Mother, no one needs to own 15 glass flower vases; or conversations with elderly parents!

My Mom and I started yesterday over Tim Horton’s coffee and bagel sandwiches. I brought her an egg and cheese sandwich, and a bottle of apple juice, because I knew that if I didn’t, she probably wouldn’t eat much for breakfast. She doesn’t really keep an awful lot of food in her apartment anymore, and she almost never cooks.  I’ve been sending over meals and left overs a lot lately, especially since last summer, when she became deadly ill before we knew what was going on; a bad infection, severe anemia, and dehydration. It was then I knew we had to make some changes, that she needed me more than she used to.

So yesterday, we started the long process of moving her into my apartment building. She will still have her own apartment, but we’ll be in the same building, sort of the best of both worlds I’m hoping. We’ve been discussing this since last summer when she was sick, but this is the weekend we started cleaning and packing. The moving van comes tomorrow. So over our breakfast sandwiches and coffee, she told me how anxious she was, having her whole world turned upside down again. She said “be patient with me today Karen, I’m really stressed out and I’ll probably yell at you.” I told her it was okay, I’d probably yell at her too, and we both apologized ahead of time.

One of the challenges of middle age is that just as we are learning that our children don’t need us as much, that we need to back off and let them live their lives, our parents begin to need us more. So, we often move from parenting, to caregiver of our own parents.

My mother has always been a fiercely independent woman. She was the last of her friends to marry, waiting until the ripe old age of 29 (which was very old to be getting married in 1963). She only had one child, me. She was then the first of her peers to divorce, realizing that being a stay-at-home wife and mother was not the life she wanted. She wanted a career, she wanted independence, and she fought her whole life against a culture that, at the time, didn’t want her to have it.

So facing this time in her life, approaching 80 this spring, has been hard for her. It’s been hard for both of us. Logically, we both knew she’d get old and need me, but neither of us really wanted to believe it.

So we’ve spent our weekend in preparation for the moving van tomorrow, cleaning out and packing. Going through memories and paring down so we can fit all she needs into her new, smaller apartment. You know how her generation is. They were thriftier than we are. They may not have had single sort recycling or deposits on bottles, but they knew how to get the most out of anything they spent money on. They still have appliances older than most of their grandchildren. They still save jars and plastic margarine containers to reuse for leftovers over and over again. They save things that aren’t fixable in the hopes that someday, they will find a use for them.

The things I’ve found in her apartment included a set of speakers for a stereo that died long ago, a suitcase that has a broken wheel but can still be carried, so why throw it out. I’ve found clothes in varieties of sizes that will never be worn, but hold memories from events or vacations that someone buying them at Goodwill will never understand. There was two years worth of Good Housekeeping magazines, you know for the recipes. There was shoe polish, and floor wax and cleaning products that haven’t been used in years, but you can’t just throw them out when there is still some left in the bottle! Many of them had lost their original caps so they were secured with little baggies and elastics so the contents didn’t spill. There were vacuum cleaners that don’t work, and tapes for tape decks long gone. There were bits of cotton and sponges and old mops and all sorts of things that most of us now would never bother to keep, but my mother still saw some usefulness in. While these things don’t hold value to me, my mother knows you don’t just throw something out because it’s gotten old and isn’t as good as it was when it was new.

There is a lesson in there I missed at first, in my rush to just get through this process.

One of her best decisions involved her “good china,” that set that only came out for holidays when I was a kid. She decided to get rid of her every day set and use the good stuff, always from now on! I mean what is she saving it for! I loved that decision!

What I discovered these last few days is that while we are arguing over whether or not she needs to bring 15 glass flower vases with her, or whether or not she needs to save that 10 year old bottle of shoe polish, what we are really doing is negotiating new boundaries. I am practicing making decisions for her, for the time when she is no longer able to.  She is trying frantically to hang onto control of her own life. We both want her to. Neither of us wants her to need me more and more every day but it’s a journey we both know is inevitable.

PS, she did keep most of the flower vases, but the shoe polish is gone!

Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN since May 2011. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.