No expiration date by Ann O’Connor Waters

In response to last weeks’s invitation to readers to submit their writings to The Candle or the Mirror blogI am delighted to share “No Expiration Date” by Kansas City area writer Ann O’Connor Waters.

In a book, I read “there’s no expiration date on motherhood” and was immediately transported back to my mother’s kitchen—a time I was home from college just visiting with my grandmother and mother. Mom, who was in her late 50s at the time and very familiar with her kitchen, went to use the garbage disposal. Her mother said, “Watch your fingers.”

I thought “Wow, I guess once a mother always a mother.”

My grandma never had a garbage disposal on the farm and she lived mentally sharp till the end at age 88. My mother has not been as fortunate. She will be 90 years old in June. I have read the statistics about a growing number of people living with the affliction of dementia.  Now, it’s personal. My siblings and I often find ourselves mothering our mother.  Growing up as one of eight children, all girls except one boy, wasn’t always easy.

As a teenager I wasn’t terribly patient with what I perceived as Mom’s flaws. Now, when she thanks me for something I’ve done for her, I tell her I’m just paying her back for all the grief I gave her as a teen, she says, “I don’t remember you giving me any grief.” Why am I reminding her?

Mom’s frugal nature played a large part in my Dad’s success in building his own business. He started his insurance agency when they already had four children and Mom was pregnant with the fifth. I can still see Mom looking through the grocery ads and making her list of where to go for the best prices. Usually that meant multiple stores. A phrase that often came out of her mouth, “save it,” might have been in regard to some freshly baked cookies, or anything that had to be stretched between all of us. Dad credited Mom with helping keep the family afloat. No doubt her practical ways played a large part in enabling them to send eight children through Catholic schools and college. I must confess, when I make chocolate chip cookies I delight knowing I can add as many chocolate chips as I want—and eat what I want. We don’t have to save them.

In our large family multi-tasking was strongly encouraged—ingrained in us. If you were on the phone for example, you were expected to be folding laundry. For years I was convinced my obituary would read something like “she died blow-drying her hair while in the shower.”

Now with my mom, we do one thing at a time—very slowly.

Growing up, I always felt closer to my Irish Dad who was more comfortable showing his emotions and sharing mine. He seemed to say the right thing at the right time. Mom never quite had that knack. For example, when my boyfriend (now my husband) and I broke up, I was sobbing melodramatically across my bed when Mom came in and pulled out every cliché in the book. “There are other fish in the sea…” Her hands didn’t soothe me; instead she dusted my room. I ended up feeling sorry for her and said, “Gee thanks Mom, I feel so much better.” She gladly left the room.

When I was in the hospital in labor with my second son, perhaps in an effort to make conversation, Mom looked at the fetal monitor and asked, “Do they worry when it’s a flat line?”

One time, hoping to get insight into her feelings, maybe looking for a warm fuzzy word, I said, “You couldn’t have been thrilled every time you found out you were pregnant?” She paused and answered, “Oh I just figured, what’s one more?” For Mother’s Day I sent her flowers with a card saying “Thanks for not stopping at five.”  I was the sixth child.

Now, when it comes to communicating with Mom, I try to remember Fr. Mike’s words, “Meet people where they are.” In some ways, dealing with her is very similar to dealing with a toddler. My siblings and I find ourselves distracting her when she obsesses on one subject, being firm yet gentle when she resists something like showering or getting ready for bed and occasionally we bribe her. The other day when I was taking a shirt off over Mom’s head, I said, “Let’s skin the rabbit” just the way she did when she undressed me as a little girl. As Mom struggles to do things like getting into the car to go on a drive, she says “I can do it” with the strong willed voice of a two-year-old. At church, rather than let a lay minister bring communion to her, something they gladly do for many, Mom insists on walking up the aisle leaning on one of her children’s arms.

Things have come full circle:  I think of how she watched us grow; now, we’re watching her shrink (She wonders why her dresses are getting longer.); she taught us to drive; we had to take her driving privileges away; she will sometimes repeat the same story over and over; and I remind myself that I begged her to re-read my favorite story when I was a small child. The woman who taught me to cook can’t remember how to scramble an egg. Although Mom still seems to know my siblings and me, she sometimes refers to us as her “friends” or “those nice ladies that come to visit me.”

Mom has mellowed considerably.  I hope I have too. I spend every Thursday with her cherishing our time and learning lessons from dementia:  selective memory is not a bad thing; multi-tasking is over-rated; perhaps we should treat our family members at least as well as we do our friends; and slowing down and leaning on a loved one’s arm can be a pretty good way to walk through the world.

And, there’s no expiration date on daughterhood.

1 Comment

  1. Julie
    May 3, 2013

    I am so grateful to Ann, a high school friend who was in my wedding when I was eighteen years-old, for submitting this moving piece about a mother-daughter relationship. Dealing with a loved one who has dementia is something I’ve experienced with my mother-in-law. Likely, other readers can relate. To share our stories, somehow seems to help.

    I especially liked: the scene of mother dusting as Ann sobbed, the humor in the Mother’s Day card (not stopping at five), and the struggle of current life shown in the specific care-giving routines. The tenderness and loss that I felt with the last sentence, “there is no expiration date on daughterhood” moved me to tears. Good tears.

    It is so amazing to have friends and readers who live miles away, touching our lives with their words. Thank you.

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