She is standing at the kitchen
sink ready for church: flowered skirt, knit top, matching blouse,
stockings, comfortable shoes, makeup. It must have taken her a good
three hours, but she is ready to go. I catch myself as I am just
about to say, “Wow, I’m so proud of you. You did it all by
yourself.” Moments before, I had said those very words to my son,
Madoc, about putting on his own shoes, and he’s two and a half. My
mother just turned 75. “Wow, Mom” I say instead, “you look great.
If someone would have told me I’d be living with my mother as I
neared my thirty-fifth year, I would have shaken my head and
laughed. No, you’re mistaken. Wrong girl.
I was the child she was going to raise “right.” The youngest of
five, I internalized my mothers dreams of “success.” I worked in
Hollywood, became an Associate Producer, went to Cannes, wore
expensive sunglasses. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my
mother telling her about who I had become, as though all of those
things mattered to me. Secretly, I believed they only mattered to
her. I was, if only for a brief time, the picture of her successful
daughter. But the lifestyle really didn’t suit me. The long hours,
the shiny, flashy, self-congratulating nature of the business was
simply not me. So my husband and I moved north and started living
our own lives. We renewed our vows. We made good friendships. We had
Fast forward years later, and I’m shaking my head. Not only is the
fact that I live with my mother incredibly true, the other facts are
these: she has Parkinson’s, I have a toddler, and this is a powerful
time of learning for both of us.
I help my mother into the car and put her walker in the back next to
my son. It’s less than a mile to the church, but once we get there,
it’s still a long way until she can sit down again. We both take a
“Is church where people go when they’re sick?” Madoc asks from his
car seat behind us. “No, Sweetie,” I say, “That’s when we took
Grandma to the doctor’s office. Church is where people go to—“ I
don’t know what to say. Our church is just one of the things we left
behind in California and this rural Utah alternative doesn’t support
any of my or my husband’s values. My mother chimes in, “Church is
where people go to pray.” I’m grateful for the simplicity of the
statement, and since prayer is a big part of our home life, my son
is content with her response.
Sometimes I’m really patient with my mother, even playful. On this
particular day I’m too tired to be either, so we walk silently to
the heavy oak doors of the church. From there, someone will help her
through the day’s busy schedule of meetings and lessons and worship.
Then someone else will give her a ride home. I’ve left my son in the
car and am feeling uneasy about it, so I’m short with her. “Bye,” I
say, “See you at home.”
Each step she takes, each movement she makes, is filled with pain.
She is slow. Unsteady on her feet. Walks with a walker around the
house. Sometimes just taking a bath leaves her exhausted and she
needs to rest before moving on. I wish she were better at asking for
help. But I know it is hard. When someone needs help with so much,
it is hard to keep asking. She chooses her moments carefully.
Usually it’s when my husband or I get up from the couch to get
something from the kitchen. “On your way back,” she might say, “can
you bring me a glass of water?” I feel like such a heel wondering
how long she’s been thirsty.
At other times, when I take over for her, fill up the bathtub or
button her shirt for her, I wonder if I’ve just robbed her of
something. Some nugget of dignity or self respect. Have I stepped in
too soon? Did I just deprive her of the opportunity to learn some
sacred lesson? The lesson of patience, perhaps, or of learning to
ask for and receive help? Ironically, I find myself in the same
predicament everyday as a parent. Teetering as I try to find the
delicate balance of doing something for my son, or letting him do it
himself. Most days I have no idea what I’m doing and I just have to
go for a walk or take a bath and start again in the morning.
On another day we’re at the local super-center. Madoc is in the
front of the basket I’m pushing. My mother is following behind in a
motorized cart. It’s a very slow process, shopping. We’re looking
for shoes and clothes my mother can put on and take off by herself.
I do most of the cooking and we eat a lot more organic produce and
fewer microwave dinners than she is used to. In fact, she has
slimmed down so much in the two years that we’ve lived together that
she looks like a little girl playing dress-up most of the time. Any
clothes that do still fit, don’t work anymore for one reason or
another: too many buttons, zipper in the back, drawstring that
requires tying. Basically, I realize as we’re inching down the aisle
toward the women’s clothing, we’re shopping for the same type of
clothes I buy for my toddler. Clothes that are easily put on and
taken off by fingers that don’t have a lot of motor control or
strength. Clothes that build self-confidence and foster
Days like this require a sort of walking meditation: help my mother
try things on, get Madoc a snack, go visit the goldfish in the pet
section, breathe, then back to women’s clothing to check on Mom, go
through the grocery list, then to the checkout counter to pay the
cashier, push the debit button, pick up the pen my son has just
flung to the floor for the third time, breathe, go get the car,
strap my son in his car seat, bring the car around to the store
entrance, help my mother into the car, return the motorized cart,
notice that my car is still leaking oil and is now smoking. (I had
hoped that problem had solved itself last week, but apparently, it’s
still there.) Breathe. The journey of a thousand miles must begin
with a single step. No one ever mentions the fact that the journey
could be as simple as a trip to the local super-center.
I used to feel like I came late to the party of “knowing what I
wanted to be.” It was a painfully endless worry of mine for years.
Many hours of therapy in Los Angeles didn’t seem to help. Oddly, at
this time in my life, the pain of not knowing what I want to be is
absent. I just am.
I stand in awe on a daily basis observing our life together. How
poignant it is for me to witness the beginning of my son’s life and
the end of my mother’s life at the same time. To help Madoc off with
his shoes. To give him a bath. To help him climb into bed. To help
my mother off with her shoes. To give her a bath. To help her climb
On some days the intimacy is too much for each of us and we ignore
the fact that she needs help doing things. Instead, she does them
alone, slowly, painfully. We agree, silently, that it is best. And
on other days I am very involved with her care. It’s a delicate
dance of the mother and the daughter. I wonder sometimes how long we
will do this dance together, when she might be better served by
someone else, or when I might wear out.
Right now, my son and his grandma are playing cars outside on the
porch. At the end of a wooden car ramp my mother has placed an old
washboard. “One for the money,” my son’s small voice sings, “two for
the show; three to get ready; four to go!” This is something she
must have taught him. The cars careen down the ramp and rattle
across the washboard before landing on the porch step at their feet.
I watch them from the kitchen window as they both laugh, my son
putting the cars at the top of the ramp over and over and over
again. Her patience with him is unending. They could not do this
over the phone.
He feeds her spirit, and she feeds his. Witnessing that feeds mine.
It’s not the picture any of us imagined. Living this close together
is hard on all of us sometimes. When she wanted to raise me “right,”
I think she had a much shinier picture in mind. I certainly did. But
here we are together, mothering and daughtering under the same roof
once again, knowing that for this delicate dance, however long it
turns out to be, we have all grown incredibly grateful.
Sessions-Riseley lives in a small town in rural Utah with her
husband, Chris, her three-year-old son, Madoc, and her mother, Jean.
She paints, plays guitar, and continues to search for the balance
between caring for those around her and taking good care of herself.
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