Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Through the eyes of a friend

My mom and I are entering a new phase in our relationship. She is starting a slow transition into the years when her need for care overtakes her independence. My mom epitomizes the self-reliant, boot-straps American. The transition is by no means smooth.

I spent last weekend with her. My driving meditation for the two hours it took to get to her place was a prayer of surrender. I am learning to allow the things that are annoying and hurtful about her to just be, to surrender my need to change her. I accept that she is a triumphalist Christian and while my preference that she loosen the grip on her religious certainty remains strong, I no longer feel the need to change her, to point out the painfully obvious flaws in her theology, the arrogant and illogical fallacies born of privilege and fear. I felt more relaxed with her than I have in a long time.

Still, there remain the painful negotiations around those things which she finds herself growing more reliant on her kids to offer or supply. She is unable to drive out of town, and a steadily encroaching arthritis has taken over one of her knees, leaving her to walk with a cane much of the time and to struggle to get up and down all of the time. The time for a knee replacement has come. She knows it cannot be done without turning to her family for help. She can't drive herself to see an orthopedic surgeon, and since I am the closest in proximity to her, she shyly asked if I would be able to take her. I assured her that I would do it gladly.

My mom's anxiety around asking for help is so charged and electrifying it could raise the dead. My driving meditation on my return home was less about surrender and more about begging the universe for mercy. I pleaded for the surgeon's schedule to magically clear on a day when I had no commitments. I knew from previous experience that if I had to say no, that won't work, she would cower, and apologize profusely for imposing on my life, for being an embarrassment to her kids because she could no longer care for herself and would have to rely on them to help her get through the surgery. I fully expected her to say she didn't think she wanted to go through with having the knee replaced because it would just be too much trouble for everyone in the family. Every conversation in the months of October and November centered around that very plan. I didn't want to hear it again.

My pleas where not granted. Today she called with a date. They offered an appointment next week in the middle of the big conference on campus which I cannot miss. I told her I wouldn't be able to go that day, and gave her the days in the next two weeks when I could go. The conversation went something like this:

L: I can't do it on Wednesday next week. We are having a conference on campus, and I can't be away from here that day. What other days is he in the office?
M: He's there on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
L: Thursday would be okay.
M: So you can't do either Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
L: [pause while I take a deep breath to slow the conversation down] No. I can't do Wednesday. I CAN do Thursday.
M: Oh. Oh. You don't have to get grumpy with me.
L: I'm not grumpy. I'm trying to find a way to say this so I don't keep confusing you.
M: You're grumpy.
L: What about the next week? I could do either Wednesday or Thursday of the next week.
M: Okay. I'll try that. Do you prefer a morning or afternoon appointment?
[I looked at my calendar and saw evening meetings on some of the days and knew if we had a morning appointment I would likely be able to keep my evening appointments]
L: I'd prefer morning, but either is okay.
M: Okay. I'll call to make the appointment, but I won't call you at work anymore. It makes you grumpy. I'll call you at home tonight.
L: Alright.

So I shook my head and laughed off all the comments about me being grumpy. Then, she called back this evening:

M: I have an appointment for Thursday the 31st at 9:15.
L: That's great. I'll put it down. [And in a rare moment of external processing, I said] I'll look to see if I have anything on Wednesday evening. If not, I'll come up on Wednesday night and spend the night.
M: Well, you'll need to come Wednesday night. The appointment's early in the morning. You can't come up on Thursday morning.
L: Well, I can if I need to. I'll have to wait and look at my calendar tomorrow. I left it at work.
M: You said a morning appointment was your preference.
L: It is my preference. 9:15 on Thursday the 31st is good for me.
M: I'd ask someone else to take me, but I just thought it would be good if someone from the family could be with me for this appointment.
L: I want to go with you. I can go with you. I just need to look and see when I will come up.
M: Why are you so grumpy?
L: I'm not grumpy.
M: Yes, you are. I'm sorry I asked you to take me to this appointment.
L: Thursday. The. 31st. Is. Fine.
M: See, you're grumpy. I'm going to hang up before you get grumpier.
L: That's a good idea. I'll call you later.

I'm not altogether sure where I went wrong in the first conversation. The second one could have ended well if only I'd made a mental note to check my calendar and not actually say it out loud. Still, the fact remains: these encounters will require me to daily practice letting go of my attachments. My attachment to the desire for her to change and be more open and accepting. My attachment to the desire for her to calm down and accept my help without being an anxious freak about it. My attachment to the desire for anything resembling a normal relationship with my mom.

In her novel Blue Shoe Anne Lamott writes about such surrender as she describes a scene in which the main character, Mattie, is grocery shopping with her mother who is growing more and more confused and unable to care for herself. Her mom, thrilled to be out and away from the care center where she lives, wants to shop using a wallet full of coupons even though Mattie is already late to pick up her kids from school. Mattie prays to see her mom as Jesus sees her. She quickly recognizes the futility of that plea, knowing that she isn't capable of that much graciousness, and pleads with herself to see her mom as one of her mom's friends might see her. That point of view shifts her experience, and she's able to let go.

I don't know why family relationships come with so many attachments and expectations. Though I know after living with her for nearly 43 years that the surest bet on her behavior is to expect her to be anxious, I remain eternally hopeful that the next encounter will be different. I need to work to see her as one of her friends might see her. I need to dare to see her as Jesus might see her.

Do you think Jesus ever prays to see her like her daughter sees her? Surely he must struggle with attachment too. Regardless, it looks like this will be the year of learning to let go of mine. Maybe I'll move to Australia.


concretegodmother said...

i have no advice or pithy words of wisdom other than to keep praying what you're praying. i do know prayer changes things, even me.

hang in there. moms can be frustrating, but they can be surprising, too.

Marie said...

Oh my. I'll be praying for you and for me. You've said it all so well. It's all about letting go.

Mary Beth said...

Ah, sweet Linda. I'm so sorry for these troubles and anxieties. They are clearly her bags to carry and your gentleness and patience as she insists on lugging them are a blessing.

I have a different but similar situation with an aging mama. You have my prayers and my love.

Songbird said...

I'm a mother, so I hate to say this, but I'm not sure there *IS* a normal relationship between a mother and a daughter, in the sort of non-anxious, healthy way we idealize. Nonetheless, I pray for one, for you and for me and for all the others who are partners in those relationships.

Yankee, Transferred said...

Sending hugs from here.