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“What did you think was going to happen?” I asked my mother 18 years ago on a bright spring afternoon in Manhattan. It was the day after my father’s funeral, and she was in shock. Even though she’d nursed him like a pro for the previous eight months and we all knew the end of the story. Such is grief. Reminds me of birth that way. You can try all you want, but no class, support group, or Ujjayi breathing prepares you for the moment of someone’s first breath or their last.
“With all due respect, mom, dad was 15 years older than you, it was pretty obvious he was going to die first.”
“Well, yes, but … I don’t know,” she answered with a sniffle, “I guess I just didn’t think about it.”
This exchange has been haunting me because recently I’ve been a little preoccupied with “the end.” I’ve never been a death obsessed person. But since my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis last year I find myself distracted, if not by physical death, then its equivalent for me: the loss of my mind.
My mother turned 80 a few months ago. She’s almost exactly 30 years older than I am. At this point, her short-term memory is so bad she forgets what she has told you three sentences before. It's summer, and I'm spending a lot of time with my 5-year-old. In the quiet moments, of which there are few, I stare at his still small hands or cherub face with missing teeth, wondering whether I have a genetic predilection for Alzheimer’s. Because that's the kind of light and breezy gal I am!
Also because, if that is the case, I only have about 30 years of lucidity left with this munchkin. Which just does not, no way, feel like enough. Not to mention the fact that I remember 30 years ago. Not like it was yesterday, but also not like it was THIRTY YEARS ago! Life is suddenly feeling like a speeding train with a very final destination.
It's not all bleak, though, because my mother’s mind is still sharp about certain subjects. In fact, her brain is now a lot like an old transistor radio where you’re getting clear reception for fewer and fewer stations.
The "Real Estate station," or as I call it, Radio K-Sell, flows without interference. Real estate sales were how my mother made her money for my most of my adult life. Fascinatingly, today, her mind will be wandering, she can’t find her remote for the TV or her glasses, but as soon as the subject of real estate comes up, she’s fully engaged. Not that she's adding numbers (she can’t anymore), but she still has plenty of opinions about the current mortgage rates and how people should be selling and buying or at least refinancing their home.
And by "people," I mean "me."
“The children need more space! I don’t know what you’re waiting for!” she chided recently.
She’s not wrong. But I’ve done some snooping around at houses for sale in Los Angeles and, yes, we’d make a nice profit on the sale of our house, but I didn’t even come close to finding a place nicer than ours in our price range. A familiar refrain when you need to buy in the same inflated market that you are selling in.
I've had to do a lot of boundary setting with my mother and her disease in the last year to protect both of us. It works very well, until she forgets them.
“So sell it and go rent something for a year! Get the money!” she said, sounding like a greedy, grizzled cartoon. Then again, the woman has made some very good real estate decisions in her life.
I went out and looked at rentals. Less space for more money than our mortgage. Quick, let me sign one of these leases!
I lay awake in bed at night envisioning us packing up to move into a temporary rental, and then looking for a house, all while looking for a middle school, writing a book, getting everyone to their activities, keeping everyone in clean underwear, and keeping the house stocked with milk, eggs and Honey Nut Cheerios. Then I saw myself driving into oncoming traffic, not to die, but just so I had a good excuse to lie down.
Now, my husband and I are thinking of other options to get my older boy out from the bottom bunk and into his own room painted the color of his choice, burnt orange. I’ve talked to contractors, and this weekend we’re meeting with an architect about building an extra room somewhere. It felt like a responsible, sound plan until yesterday when I talked to my mother.
“Please, Dani, sell your house. Give me something to be happy about before I die.” And then she laughed, this sinister and familiar laugh that growing up always said, “For God's sake! Have a sense of humor. You’re too sensitive!” if I didn’t laugh, too.
“OK mom, got it," I said, "I’ll let you know what we decide, thanks!” I hung up and put a note by my bed and in my car to never to bring up our house to her again. I set a "boundary." Good for me.
I've always bristled at "boundary talk." Just some fancy, self-help phrase for learning how to say no. So dumb unless, in fact, you really need to help yourself. I've had to do a lot of boundary-setting with my mother and her disease in the last year to protect both of us. It works very well, until she forgets them. But then I get to practice setting them again. So, really, this whole illness is a big opportunity for me to learn to take care of myself.
And that kind of thinking is exactly what undermines the effectiveness of "boundary talk" for me. Most of the time, it feels like therapeutically sanctioned narcissism. For example, how could I possibly believe that my mother's Alzheimer's is an opportunity for me to do anything other than try to have compassion for her crumbling mind? And yet you could see how the "opportunity" interpretation is helpful on days when I find myself in abject fear for when my sanity gig is up, too. So I fully support me and my process in fully supporting my mother and her disease. Yay, us!
Along these positivity lines, there is something heartening to me about Radio K-Sell. It's because I have spent the bulk of my life either making people laugh, or helping other people make people laugh. So I'm thinking that if my brain does go transistor radio on me in 30 years, my clear station will be Radio K-Laugh.
And when my children call me or visit me, I’ll babble about the weather and what I ate or didn’t eat, but before we part I'll ask the same question, “Did you laugh today?” And when they tell me yes, I'll make them tell me all about it so I can laugh, too. Then I'll forget it and make them tell me again. Until hopefully we are laughing together.