Two Mothers

My blog tagline infers that I am using the blog as a medium to come clean about my path through life; that I fearlessly embrace truths. My latest post about visiting a pumpkin farm had nothing vital in it, except perhaps the photography, which shows that I have a spark of life still in me – shown through the lens – despite my watered down words.

Simultaneously, I randomly received over 200 views yesterday, within 5 minutes of my post. It’s a record for exposure in my somewhat recent adoption of WordPress in March of 2010. Match great exposure with a lame post, and I am feeling rather guilty about it all. It’s time to try harder to address my world as it is. And to be honest, there is nothing watered down about anyone’s daily life. Mine included.

This past weekend, pumpkin patch included, I have had two mothers looming large on the radar of my life. Since the end of July, the mother of my boyfriend, Mark, has been living with us. And my mother was recently here for a visit.

I haven’t posted about Rene – the “mother-in-law” – because I haven’t had the courage to put all my feelings into words. It has been very difficult to have her in my home. We have survived over two months together, which is an accomplishment. I remain unsure of my ability to sanely reach June 2011 – her proposed move-out date. And it’s ME we’re talking about; I get along with everyone. Well… almost everyone.

Let me introduce her here, and maybe I will find a way to spiritually explore my own growth through our shared experience at a later date. For now, I’ll say that Rene came heartily into my life on July 6, 2010, when Mark forwarded an email to me, which asked if she could move in with us. Rene, practically a lifelong Boston resident, was under the impression that she was welcome in her sister’s home in northern New York. She sold her home for around a half-million profit, and called up her sister to let her know she would soon be on her way. Sister said she was not welcome.

Hurt, Rene called brother who lives in a suburb of Boston, who had also offered his hospitality at one point. Brother also rescinded his offer. Feeling wounded and rejected, Rene contacted her son, Mark, with very little time left to evacuate her home, which had already sold. Our hearts went out to her, and there is nothing to say to a family member who needs you but, “Of course you are welcome here!” Two weeks later, she moved in.

Rene was recently forced to leave her career as a Boston headhunter, and to seek a new source of income. She has chosen medical billing. For whatever reason makes sense in Rene’s mind, she believes that while she is going to school, she needs to conserve money, and that requires selling her home and moving in with relatives. The training course she is taking here in Oregon runs from August through May. Rene said she plans to move back to Boston and start all over when she receives her certificate. I intend to check in here on the blog at some future point to chronicle some of the agony we have both endured as a result of her move. Oh, and please don’t forget the agony of Mark, who is between the two of us!

My own mother has come to think of our Portland home as her personal sanctuary. She visits a couple of times a year, and relishes the opportunity to have someone else make the plans, cook the meals, clean and manage the estate business. In other words, she is an extremely hard-working woman who runs an amazing piece of property from a cabin on an isolated mountaintop in northern Idaho. Her husband runs his own business that uses up all his time and energy, so he isn’t much help at home. My mom comes here with the eagerness and pleasure of looking forward to a spa vacation.

She has also suffered with the arrival of Rene. The upstairs bedroom across the hall from my daughter was christened “Gramy’s Room” years ago. Mom brought her own bed, pillows, linens, spare clothes and shoes. She brought a lamp and a rug and a number of little things to make it her place. Thus, when she came for a visit she didn’t need to bring much but her lovely self.

That very room was chosen for Rene. We thought that she and my daughter could share the upstairs bathroom (how convenient to have a bathroom right next to her room, we thought). No sense in bringing a third person into the small downstairs bathroom, right? We considered that after having lived alone in a huge house in Boston, that suddenly sharing a home with a young family – teenager included – it would be a shock to her. We chose the room farthest away from the noise of the family in order to help to ease her transition. To our surprise, she rejected everything in the room. After we hauled everything out – bed included! – she refurnished it entirely from Ikea (gah!). And, she refuses to use the upstairs bathroom and tromps down the stairs every morning to use our bathroom. And as for having her own space, as we imagined might be important to her, that is also tossed out the window. Rene is not happy unless playing a prominent role in whatever room or conversation is the current place of action. We tease (not to her face!) that she follows us like a puppy, so that we are never out of her sight.

Also unexpectedly, my mother sees Rene’s rejection of her sanctuary as rejection of her. Further, my mother sees the disassembly of her lovingly created bedroom vacation spot, a trauma in itself. Still, our home is what my mother needs to rejuvenate her tired bones, so she came for a visit last week. We put her in our bedroom, and Mark and I moved to the remaining spare room (thank the gods we have such a big house!).

Enter more mother drama. My mom has recently been overtaken by health problems that are currently running her life. This is a difficult adjustment for not only her, but for everyone who knows her, because she has always prided herself on being ferociously healthy. She was even a member of the Christian Science faith years ago, and subscribed to the belief that no human doctor or human-created medicine was acceptable for her family. She scorns most people’s health complaints, and has very little patience for listening to what others must endure.

