mine best friend. I know that careing for mom is the way things were meant to be. When I was young I would rather go to the movies with her than with my friends. Something they never understood. I am the youngest and my dad was a truck driver so we were alone alot . Just the two of us. My brothers and sister was always gone as far as I can remember. Thanks for making me realize caring for mom is a joy instead of a chore. Which it is very stressful most of the time. But it is where I am surpose to be.
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