It was the moment she referred to me as her mother. Although I knew she had suffered a tough week, I recognized a subtle, uncomfortable invitation into a new place. A different stage of life, for me – her daughter – and for her. I was also confused: I thought I had already stepped well into this part of life. A stage I don’t know what to call.
When it happened, it upset me and I reacted, blurting out, “Mom, I’m your daughter.”
She hesitated, and then answered slowly. “Oh, yes.”
I jumped in quickly, too quickly, in my effort to explain her statement, the one that alarmed me. “Maybe it’s because I’m helping you and it feels like I’m a mother,” I rationalized.
And Mom agreed.
Too quickly I butted in. Again. “Mom, you know I’m your daughter? Right?” I commanded, rather than asked, selfishly realizing, at 56, I still needed a mother.
“Yes, of course,” she answered. Confident now. “But a daughter shouldn’t have to take care of her mother,” she added, carefully.
My mom hasn’t addressed me this way again, and I even occasionally query her, as if to quiet the worries nagging at my belly. And yet, the exchange generated new fears for my brain to tease through. About our future.
My reaction surprised me. Surprise that was packaged with the abrupt realization I was entering new territory. A new passage: even if I had no name for it. What is it I am inching toward, and what rite do I need to complete to ease my entrance? Why am I so surprised to be slow to recognize it? Is it because I thought I had already reached all of the recognizable milestones associated with the aging of my parents? Could it be that those steps I had experienced were only way stations along the climb to the true summit?
The threshold to adulthood glimmers at us, repeatedly as we age. The first glistening, perhaps, when we move away from our parents the first time. But bah! No adult was I yet. After having my first child, a decade later? Closer, yet still I relied on parental advice: does that qualify as being an adult? Mom and Dad didn’t know how to do everything, certainly, and I didn’t feel the need to copy their efforts – but they did provide me comfort in listening to my joy, stories and worries. Years later, in the heart of my career – my parents were proud. They asked questions. They listened. Yet it wasn’t until Dad died four years ago when I did determine I was finally an adult. His loss was more than I could fathom, unleashing words and stories urging me to publish a memoir. And it was then when I was certain! Adulthood means losing a parent. Is it because we are forced to accept that, yes, your parent has died, and, so will you? Was it, though, only another step up the slope for me with one parent still alive? Mom might still offer advice, even while I help with daily activities, or serve as her eyes for the vision she is losing: connecting her with the world around her.
Before Dad died, I identified baby steps on this journey through his aging, first as he needed help following a surgery. As months and years progressed, here and there extra needs popped up, an illness here, a surgery there, but always accompanied by my expectation that he would improve. He would get better. His life would go back to what it had been. But at some point, many of our parents – and, warning, this might happen to us too – age to a point where we silently acknowledge getting betterisn’t anywhere on the horizon, hoping instead for status quo. As new limitations pop up, we first ignore them, making excuses: they were hungry, tired, cold. Making excuses like we did for our own children, or reluctantly, for ourselves on a bad day.
Months pass, and we notice subtle changes in our interactions, for those of us lucky enough to have parents live into their senior years and beyond: those who have been fortunate to have certain genes or “good luck” to age into old age. A small number break the odds – the nonagenarians who still safely drive and read and send emails. But most of us, if we’re still around, need some help. It’s nature, whether we like it or not, until a day when some “miracle” anti-aging drug launches. Our human machines begin to change, slow down, wear out. It is the natural cycle of life.
But now, for me, it is different. I am transitioning to a new, still unnamed stage. I share time with Mom. She sometimes asks me about my days at work, but less often offers advice. I don’t often tell her my problems. I read my stories and blogs to her, and sometimes she still helps me choose the right word. More often she listens and compliments me. We sit together by our favorite rivers and at our favorite parks. She can still mostly spot birds and flowers if she’s close enough. I play music for her on my I-phone. We don’t talk politics much, it brings too much sadness. I am thankful for what we have.
I used to think I was just like my mother. And then later in life I realized how much I was like my dad. Now, I clearly see bits of myself from both of them. Do we choose the parts we like to think we got from our parents? Who’s to say our vision is the same as what our friends and family members identify? It is now that I wonder who I may be more like as I age? Will I die quickly like my dad – with my mind crystal clear, but my heart worn out? Or will my physical health outlive my cognition? And what might that bring to my spouse, if he’s still alive? My daughters? And really, what does it matter today? For today, the sun is shining. I have a new book to write. We have many problems in our world that we all need to solve. I will get old someday, or not. I may die like my dad or like my mom or not like either of them. What I do know, is, for today, I will be there for Mom. And for this moment, none of the rest of it really matters.
What gifts do we still share, late in life? What lessons await to teach others? The gift to sit, sometimes in silence to the chirp of birds or whistling of the wind. The gift of story, those that happened, new ones that might have been. I sit with Mom, who taught me to how to be strong and independent and to believe in myself. Surreptitiously, I pick a sprig of lavender one day from the garden, and a fragrant rose another. She laughs when I hand it to her, as I learn I don’t have to follow all the rules, all the time. I’m learning from her experience that the time to leave behind regrets and accept what you bring to this world is sooner rather than later. To know that change is constant, and not all of it comfortable or happy. To look to a parent as a teacher, still, even if they call you Mom. And what I should have said, and will when she asks again, is, “No, Mom. I’m your daughter and helper. You are my teacher no matter what we pass through together. And you will always be my mother.”
Learn more about Dede’s memoir, My Music Man. Dede’s first novel, Beyond the Ripples, will be released May 2019. She contemplates her next work: memoir or fiction?