*Featured Image: “Keeping Afloat” by Barbara CarterI give her plenty of space as she lifts and drops the walker to get to the audiologist’s chair, because the two fluorescent yellow tennis balls on the walker’s “feet” stick to the carpet when she tries to roll forward. She’s draped a brightly striped, stained cloth bag over the bar connecting the walker’s handles. The bag holds extra Depends, crumpled napkins from her last takeout meal, and a used plastic shopping bag for soiled garments. Despite the fact that smoother walkers can be bought, she won’t let us buy her one “when this one works perfectly well.” She also doesn’t plan to let us purchase new hearing aids.
She lost her old hearing aids at rehab last month, because she wouldn’t release them from her fist when the nurse’s assistant came to tuck her in one night. Housekeeping must’ve washed them before anyone realized they were missing. She’s been wearing the “backup” pair, whose left one is stuck on the lowest, and inadequate, power setting. She thinks they work fine, even though she can’t hear until someone shouts on the fourth repetition. My mother and I have not had a real conversation in years.
She can’t hear, but she can talk. Pointing at me while looking away, she curls her lip and tells the doctor, “My wise, rich daughter is going to buy me your expensive hearing aids.” I have no intention of paying for them. She does not lack funds, but she also would never buy anything except the cheapest available. Thus, she has spent much more, combined, on multiple shoddy hearing aids than she will on the high-quality ones sold here.
I try to cool the heat in my cheeks that her sarcastic “wise, rich daughter” comment brings on. Her walker embarrasses me, too – unsightly, attention-seeking, disheveled, barely functional. Ingrained in me since middle school is that we should not ever stand out more than is broadcast by our eye shape and hair color.
My mom has been talking at the doctor without pause to disguise her dementia – about ads in the newspaper for less expensive miracle hearing aids, about how she doesn’t need to hear anyway, about how the old ones work fine. Even though it’s obvious to the audiologist that she’s not in her right mind, I still don’t want him to think my mom is undignified or that I am OK with that walker. I can’t make eye contact with him. I hope he knows about mothers and daughters.
The real reason for my second trip in three months is that doctors have diagnosed my father, her husband of 56 years, with incurable cancer in three organs; he has decided not to undergo biopsies, which could determine treatment options. At 88, with a history of heart disease and stroke, my dad accepts that if the biopsies didn’t do him in, the treatments would. Separately, each of us copes with the news, because we don’t know how to talk about it. I can only gesture my love and duty by visiting. Finding this highly reviewed hearing aid company and bringing her to this appointment is a bonus of my traveling 800 miles, but she doesn’t see it that way.
I know how working hearing aids will slow her declining cognition, but she doesn’t listen to me. Can the doctor tell that all I want is for my mother to appreciate me? Or does he think me bossy and overbearing like she does? Why do I worry about what the audiologist thinks?
While the hot pink molds set in her ears, she moves to stand. I jump up to position and stabilize the walker so she can pull herself up with one hand and push off the armrest with the other hand. Bent by scoliosis, she looks sideways rather than out the office door and asks, “Where’s the bathroom?” She’s outsmarted me by figuring out how to end the appointment and thus save (my) money on hearing aids.
As we exit the examination room, the doctor returns, sees how urgently my mother seeks the toilet, and realizes that, at her rate of jiggling the walker to and from the bathroom, she will be in no mood to resume the examination when she is done. In the middle of the hallway, he tugs the threads in the pink molds to get them out of her ears. “I’ll order the new hearing aids and call you when they are in!” She doesn’t hear him, and I make a mental note to apologize for our abrupt departure by email later.
She lets go of her walker to plop herself onto the lobby chair, exhausted from the appointment and from going to the bathroom by herself, because I draw the line at toileting my mother. I convince myself that withholding my services is about maintaining dignity rather than about craving a different kind of connection.
As we wait for her caregiver to swing the car around the front, I realize that this is probably the only moment in my 4-day visit when she and I will be alone and I will have her undivided attention. My goal in that sterile, quiet lobby is to figure out how my father’s recent diagnoses are affecting her. While a cocktail of medications dampen her mood swings, debilitating depression or manic psychosis have accompanied stressful times in the past. I have been conditioned to search for telltale signals, such as long blank stares as if no one else is in the room, replaying conversations over and over to decipher signs of condescension, consecutive nights of lost sleep, or inability to stop making art during mealtimes or sleep times.
During one of my visits, before her dementia had become too noticeable, I had asked both of my parents, “What do you fear most?” My mom had answered, “Daddy dying before me.” My dad had answered, “Dying before Mommy.” Since this conversation happened when neither was in the midst of a health crisis, I had quipped, “Well, then, there’s an easy solution!”
Now, their greatest fears are about to come true. “Mom, Is anything on your mind that you are worried about?” I shout.
“What do I have to worry about? The main thing is that Daddy and M are best friends.” Since my dad’s decision to take the palliative route, her husband and son converse at the kitchen table for hours, which comforts her. Those conversations have taken on new meaning and weight since learning that my dad’s days are numbered.
“You’re right, they are great friends!” She nods without eye contact. I wonder whether she recalls the manic episode she experienced when my brother took a break from the family years ago. While sleepless for days, she went on a Walmart shopping spree and planned to build a physical therapy pool in the garage. I never know whether her mind is as empty as her face. It has always felt like she shuts me out with her blank stares.
I persevere at my goal, searching for the right phrasing. “Mom, is there anything else that concerns you these days?” I decide to give her a hint. “Do you have any feelings about Daddy’s health?”
She sits up taller. Her usually dead eyes widen into space, telling me she does know what is happening to her family. I had hoped that dementia would allow her to spend her days translating Yu Guang Zhong’s poems to English, playing UpWords with the caregivers without keeping score, and looking forward to her son’s cooking rather than worrying over the coming weeks of unknown suffering. But she isn’t talking about what’s next, so I don’t know if she is sad, stressed, confused, or repressed.
I’ve lost my mother to dementia over the last 10 years, and now I’m losing my father to cancer. With every text or phone call, my heart lurches as I anticipate “this is it,” and then the tightness dissipates when it’s only another prescription refill to be ordered, bill to be paid, or appointment to be made. Having little idea how their final chapters will play out and how I will handle the loss scare me.
In that doctor’s lobby, I started the conversation to assess her understanding and emotions about my father’s prognosis, but I also need my mother’s comfort for what is my grief, too. I crave a connection that my head says will not happen, but my heart does not learn.
My mom remembers the color and style of the getaway vehicle and perks up when the caregiver pulls a white sedan up to the curb. Just as she prevails in keeping the makeshift walker, she escapes the conversation that might bond us in facing my dad’s death. Once again, I perform my duty to position and stabilize the walker so she can pull herself up out of the chair and shuffle towards the glass doors.
As we leave the audiologist’s office, my throat tightens and tears well up with the familiar feeling of disappointment over our lost moment of potential connection. I’m exhausted from needing comfort and receiving what feels like indifference. When she can finally hear and engage with me, I hope she will acknowledge that I am a good daughter.