Part of her extraordinary health is because she eats the healthiest of food, because she plants, sows, cans and prepares it all herself. And also because she is a physical powerhouse, considering her age (61) and tiny frame (she weighs 108 pounds). On any given day she will chainsaw trees on the property for firewood, butcher chickens, chop wood, or mow the grass. She built the chicken house, built an 8-foot deer fence to protect her garden, and built the woodshed. Their plumbing isn’t standard, since they are on a mountaintop and they haven’t installed a pump strong enough to propel the water up to the house, so she drives the water truck to their well at the bottom of the mountain, fills the tank, then drives back to the top to fill the cistern. She has huge gardens of vegetables and flowers and trees and shrubs (because she is in love with the rural English countryside and is ever trying to build one on her mountain). With no plumbing, she hand-carries buckets of water to all the greenery to keep it flourishing. All this, ALL THIS WORK she does by herself, alone on the mountain, since her husband is gone most of every day at work.

She is lonely up there. Especially during the winter when 6 feet of snow and subzero temperatures keep her trapped in the cabin. She has four kids and they have all scattered across the Pacific Northwest. Her husband’s kids are local, but all lead busy lives and do not visit. Her local lady friends occasionally visit, but not often enough to fill her days. She joins Bible studies and visits her favourite bookstore, and makes an event out of Monday, Laundrymat Day (no washer or dryer at the cabin), but it is not enough to fill her. A couple of years ago, she began to have inexplicable problems with breathing.

I confess, I am among those who assumed it was symptomatic of a mental disorder. She felt exceptionally tired, she said, and her throat felt as though it would close up, and her lungs felt pneumonia-like and dysfunctional. The key element was the fright she felt when she had difficulty breathing, and she knew that one of these days her throat would close up completely and she would suffocate to death. The thought of death by suffocation was, rightfully so, terrifying to her. And yes, if you have any experience with the life cycles of mental disorders, you will know that it created a whole new problem of panic attacks when she thought of the possibility of her throat closing up and killing her.

The symptoms continued and after a dozen doctor visits and complicated tests, no one could ever diagnose anything. Every pill she tried was worthless, and she refused to take any pills designed to improve mental health. She was furious with everyone who suggested it was “all in her head.” After months and months of research and frequent meetings with girlfriends, Mom decided she had candida. I looked it up and yes, there is such a disease, and it’s as hard to pin down as it would seem. A yeast imbalance in the body which makes a person tired and makes it hard for them to breathe, among a multitude of other seemingly unrelated symptoms. I started giving her more genuine support. She gave up desserts and wine and antibiotics, and after another six months, the candida was apparently under control-ish.

Then, a year ago, she developed some kind of hyperactive heart beat problem. Again – yes I know I am such a bad daughter – I can’t help but suspect it is symptomatic of mental health problems. Again, doctors are unable to diagnose anything, but they did prescribe some pills that help. They told my mother not to take more than 8 pills a day. She, stubbornly, cuts them with a paring knife, and takes 1/4 of a pill. Sometimes that dose twice a day.

This time the secondary panic attacks based on fear of death are over the top. I am so worried for her. Her heart beats hard sometimes, and she can’t always tell why. It beats hard and irregular, and in my mother’s mind it is the first step toward a dysfunctional heart that is going to beat harder and faster till it blows up and kills her. She lives in perpetual fear of being able to detect her own heartbeat. This strikes mainly in the evenings, and the terror of lying there in the dark, feeling her heart beat strong in her chest, is the most frightening experience my mother can imagine. Once while she was here, she came into my bedroom and sat on the bed next to me in the middle of the night, because being beside someone was much more reassuring than being alone with impending death-by-heart-explosion.

The next morning, she thanked me for not rushing her to the hospital. “I didn’t want to go to a strange hospital with a doctor who didn’t know me, and in a town I don’t know. The hospital stay would have been so awful,” she confided. So I realized, yes, this is deadly real to her. It had never, never occurred to me that night to seek a doctor’s counsel. In her terror that night, she had pulled my hand to her chest, “Feel it!” she squeaked. And yes, I felt her heartbeat. It was strong, like she had just hiked from the bottom of her mountain to the top.

“Does it hurt?” I asked her once, months ago.

“Oh, no. No pain at all.”

“Is it different than when your heart beats hard after you work strenuously?”

“No, no. It’s just like that. It’s the same as when I chop wood, or run a long distance.”

“Then why is it so frightening?” I want to know. I really want to understand her.

“Oh, sissy. I don’t know. It’s terrifying. I can’t help it. I am just…. Terrified.”

And it occurs to me that I need to learn how to love a new mother, and to give her what she needs from me. Please forgive my presumption, but I wonder if this is what it’s like to love a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Those heroes who must find a deep soulful place of unconditional love and say something to their loved one with kindness and reassurance, such as, “My name is Crystal. I am your daughter.” Or in my case, “Moma, of course your heart is beating hard, but you will be fine tonight. Let me sleep in your room too, so I can be there the moment you need me, ok?”

I often say I am grateful for the variety of personalities in my family. All families are filled with such different people brought together by blood as well as legal documents. We can’t choose who they are, and if we let them, they will teach us so much. So that is why we are blessed to have families: because we have no choice but to love them more and wrap our arms around them and pull them close. And when we do that, we become beautiful and strong.

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