Mom: The Last Lesson

My mom is dying. Well, she’s been dying for the past 13 years, but this is really it. Since she’s had Alzheimer’s, despite countless pleas to get some help, my father’s been taking care of her at home. Last week she lost the use of her legs and he finally decided to put her in a nursing home. She was pretty far gone for a long time before this, but my father finally gave in and agreed to spend money on her care.

 There was so much she missed during the last 13 years. I got married and had a daughter. I bought my first house. I published magazine articles. When I was little and I used to show her what I wrote, she’d say, “Maybe you’ll be an author.” I think she’d like it if she knew I was writing a book. I know she’d hate that she’s in it.

She couldn’t see any of those rites of passage and achievements. I saw her, though. I saw her get worse and worse. And now it’s coming to an end, which is good for her, really, but I will never see her again. When I became a mom, I wish she could have told me what I was like as a baby. I wish she could have seen Rose and told me how much she was like me. I wish Rose had known what it was to have a Yaya, and I wish my mom had known that she became one. I wish I could ask her things that only she would remember. Like the stories about the Hollywood Restaurant her family had owned in New York. Like how to say this or that in Greek. Like why they gave me that awful haircut when I was five. But I will never get those answers. It’s been that way for eight years. Why is the finality of death so different?

 I think it’s different because I never had a specific time to grieve. When she was first diagnosed, I was sad but that was the time to research the disease, see what to expect and what could be done. And as she deteriorated and I knew she wouldn’t be able to understand much longer, it was time to apologize for all the times I’d wronged her. And then it was time to monitor her descent into oblivion. I’d get weekly “progress” reports from my father. And then she didn’t know me anymore and it was time to accept the disease for what it was, and help her to get dressed and go to the ladies room. After that it was time to watch her slowly slip away. Now it’s time to plan for the end – helping my father make arrangements, telling her family and finding someone to babysit when we’re at the services. And when she dies, that’s when it’ll be time to feel the loss and the sorrow and the pain, all at once, but finally, it will be my time to cry. I’m not looking forward to it but I think that will be one element of the relief that I’ll finally be able to feel what my heart has suffered for the last 13 years.

 It will still feel like a great loss. She was the parent I got along with. Although her quirks frustrated me, she was the one whose company I enjoyed. She took me shopping and bought me the best wardrobe in my high school. When I was in college, she’d slip me cash every time I saw her. All through school, she’d entertain my imagination with custom-made Halloween costumes. We’d stay up late sewing and fitting those costumes every Halloween Eve and I’d go to school tired, but I hardly noticed because of all the attention that those outfits commanded. She would watch TV with me and complain that on the rare instances that she watched that particular show, she’d always see a rerun. She said it about every show we watched.

 When I got my driver’s license, she’d let me drive but she’d suck air every time another car passed us. It certainly didn’t help me concentrate. She believed she walked on the precipice between life and death every second of her life. When she let me drive her to White Plains, N.Y. to go shopping, I popped in a Van Halen tape and when the drum solo at the start of “Hot for Teacher” began to thump, she shrieked, “WHAT’S THAT? IS IT THE TIRES??” When we’d listen to the radio on snowy winter mornings and she heard a forecast below freezing, she’d scream at my father, “JIM! It’s gonna ICE UP! Did you hear that? It’s gonna ICE UP!!” Inclement weather didn’t bother my father but to my mom, ice on the roads meant a motorized Iditarod and imminent death to anyone who dared accept the frozen challenge. She told me that men hid in the bushes waiting to pounce on  every passerby so I was terrified of every shrub in the neighborhood. 

 And it turns out that like most worry, hers was for nothing. She thought her demise would be quick and preventable but instead she’s enduring a slow, lingering death over which she had no control. I wish I could say that her beliefs led her to live her life as if every day were her last but she mostly cowered in the corner, so concerned about what might happen next that she never even noticed what she had in the moment. And I guess that’s what I need to take away from this experience. I wish I could tell you I didn’t internalize her beliefs but the minute I have something to lose, I start to think about ways I could suddenly lose it. I worried my baby would die of SIDS. I worry that my husband will die in a plane crash on a business trip. I worry that I’ll get carpal tunnel syndrome. But I need to stop focusing on that and enjoy what I have while I have it. I don’t know what my future holds. Nobody does. I don’t know if I’ll enjoy an old age. So I’ve got to make sure I keep my eye on today, appreciate everything that it brings, and fully expect that there will be a tomorrow.


