She was a slim, pretty redhead who called herself a princess but came from humble origins. Her parents were poor, uneducated Jewish immigrants from a Polish country village. They and their children spoke Yiddish in their Bronx tenement apartment. Her amiable but careworn father washed storefront windows for a living. Her stern, little mother, trapped as an unhappy wife and homemaker, lashed out at her three children. My mother, the youngest, felt neglected because her disabled brother and popular sister garnered most of the attention. But my mother had unquestioned smarts and drive, excelling at school. She entered City College of New York in 1946 at the age of 16—one of only a handful of women in a class of thousands of war-hardened, returning GI Joes—and became a teacher and an accountant. She benefitted from American meritocracy, escaping the Bronx for Queens and then the suburbs, and later, South Florida, vaulting into the upper middle class and beyond.
But her early years had left her with a gnawing sense of economic and emotional deprivation. This was compounded by real hardships. Her first husband, a boy from down the block, left her for another woman after my mother had supported him through medical school. Her second husband (my father) died from brain cancer when she was only 43. Her third husband was a Korean War vet with PTSD. Despite how far she’d come, her standing in life always felt precarious to her. As time went on, she dressed better and better (designer silk blouses and dress pants), was more coiffed (brightly dyed bouffant hair and polished nails), and bedecked herself with more gold jewelry (necklaces, rings, and earrings)—all means, perhaps, to make herself feel more secure. But she never received all the comfort and distinction she felt she was due.
If life felt like a disappointment to her, then I only added to it. An early Super 8 film shows me as a toddler, chortling with laughter, as I ran away from her in a supermarket and she chased me in anger. I had my own smarts and excelled in school, but never quite conformed to the shining and obedient child she thought she deserved. I was an undiagnosed ADD kid—sloppy and dreamy. Where she thrived in social circles, I was the shy boy who withdrew, much to her irritation. I didn’t aspire to become a physician or a lawyer. I didn’t place family togetherness above all else. I wasn’t thankful enough for all she did for me. We argued a lot during my adolescent years, and then settled into a distant relationship when I went away to college and made my life afterward far away from her.
Nothing about this is unusual for many mother–son relationships. We spent decades seeing each other infrequently and not knowing one another as adults. But then old age hit.
When my mother called me each week from her gated Florida golf community, I noted a growing anxiety in her tone as she complained about my stepfather’s forgetfulness and confusion—early symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia. I offered my help as an expert on family caregiving, but my mother scoffed at the notion she needed assistance. Then she surprised me by calling me while I was at work one day to ask, “Can you send me $30,000 right away?” I was aghast. They’d enjoyed the high life, travelling the world, leasing new cars every two years. Now the story came out. They’d taken two mortgages on the condo, had run up their credit card balances, and were more than $200,000 in debt. In the struggle to meet her bills, she was depleting her meager savings. I didn’t send her the money but flew down to set her up with a bankruptcy attorney. Their house of cards had collapsed, and she felt humiliated and wronged by misfortune.
Those were the trying circumstances under which my mother, at 80, and me, at 52, began to grapple with one another as adults, and we were often at odds. In her mind, I was supposed to support her exalted view of herself by helping to pay for it, while I was appalled by her disregard for how her overspending affected others, including my family. I couldn’t bring myself to empathize with the small, needy girl behind her outsized desires.
As I helped pack up her condo to move her and my stepfather into an apartment a mile from my Pennsylvania home, I was shocked to find a full rack of expensive blouses and slacks that still bore price tags. But rather than recognize her shopaholism as a symptom of the emptiness she felt, especially caring for a husband with dementia, I lit into her profligacy. Her fall in status and new dependence on me were hard enough, but my condemnation—kicking her when she was down—made her livid. She took her own shots in response. When she arrived in the tidy apartment my wife and I had purchased for them, she pronounced it just like the homely Bronx tenement from which she’d spent most of her life trying to distance herself.
Over the following years, I played the dutiful caregiving son, taking them to doctor’s offices and supermarkets, museums and restaurants. My stepfather eventually went into a nursing home, where he died, and my mother lived in the apartment alone. But there was no joy in being together while living in the same community as her for the first time in more than 30 years. Instead, there was constant underlying tension about money.
My mother would rise late each day and then, with stylish clothes and perfect hair, go into our town’s commercial center to buy lunch for herself and her aide. Later, after I’d found out about that, I’d become aggravated with her for frittering away her scant money. She’d look at me in sour silence. When I’d press her, she’d blurt out, “I gotta live!” as if that were explanation enough. When I’d respond in anger, telling her she was still living in her fantasy world of ease, she’d dismiss me with “I’m too old to change.”
