July 24th of this year was the 19th anniversary of the day of my son was born. It would be impossible to forget that day because on that day, I received the greatest gift possible: a beautiful, healthy, baby boy. The love I feel for my baby son is unlike any other that I have ever experienced. I still remember the moment when I first saw his tiny face, a carbon copy of my dad’s. The thrill, the joy, the excitement, the relief, the exhaustion-mothers feel many things right after birth. It’s indescribable. My son is my joy, my life, my gift to the world.
The days surrounding Jeremy’s birth were also the days of the beginnings of my mother’s journey into her new worlds, the worlds of epilepsy and, I now believe, dementia. What should have been, for me, a wondrous, restful time of bonding with my newborn was suddenly the opposite. Instead of snuggling with and gazing at my baby at home, I was forced to turn my attention to my mother to address her needs and offer her support.
Jeremy was born on a Monday. The Friday before, my mother experienced her first seizure and was wandering around Greenwich Village, trying to find her way to St. Vincent’s Hospital, the same place I would give birth a few days later. I was home drinking castor oil, trying to hasten the onset of my labor. I was ten days past my due date and the midwives were eager for Jeremy to be born. My mother found her way back to her doctor’s office on 11th Street and revealed that she could not remember his instructions, where to go and whom to see at the hospital. Her kind doctor then walked her to the ER himself where she was seen and released with an appointment to see a neurologist. Post dictal, (bewildered and dysfunctional) she was in no condition to care for two year-old Elsa, which had been our plan. My cousin and her nurse-friend, Carla, reluctantly called me and together we arranged for my mother’s cousin, Evelyn, a retired physician, to come to NY from Philadelphia to care for both Elsa and my mother.
I remember my astonishment upon hearing the news that my mother was confused and disoriented at the same time that I was about to give birth. I have to admit, I was furious with her ruining my delivery, for causing me stress, and for once again upstaging me and channeling everyone’s support and attention from me to her at this very special time. I was angry with her for allowing her nerves to get the better of her to the point where she literally fell apart. She was engulfed in worry about my baby and me and all of the many things that she feared could go wrong with my delivery rather than believing that all things could and would go well and that she could, instead, be confident and supportive of me, my capacity to take care of myself, my ability to give birth for a second time, my midwives’ ability to deliver one more healthy baby and the ability of my husband to make sure that everything went smoothly.
During the weekend, Evelyn came, Elsa was cared for, my mother began to recover and Jeremy was born naturally in the early afternoon on Monday. We were discharged from the hospital on Wednesday morning.
Thursday afternoon, I sat in the office of my mother’s first neurologist, Dr. Garafolo, with my mother, cradling three-day old Jeremy in my arms. No one could believe we were there, how young he was and how crazy it was to have him out so soon.
This was the beginning of my dual caregiver role: mother and daughter. Since that time, I have felt I have had to split my energy and concern between my children and my mother. It didn’t feel good to me. My job, as a mother, I believed, was to give my kids my full attention and energy. But, with my mother, that has never been possible. To be honest, I felt that my mother took advantage of me, manipulated me and allowed me to feel guilty if I wasn’t attentive enough. Ever since that day in Dr. Garafolo’s office, I feel I have had the life sucked out of me (the Dementor effect) because of my overwhelming sense of obligation to fill the role that my father’s sudden death in 1983 left vacant. My mother was never able to recover, restart, reboot and re-gather in her hands of the reins of her life. She grieved continuously, she was chronically depressed, she was lost and she couldn’t get back on track. Plus, I always felt the eyes of her sister and two cousins on my shoulder, peering disapprovingly at me from long distances, because I didn’t do enough, visit enough, care for enough or fulfill enough my mother’s emotional needs.
It was not until much later, much too much later really, that I figured out that it was not my job to make my mother happy. For one, I was failing miserably and she was always unhappy regardless, and, at the same time, I was miserable and I was making my husband and children miserable, too. Gradually, I decided that I would like to be happy, that life is good and I have a lot to be grateful for. I began trying to see the bright side of things and face each challenge or setback as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Eventually, I began the work of detaching from my mother, little by little. I called less frequently, I visited less often, and I began making family decisions without consulting her and began doing things with my family that she did not approve of, like traveling to Africa. I stopped allowing her negativity affect my life and my choices. Feeling freer of her, I began to notice little fun and beautiful things in the world that I appreciated and which made me happy. I saw large ladies doing yoga in Prospect Park one morning, I noticed the color of the lake water against the sky, and I observed flocks of birds calling as they flew in formation. It sounds really corny, but I began to feel a rebirth in a sense, a feeling of being released from an emotional prison, separated from someone who only saw doom and gloom, and I began to feel a new sense of glee and appreciation for life. Of course, guilt is often sprinkled in and among my new feelings, but I guess, being me, a female, that is unavoidable. In some ways, we are programmed to experience guilty feelings whenever we take the initiative to take care of ourselves before someone else.
I am embarrassed to say how very recently my detachment occurred.
I long to retrieve the many evenings I spent on the phone with my mother, listening to her drone on and on, dwelling on the impossible-ness of her situation and sadness, evenings I could have and should have been helping with homework, snuggling with my kids, reading stories or singing bedtime songs. But dwelling on those choices and mistakes would mean repeating her pattern-obsessing over my regrets. Hey, I did the best I could to be a good daughter and a great mother. In my next life, I’ll do better.
And, with all of these recent posts about my mother and her dementia, how detached am I really?