Monday, April 10, 2006

Thoughts and Stuff

So I’m in a writing mood today.  In fact, I’m in enough of a writing mood that I have written several entries today that I will hopefully be posting over the next few days.  Then again, perhaps I won’t.  We shall see.

I want to write about my mother today.  I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately because an internet friend and a co-worker just lost their mothers, and two other friends’ mothers have been diagnosed with cancer recently.  Add to that the fact that I seem to be turning into my mother physically (maybe I’ll write about that sometime), and she’s just been on my mind.

Something that not a lot of people know is that Mum started to decline physically when I was in high school.  The first time she wound up in the hospital with heart problems was when I was a sophomore or junior in high school.  I didn’t tell anyone then because I was in denial myself.  My mom was older (she was 36 when I was born), and I didn’t want to admit to myself that she might be anything other than…well, my mom.  I didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t do everything she used to do with me.  

So I chose to believe that nothing about her had changed, even after her personality changed somewhat after her first stroke my senior year of high school.  I didn’t tell anyone about that, either.  And I adapted, even if I didn’t admit to myself that that’s what I was doing.  I didn’t go to her when I needed something hemmed, because she couldn’t hold a needle anymore.  Instead, I taped up hems with masking tape.  I did the laundry, so no one ever knew.  I never asked her to drive me anywhere, because I noticed that she had been avoiding driving (I learned later that it was because she couldn’t see as well).  Instead, I took the bus or walked everywhere.  I took over most of the household chores that involved climbing stairs or manual dexterity, and if anyone asked, I said it was part of growing up.

I never told anyone when she had another stroke my freshman year of college, either.  Part of it is the pathological fear I have of burdening anyone else with my problems, but most of it was just a belief that if I denied that there was a problem, then there wasn’t.  If I pretended that everything was normal, it was.  See, my college years were really the first opportunity I had to be my own person.  No one knew me at Gannon, and no one expected me to act a certain way or hold particular beliefs.  Anything that would make someone look at my funny or pity me was unacceptable.

After my dad had a stroke my junior year (are you sensing a theme here?), I had much the same reaction.  My mom somehow managed to take care of him, though, with the help of home health.  I did go home more frequently than I ever had before, though.  

After my dad died at the end of my first senior year, I offered to withdraw from Gannon and stay home with my mom.  I figured I’d get some kind of job, then try to finish my degree at Pitt the following year.  She refused, saying that the fondest dream she and my dad had was to see me graduate from college (I’m still the only one on her side of the family to hold a four year degree).  I have to say that I was unbelievably relieved, on one level.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my mother enough to stay home and take care of her, but rather, I couldn’t face the fact that our roles had reversed so early.  I knew it would come one day; my grandmother lived with us until she died.  But I was only 21 years old.  I wasn’t fully capable of taking care of myself yet, let alone another person.

I didn’t abandon her, of course.  I went home just about every weekend and did her laundry, went shopping, cooked meals she could microwave the rest of the week, etc.  But if I would have had to take care of her personal needs on a daily basis, like bathing, emptying the bedside commode, changing dressings, etc., I think I would have had a breakdown a lot sooner than I did.  I loved my mother so much that the mere thought of her declining, the mere thought of having to do for her what she did for me when I was an infant literally sickened me.  That final year of college was when I started having GI issues, all of which my doctor pinned directly on stress.

After she had surgery the year after I graduated, I had no choice but to place her in a nursing home.  She understood, and she was behind that decision completely.  I went to visit her as often as I could, which wasn’t often due to the fact that I was working night shift, didn’t have a car, and the nursing home was on the other side of the city, requiring two buses and about an hour of travel time each way.  

The day my mom died, I never heard the phone ring.  I was sleeping upstairs, and never heard the nursing home call to say they took her to the hospital.  I never heard the several times her doctor tried to reach me.  When I finally managed to reach the doctor, he couldn’t figure out why I was calling.  He didn’t realize that no one had managed to contact me about her yet.  He eventually realized who I was, and that I didn’t know, and he told me that my mother was dead.

And I wasn’t there.

I have never gotten over my guilt about all of that.  I suppose it didn’t help that our neighbors and family thought that I was just about the worst person to ever walk the earth.  I rationalized at the time that none of them had been what I had been through yet (the ones my age or slightly older, I mean – a lot of them were the worst in that category).  None of them knew what it meant to grieve the loss of a parent when you haven’t even hit your 22nd birthday.  When they’d ask how my mom was handling things and ignore my feelings, I’d say they just didn’t understand.  When they criticized me for going back to school, I figured that they just didn’t know what it meant to my parents to have me finish my degree.  When the home health nurse chastised me because I couldn’t change the packing in an excised abscess on my mother’s back without being sick, I told myself that she never had to take care of someone she cared about that way, that she never had to cause someone she loved so much pain.  

Those rationalizations worked in the short term.  I was able to keep functioning, at least as far as the outside world was concerned.  Internally, I was a mess of guilt and shame.  For a while during this period, I didn’t want to go on.  I didn’t see any point in continuing to exist because I couldn’t see any worth or value in myself.  For a brief time, I fought myself every day to keep from doing something I would later regret.

I don’t think that I have ever gotten over that guilt, and I don’t know that I ever will.  I talked about it in therapy, and I recognize that I did the best I could with no discernable support system.  I know that neither my mother nor father would fault me for any decisions I had to make.  And I know that they would understand that I was just too young to deal with all that…stuff on my own.  

Still, I feel, in that deep, dark place inside that makes me doubt myself, that I let them down.  And in particular, I feel like I let my mother down.  She made me the person I was then, and the woman I have become.  I watched her sacrifice her happiness for mine.  She was truly my role model.

But she was able to care for her mother when she became old and infirm.  Granted, she was much older, she had my dad for support, -and her brother helped her out financially.  But I can’t help but feel I let her down.

I guess I’ll never know how my actions will be judged until the last day.  I suppose I can live with that.

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