A cousin to whom I described these impasses advised me to resign myself to just letting her spend the way she wanted. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. I worried about her bills because she wouldn’t. There was also too much at stake for me emotionally. She may have felt entitled to a grand lifestyle, but I felt entitled to a less solipsistic mother—one who relished, not hated, my help.
We battled in person and behind each other’s backs. I went to her dry cleaners and hairdresser to tell them she was broke and couldn’t afford their services, and I begged the home health agency to stop its aides from lunching with my mother. I found out later that she was hocking her remaining gold jewelry to continue to have pocket cash for clandestine shopping and nice meals. To her, I was a controlling tormentor. To me, she was a selfish ingrate.
If my mother had died at that point, five years into our caregiving journey together, then I’d have been forever bitter toward her. But her continued physical and cognitive decline, which now took a decided turn, created tragedy and opportunity for us. In what seemed a matter of months, she could no longer safely organize her pill box or remember our arguments from one day to the next. She began to fall in her apartment—where her aides would find her splayed on the carpet when they arrived—and in the street, breaking her tailbone and bruising her head. Living was becoming hazardous for her. In 2015, she was hospitalized three times for injuries and changes in mental status. We couldn’t afford to have someone stay with her round-the-clock, and neither she nor I wanted her to move into my house. I felt constantly anxious and guilty.
Then my mother did me a favor that still stuns me: she opted to move into a nursing home. It was a Jewish facility where she could speak Yiddish and eat kosher food like her mother had served. She made it clear that this was her gift to me so I wouldn’t feel so burdened by caring for her any more. A month later, however, she hated the food, the boredom, and the constant din of dementia patients, and wanted to move back into the apartment. Fearful she’d just resume falling, I said no. She fumed. But from that point forward, something changed in our relationship.
Freed from having to police her spending and safeguard her health, I was able to relax and just be her adult son in a way I’d never experienced. Even when she complained about the nursing home in an accusatory tone, I could hear her suffering without feeling responsible and defensive about it and could respond gently. Though her love of jewelry had always struck me as vain, I now found it touching that she wore bracelets and necklaces made of beads she’d strung at an arts-and-crafts session. After three months in the nursing home, she noticed I’d changed and said, “I don’t understand why you’re being so nice to me now.” I answered, “Because you aren’t in a position to defy and hurt me any longer.” She stared at me and slowly nodded.
Every weekend, I drove the hour-and-a-half round trip to the nursing home to lunch with her. There was little substantial conversation—my mother and I never learned to talk deeply with one another—but we sat in her bedroom or the unit sunroom eating sandwiches and then looking at photo albums of her past trips to Thailand, France, and Argentina, or at pictures of my grown kids on my phone. I’d push her in her wheelchair to sit by the flower garden near the back patio or roll along the paths of the lovely grounds. She couldn’t walk, talk, or think the way she wanted, and she was very unhappy. I felt for her. We were both witnessing the spectacle of her dying a little at a time, and it seemed to wipe away our previous conflicts. She took solace from my empathy. One day, while in the elevator on the way back to her room, she suddenly grabbed and squeezed my hand in a small, tender gesture. I took it to mean thank you for being here, but also we’ve been through a lot and have reached a better place, as well as wordless acknowledgement that she was moving toward the end.
A year and a half after the move to the nursing home, I received a call while I was giving a lecture on family caregiving on the other side of the state: my mother was in and out of a coma. As I drove for six hours to be with her, I reflected on our flawed relationship. When I arrived, she was lying in her bed with gaping mouth and eyelids shut. I called to her and she opened her fog-bound eyes briefly before shutting them again. I positioned myself in front of her and called her loudly again. When she opened her eyes and looked at me, seeming to recognize me this time, I told her I forgave her for things she’d done to hurt me and asked for her forgiveness for hurtful things I’d done. I expressed regret that we hadn’t found a way to be closer. She held my gaze a moment longer and then shut her eyes again. A few hours later, she took two last short breaths and died.
I’m troubled by many of my memories of my mother, the mismatch in our styles and convictions, and our inability to understand one another better. But I’m also grateful for the time we had to try, especially through her dementia and dying. Love, I learned, isn’t about agreement. It’s about connecting on that most elemental level: being there, accepting, a nod, a squeeze of the hand.
Barry Jacobs, PsyD, is the director of behavioral sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program, the author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers, and coauthor with Julia Mayer of AARP Meditations for Caregivers. He’s on the Caregiver Advisory Panel and writes a monthly column for AARP.org. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Illustration © Adam Niklewicz