Buffing With Social Turtle Wax

This morning the supermarket bagger offered to help load our groceries in the car. She pushed the cart out to the parking lot; I pointed to and unlocked the SUV, lifted the hatch. And there they were, sitting in a corner on the tailgate: two dirty diapers. I know she noticed them. She must have. She had to arrange the bags around them. She finished loading. I thanked her, strapped my daughter into the car and she took the cart away. I got in the car thinking it was impossible not to peg me as a disgusting pig with two old diapers just sitting in my cargo space. But, after about 30 seconds, I switched my attention to finding the perfect song on the radio, and the shame was gone.

There’s a special kind of social Turtle Wax that comes with being a mother. Once you have a kid, all kinds of previously-toxic judgments bead up on your skin and roll right off you. I think it’s something about having our hands in diapers five times a day and carrying a howling child through Target that buffs us up.

 I knew why the diapers were there. Sometimes when we’re out in the world, I’ll change my daughter’s diaper on the tailgate. It’s much easier than using those well-intentioned changing stations in the ladies’ rooms, and, when those don’t exist, it beats changing her on a bathroom floor whose bacterial content I can only imagine. The tailgate is spacious and stable, and I don’t have to work around a safety belt or risk a skull-fracturing fall. (I know you’re wondering about my hands. I carry hand sanitizer for occasions such as these, then I wash as soon as I can. I’m really not a pig.) Sometimes when I change her on the tailgate I am not near a garbage can. I wrap the diapers over themselves and tape them closed, and I leave them in the cargo space until we can throw them out at home. And to paraphrase my daughter’s potty training book, sometimes Mommy forgets. As was the case this morning.

 I didn’t worry about what the bagger thought for very long because being a mother is hard. “What does that have to do with it?” you may ask. Honestly? Everything. When it takes a half hour to just get out of the house because you have to change a diaper, fight to get the little nudist’s pants on, pack the diaper bag, make sure there are enough snacks, pack milk and a freezer pack to keep it cold, put on her shoes and your shoes and both  jackets, carry everyone and everything to the car, dump the stuff and strap her in, you prioritize things differently. All the mom stuff comes first, and however you do it is fine, as long as it gets done and nobody gets hurt. That is why it’s acceptable to me to drive around with dirty diapers in the cargo space.

If getting out of the house sounds hard, you should know that just saying “strap her in” is glossing over an excruciating process. If you’ve ever strapped a toddler into a car seat, you will understand why so many people get arrested for leaving their kids in the car. It’s not safe and kids can get hurt or killed and I certainly don’t advocate it, but I can see how tempting it is, especially when they think the kids will be OK.  

Just the thought of doing the car seat shuffle again after two errand stops makes me forego that Immodium I so desperately need until I can handle the whole routine again. Like I said, your priorities change. And it’s not that I’m lazy. That’s not it at all. My daughter finds the car seat shuffle as intolerable as I do. I plan all of my errands around what she will tolerate. I know that sounds like she’s the boss but this practice is all about me. If she is not amenable to getting in and out of the car, she will cry, scream, scratch, slap, kick and arch her back so I have to force her into the seat and the straps. I fantasize about a world where everything is available at the drive through. I have paid double for coffee beans at the Starbucks drive through because it was preferable to taking her out of and putting her back in the car. But until my drive-through world becomes a reality, unless I want to force a screaming child into a car seat in a crowded parking lot, I have to plan around her. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about her tantrums; it’s that I worry about well-meaning strangers calling social services.

And that’s where buffing with social Turtle Wax comes in. Once you’ve done it nine or ten times, dealing with a shrieking, writhing child in public isn’t embarrassing anymore. The stares and comments from strangers just bead up and roll off your skin. By then, it’s just another part of the motherhood routine.


Mom’s Piano Lessons: The Legacy

I got a note from one of our old neighbors. She wanted to say how much my mom’s piano lessons inspired her. She pursued a career in classical piano and she owns a music school, teaching 75 kids a week. She wanted me to tell my mom how much she’d influenced her and asked if she could get in touch. 

Wow, my mom inspired someone. She influenced the whole direction of someone’s life, and she’ll never know it. I could tell her, but she wouldn’t hear me. She sits at the table every day now, asleep most of the time and dead to the world when she’s awake. The Alzheimer’s started about 12 years ago. At first, she would forget little things, like whether she’d already written something down, then big things, like how to drive, and, as the years went by, it just got worse. Now she can’t acknowledge anyone or anything, and my father tends to her the best he can, maintaining the “life” she has left.

