It wasn’t her fault, really, that I was impervious to her charms. Or that she, for most of my life, seemed unimpressed by mine. We were so different, both products of our times, as well as our singular quirks and talents. I often felt as though we were mismatched, like two landmasses that don’t fit together—say, Greenland and New Jersey. Irene longed for a daughter who would be just like her: a princess to her glamour queen. But I was an arty, waifish girl who rejected the whole package. I shacked up with a stoned cowboy in hippie outposts from Boulder to British Columbia. When my man and I stayed in one place long enough to have a phone, I kept the number unlisted so she couldn’t call and tell me I was ruining my life.
That was in my twenties. By my midthirties, I had dumped the cowboy, had relocated from the woods to San Francisco with my young son, was earning a living (more or less) by my pen and had married Hugh, a man my mother approved of only grudgingly but later grew to adore. My parents were living in Florida then, and we saw one another infrequently. Within a day or two, Irene and I would start to drive each other crazy, so I kept our visits brief.
I never dreamed I would become my mother’s caregiver. My mother never dreamed that she would need a caregiver, or that my father would die and leave her to fend for herself—or, worse, leave me to fend for her.
Taking care of a sick, aging parent is not a job you can train for. The training happens on the job, by the seat of your pants, and you are always one step behind, playing catch-up to the latest crisis. The only predictable thing about the job is its unpredictability. And in my case, the stubborn resistance of the caretakee.
Irene hollered and called me a bully. She accused me of turning her into an invalid and fought me over everything: the aides, the walker, the grab bars in the shower, the little alarm button she promised to wear around her neck but left in the bathroom the night she fell and broke her hip. The clincher was when she moved, at my insistence, from Florida to a retirement place in Washington, D.C., where I live now, so that Hugh and I could look after her. Once she arrived, Irene started addressing me as Mother in a tone so sarcastic, she sounded like me dissing her when I was a teenager.
My friend Mary Pipher, the author and psychologist, once told me it’s human nature to love what—and who—we care for, but Irene? I was skeptical, to say the least. Although I never doubted that I would be a dutiful daughter, I wasn’t so sure I could let go of the defenses that since childhood had been hardening inside me like bad arteries. Compassion, yes, but love? I was determined to ease my mother’s suffering, but could I unblock my heart? I worried that I’d be an outlier, the rare exception to Mary’s Law of Human Nature.
My mother was a party animal and had been a celebrated hostess among her set in Pittsburgh, New York and Palm Beach. Although for years she’d been threatening supernatural retaliation if I dared to include her age in her obituary—if she died—I’d thrown a bash for her 93rd birthday. She hadn’t been doing well (this was shortly before the cancer diagnosis), and I was afraid that she might not see 94. But by the time 94 rolled around, her force of will seemed to have driven the cancer into retreat, so I decided to hold off on giving another party until the Big 95.
Plans were under way when the cancer finally caught up with her. Her right lung filled with fluid, and she was having trouble breathing. The pulmonologist recommended draining the fluid so she could make it to the party. The procedure nearly killed her. She begged me to cancel the event, but I refused. Family members, including my son, Clay, were flying in from around the country. Anyhow, this was Herself. The smart money said she’d rally, and sure enough, on the night of the party, the Belle of Pittsburgh showed up looking like a million bucks in the bronze silk.
I think my mother had the time of her life at that party. After the toasts, she confessed that she’d always been jealous of her own mother, envious of how much everyone who’d known Bessie had adored her. If Irene had the looks, my grandmother—also a beauty—had the charisma.