When we are children, we make promises to our peers such as ‘I’ll always be your friend’. The world seems so large and so infinite to us, and yet we typically cannot conceive of things ‘changing’. We lack the experiences to show us that everything changes – that nothing is really constant – nor can it be. We lack the insight to choose our words more carefully and make our promises more wisely and considerately. We don’t foresee deaths…divorces…differences of opinion…and all the things that can impede our keeping the promises we make.
Many years ago I was a single man…between relationships and before making any promises of ‘for richer or poorer’. My mother had just lost her best friend to cancer. The woman, Becky, had been my mother’s constant companion for many years. They had spoken of selling both their homes and buying lakefront property to ‘retire to’ one day. They promised to help each other out, since neither of them were married, as they aged. And then came a terminal diagnosis that neither of them foresaw, and Becky’s promise to my mother fell victim to an illness she just couldn’t fight, no matter how she tried.
Mom promised to take care of Becky in her final days, and Becky moved into Mom’s house, into one of the unused bedrooms, where round-the-clock nurses would care for Becky, although Mom did as much as she could; even things that the nurses were supposed to do. Mom changed clothes and bandages…helped with feeding…filled empty hours with board games and television viewing. I would even spend a night per week at Mom’s house then, long after I’d moved out, just to give her someone else to talk to or something else to focus on other than the fact that her best friend was dying in the other room. I continued to do so for a time even after Becky passed, as suddenly Mom’s house full of caregivers and pain killing prescriptions was now back to an empty nest, so to speak.
Becky promised Mom that she would leave her house, her car, and some investment accounts, worth quite a bit of money, to my mother in order to help fulfill the promise of buying the retirement home on a nearby lake. She revised her existing will, leaving it all to Mom except for a few family heirlooms that were to go to Becky’s brother, all but estranged, and his wife and children. Becky’s brother contested the will…claimed that Mom had coerced Becky into signing the things he deemed of value (not counting any items of sentimental value, as Peter was not a man given to sentiment) over to Mom. He argued that Becky was not in her right mind when she made those decisions, got Becky (who by then was definitely not in her right mind any longer) to state that she had been confused by some of it, and unfortunately a judge sided with Peter in terms of the bank accounts. Mom did inherit the house and the car, but the money all went to Peter. Hence, Becky’s promise to Mom was broken, and the lakeside retirement home never came to be, whereas my sister lived in the house that Becky left to Mom up until my sister’s death in 2012.
This was all two decades ago. I was in my mid-20’s. Mom was then in her early 60’s. Retirement was not yet in sight, and neither was old-age for her. She spoke of it, some, but really only focused on one aspect of it – she was, as she emphatically insisted, NOT to be put into a nursing home. I promised her I wouldn’t. I offered to take her in when the time came and let her live out her days with me. I wasn’t then ‘planning’ on being married, to say nothing about becoming a parent one day. Those things just weren’t necessarily in the cards for me back then. And so, I promised her that I’d take care of her when the time came.
In the last few months my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where it’s impacting her long-term memory as well as her short-term. Her doctor has determined that she cannot care for her day to day needs any longer, nor manage her finances, nor make sound medical decisions for herself. I read a piece of paper recently, a letter from him, that declared my mother ‘incompetent’. I saw the word and wanted to cry. My mother is many things; stubborn…impatient…judgmental…often unreasonable…but to give credit where credit is due she raised three children without much help…she kept us from being hungry or cold or homeless until we were old enough to care for ourselves. We never missed meals, nor did we ever go out of the house in tattered clothing. We weren’t lavished upon, certainly; but we did have the basic necessities to survive. My mother rarely ever missed a day of work, or made a late bill payment in her life. She was always strong and determined, no matter what I now think in reflecting upon her methods. I have used many words to describe my mother over time. I have also seen many words used to describe her.
Incompetent was never one I thought I’d see.
Mom’s needs have gone beyond the point where my brother and I can care for her safely. Goodness knows we have both tried. I moved her here near me to be able to help her out more and be closer when medical situations arose, and to more closely track the progression of her dementia. She went to my brothers for what was meant to be a one month stay, and has not returned. Falls…hospitalizations….blood pressure incidents…further failing memory…it’s as if time and age are taking this woman who fought so hard and so long to be so independent and throwing her to the ground and kicking her repeatedly while someone takes her mind and memories away like it’s a handwritten book and a person with a great big eraser is wiping away all the words there.
Today Mom transitioned from the rehab hospital she has been in for a few weeks to an assisted living facility in Florida, where she will remain until/unless her needs change even more and it’s deemed ‘not enough’ for her.
Today my promise to my mother, to take care of her in her final years, has been fully broken. It’s just one that I couldn’t keep.
When I visited Mom two weeks ago to talk to her, with my brother, about this transition and the need for it, she accepted it without argument, much to our surprise. I think in ways she knows, no matter what, it’s necessary for her safety and well-being.
I still felt like a failure, though, no matter how well she took it.
We sat and talked, alone, one of the mornings I was there. She is questioning that my brother is married (she cannot recall it, even though it happened 27 years ago this month) and thinks my sister-in-law, who has been spending days with Mom in Florida for months now, is someone Mom knew for years who just up and married my brother. She brought up my father’s recent death more than once, even more than once in the same hour, as if we hadn’t spoken of it at all, to express how sorry she was that my dad had died. Each time I just said, ‘Thank you, Mom.’
We sat close enough to one another that I could hold her hand while we spoke. She looked at me, after we’d just spoken about some other detail that has been lost to her about life, and she said, ‘I want you to know that no matter what else I forget…I will never forget you, my son. I promise.’
I forced a small smile for her. I; who writes volumes about situations and people and memories, was momentarily at a loss for words. I know she was sincere. I also know the reality. I’ve been there before, with a grandmother who eventually didn’t recognize me. It might not happen, but the odds are against me.
‘I know Mom, but just in case that does happen….I know if some day I’m no longer here,’ (I touched her head) ‘I know I will always be here.’ (I placed my hand over her heart).
‘Good’, she said, ‘because at the rate I’m going, I might not get to keep my promise, no matter how much I try.’