It was 5 a.m. when the phone rang, waking me from my sleep. The voice on the other end was weak.

“Come downstairs,” she whispered.

Since moving in with my ailing mother, her middle-of-the-night hypoglycemic attacks have become a common occurrence. At the sound of the phone, I stumbled into a familiar routine. When I reached her bedroom, I found my 71-year-old mother sitting on her bed, slightly bent over and sweating profusely. She reached for an all-too-familiar lifeline – two glucose tablets, some orange juice and a towel. We sat and waited. It passed.

I climbed back into bed at 5:30, slipping in next to a snoring husband and a preschooler too young to honor the boundaries of my side of the family bed. I lay there thinking, If I could just close my eyes for a few minutes until…the alarm abruptly rang at 6, signaling the official beginning of my day.

We sold our house and moved in with Ma the year after she was diagnosed with End Stage Renal Disease. I remember visiting her in the hospital after one of her falls. She lay on the hospital bed in the intensive care unit talking about the messages written on the bulletin board in her room. The problem was that these messages were only visible to her. I watched as her doctors moved together like couples in a ballroom. I knew what the next step would be.

“Does your mom have psychotic episodes often?” one of the doctors asked.

“No,” I snapped. “She’s just very sensitive to all of the medicine she’s taking.”

The doctors paired off again. The nephrologist pivoted, turning her attention to me. With her best I really don’t have time for this tone she explained, “Since she has been falling, we don’t think she should live alone. You should either make arrangements to move in together or consider having her stay in a facility.”

I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. My mother’s fragile body gave her no warning of when her spongy lets would mislead her again, beckoning her to take that next step, only to leave her curled up on the floor. I was terrified that the next fall would kill her. But living in a nursing home would almost certainly kill her spirit. She was too vibrant and too brilliant for that fate.

“Will I ever get to be by myself?” she asked.

“Of course,” I quickly replied. But I could tell she wasn’t convinced.

Okay, we’ll move, I thought, resigned.

“Okay, that’ll be fine,” she said, resigned.

I worked hard to convince myself of the benefits.

Sure with my husband and two sons, there would be five of us packed into her beautiful, child-unfriendly house built for two, but we’ll figure it out. Moving in will be practical, I told myself. I’ll be able to help her. I’ll save money and in one year we’ll move into a place big enough for all of us to live comfortably. Besides, families have been caring for aging parents and young children for generations, long before the 20th century labeled us the “sandwich” generation.

It turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I wasn’t entirely right either.

Four years later, the combination of aging and illness has created an uncomfortable routine for my mother and me. I drive. She rides. She stoops. I pick it up. When her short-term memory fails her, I fill in some of the blanks. Fear fills in the rest.

I want our words and deeds to be in unison. Again I reason, “Since you don’t have the energy to clean an entire room, why don’t we work on a room together? I can load the dishwasher. You can clean the counter. That way we can get it done faster, and…”

She interrupts, “No one can clean the kitchen the way I want it cleaned.”

I misinterpret her words and her tone.

We argue about the dishes instead of talking about respect and independence. We get upset about surface topics while allowing the true issues to duck behind the curtain. I tell myself that I’m helping her. But I can’t ignore the fact that we’re out of sync – our easy rhythm interrupted by doctors’ appointments, errands, dialysis, and a sink full of dirty dishes.

Over the past four years, something had shifted in our relationship. First Ma was the one to lead me; then we became partners, leaning on each other. Now, without her consent, I had taken the lead. It was a position neither of us felt comfortable with.

Again, it was a phone call that would interrupt the rhythm.

I was sipping green tea with my husband at a coffee shop when my cell phone rang. Once again, the voice on the other end was shaky. Once again, it was my mother.

“I found a lump in my breast.” It’s about the size of an orange. I’m pretty sure it’s cancer,” she said.

The mammogram confirmed the lump’s existence and size; the biopsy confirmed her suspicions.

The surgical oncologist spoke directly to my mother, glancing my way only occasionally. “I’m not going to tell you what to do. But my recommendation is that you have a mastectomy and avoid chemo or radiation therapy,” he explained.

“That’s what I’ll do,” she announced calmly.

As the doctor laid out the next steps of her hospitalization and treatment, I watched my mother sit stoic, her posture erect. I scrutinized her expression and the pace of her breathing. I waited for confusion to register on her face, normally an indication for me to join in with a succession of questions and long-winded explanations. This time, there was no such invitation. She would be the one to make the decisions about her healthcare. This was her dance and our partnership had once again been re-choreographed.

But, if and when she does invite me, I’ll be there to take her hand and follow her lead.

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