It’s just not satisfying communication. I know everyone is doing the best they can with restrictions for the spread of this virus, but according to most of us who have to do it, Skyping is often more taxing; some elders get confused - there are often no care aides to guide them. Skype is not natural.
Come on. We’ve all had the experience of ‘dementia looping’ - where your parent goes round and round repeating the same story, the same neurotic whine or the same memory of something that never happened… or, did it? and you just never knew about it…?
But here’s the thing: when your loved one is looping and you can just simply hold their hand while they ramble, or sit quietly beside them, the comfort level goes right up. Not seeing your parent for months on end except through artificial means is, Gas Lighting with Vaseline over the lens.
Something diﬀerent happened today with The Trudester, something worth noting. She was going on and on and on about my sister’s lazy attitude about not working for a living. Something she has never criticized before.
Fascinating. The sister is a low life, who may be trying to turn her life around, but her 40 year history speaks of nothing but use and abuse of the government welfare system and trying to live oﬀ other people.
I can still hear my disgusted voice at 11 years-old at the kitchen sink washing dishes, when my sister was just four years younger. “Mom! Suzie (our nickname for my sister Tara) won’t help with the dishes!”. Oh, I was mad when my mother would come and do my sister’s job. The cheesed-oﬀ crust of that has prevailed for decades since.
Does that explain today’s rant by my mom? Her anger at her youngest daughter finally making a curtain call?
“She never opened a book! There’s something about Suzie, I don’t understand. She’s a spoiled brat!”
I could barely believe my ears.
“The teacher came to see me and said she couldn’t understand her. It was the same when she was home. She just watches TV.”
Was I suddenly in an episode of My Favorite Martian? This was my sibling’s favourite television show to escape doing the dishes.
My mother’s sentences were clear, she was tracking something that went from point to point, so I watched and waited for more. “The teacher said Tara has a block there so I have to find out what it is. She has to tell me. I told her you would do anything you could to help her, if you don’t have too much work to do yourself…”
I said I didn’t know what to say, because what my mother was saying was what I had been, thirty - forty years earlier.
“Something went wrong in her brain, and I have to help her.” After my initial shock, it nearly broke me to hear her lament. She was bereft, lost, unable to help her daughter - the single, most urgent calling a mother has.
Out of nowhere, she added, “I may be old, but I still want to be beautiful.” Where was I…? Who am I…? Huh?
I let her go on with the rant, it was so important for her to let go. Then I flashed to my sister’s high school graduation as I watched my hapless, baby sister become hysterical with tears streaming down her face; afraid for high school to end, for the life of the unknown to begin.
I wish I had been smarter then as her older sister. To see, realize, even sense that there was some trauma there, some monster in a closet that had spooked her. But we were so unaware back then.
My mother: “Tara, make up your mind to work hard because if you don’t have an education you will have a hard life. You have to be educated in this world. Are you going to be stupid all your life? “
I stared at the Skype screen in frustration. My mother needed my arms around her to be consoled and I was not there.
“There is something wrong with Suzie and I don’t have any faith in the doctors…she fell on her head you know.”
Yes, I did know. In the winter months on the vast, bald prairie, my 8 year old sister went riding on her bike and slipped on patchy ice, and lay unconscious until someone found her. When she was taken to the hospital in l967, there were no such things as MRIs. I don’t even know if they did anything with a concussion. All of this is now over fifty years ago. Now my mother is saying the words I wished she had said fifty years earlier.
What was eerie was how true my mother’s words were today, with her dementia, as she continued to reach out to me, her true audience.
“…you’re not going to have friends, if you don’t have an education. Why don’t you want to be smart? I pray you gets oﬀ… your bum… no one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. …when you are educated you can talk to anyone… if you don’t have an education, people take advantage of you…”
This delayed reaction, or latent? or hidden? or subconscious? kept me endlessly mesmerized. “…she doesn’t practice… I never see her take out a book… you can’t get a job watching TV.”
Now, desperate to change the topic, because her agitation was growing and I could not be there to hold her, I asked her to tell me a story about growing up on the farm. Quick as a wink - her eyes twinkled. The farm she grew up on the vast, bald and - dust bowl-ravaged prairie - had a cow named Betsy. Bob was the name of the horse who rode her out to the post oﬃce every day.
“So, I said, don’t step in my milk pail again and be stupid or I am going to punch you.” She continued looping on this one, and got a little more angry nearly shouting, “I’ll punch you another one if you don’t shut up!”
Ok. Was she talking about a cow… or…?
Trying to switch the channel again before wrapping up the call was no use as Trudy continued: “I don’t get that daughter of mine.”
Over and over I would insist to my mother that things were ok, that she didn’t have to worry about it, that she was the best person to talk to my sister about her feelings. Whatever was going on in her mind, she felt responsible and I wanted to help her.
The coﬀee cart came around and she said, “Do you want some coﬀee…?” “I would if I was there, mom, but I’m not.”
“So, you don’t want any?”
“Well, I can’t.”
“Are you sure….?”
Yes. I’m. Sure.
Then she was onto planting her little garden that afternoon. Her insistent and persistent imagined best thing to do.
What will you plant, I asked, knowing that her garden has always been one of my mother’s great joys.”
“Lettuce, and radishes and cucumbers… I had a sausage once.” Say, what? “In your garden?” I asked like an idiot. She just looked at me as if I was the one with dementia.
Later that day I asked my Jewish friend, Evan of the Stratford Festival, what the phrase, life is raisins and almonds means.
“It’s the Jewish version of yin and yang. But, of course we have to use food. Raisins are sweet, and almonds are bitter. Why do you think we smash glasses at weddings? Right now, sure it’s wonderful, but there will be hard times coming up too.”
Yeah, lots of almonds today. But, there were a couple of raisins in there too.