Reading that note made me cry. Here was someone who could say my mom shaped her life and she can’t even tell her. Most kids go to piano lessons begrudgingly, as one more childhood chore to endure. But every once in a while, my mom would get a student who loved the piano and we’d hear about this kid all the time. I don’t remember most of them because the stars were always shining examples to my tarnished one. I quit piano, my first act of rebellion, at nine years old. She’d talk about her virtuoso students, but my mom never believed they would make piano their lives. She knew that the vast majority of her students would play piano as a social accessory, to bring merriment to parties and local tap rooms. But if she knew one of her students built a life around the piano, she’d finally get the validation she needed.

My mother, like most pianists, learned to play as a girl. She fell in love with it and was talented enough to earn an opportunity to play on the radio, but her father forbade it. She never told me the reason, and I’m not sure he gave one. I suspect it’s because he wanted his girls to grow up and marry nice Greek men, without the complications of a music career. My Mom did find a Greek man to marry, but by that time, she had taught music at an elementary school and given her own piano lessons. When she and my father moved away from the city, she continued giving lessons to kids most afternoons. She even taught my first-grade teacher. She kept the books on the backs of index cards and got paid mostly in cash. My old-fashioned father didn’t mind the job because she brought more money into the house, but I never heard him ask her to play for him. Sometimes she’d play for herself and sometimes I’d listen. The Fur Elise was my favorite. Other times, she’d play because she was mad. Always classical music. And always powerful. She played loud and fast, hitting the pedal to make her point. And no one ever heard.  

Now I found out there was someone out there who would have loved to listen, who thought my mom had the best job in the world and maintained fond memories of piano lessons. I can’t express how much I wish my mom could hear that, but because of her horrible disease she never will. I can only hope that at the time, she saw all the enjoyment and wonder in that little girl’s eyes and she was able to take it with her wherever she is now.


Resurrecting the Heavy Metal Goddess

Say what you want about hair bands — the ridiculously big hair, spandex pants, the sinister facades — Rock & Roll of that era empowered me. At the time, I fit right into the persona of the heavy metal chick. Painfully disturbed, volatile, passionate. I love the leopard print and leather-clad girl who frequented the Tampa clubs in the early 90s. She had everything to live for and a lot to live down. Maybe that’s why I watch Bon Jovi and Poison videos now when I want to feel sexy. That girl was hot. Long dark, curly, Dep-ridden hair, dark skin, curves, and man could she dance! Twenty pounds lighter and I could have crawled across a sports car in a Whitesnake video. And men NOTICED me. Much to my dismay few approached and even fewer bought me drinks, but when I ran my eyes over the room, I caught theirs running over me. All eyes would eventually rest on my roommate’s huge boobs but I still commanded significant market share. I’d like to think that they didn’t approach me because I was intimidatingly beautiful, but it’s more likely that they saw that volatility in my disturbed eyes.

Back then, guys were hot! I’m all for short haircuts as guys age but to this day, nothing turns me on like the heavy metal gods did at their peak. But it’s not them, it’s me. Seeing them channels desirable Maria, 20-year-old Maria, the Maria who turned heads. My social psych professor once told our class, “This is the best you’re ever gonna look.” He was right, but it was more than just youth, as he inferred. It was the stress of a midterm versus the stress of a pissed-off boss. It was immersion in a culture of fun, where we were surrounded by people our own age. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we would never again be blessed like that. It was the belief that we could do and be anything, before time and reality took over.

When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a rock star. I said it tongue in cheek but I wonder what would have happened if I really pursued a dream instead of just getting a job. Maybe I would’ve realized I was a writer sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have wasted my time failing at jobs that were wrong for me. Maybe I’d have published that book by now. The few years after college were what smothered desirable, ambitious Maria. Once I worked at a few regular jobs, the thought of chasing a dream became a ridiculous proposition. I had bills, I had responsibilities. Besides, that’s what people do. They grow up. They get jobs.

Back then, life was about possibilities. And metal in those days brought out everything in me that believed in them. Now, life is about the choices we’ve made. Some were good, some were bad, but we live with them nonetheless. Possibilities aren’t off the table; it’s just that now they always seem to involve more responsibility whereas the possibilities back then seemed to involve significantly less. Back then, I wanted to live in an apartment at the beach. Now, I live in a house in a nice suburb. Back then, I wanted a career before children. Now my child comes before my career. Back then, I wanted to play the field. Now I want to stay married forever. And none of the new stuff is bad, it’s just different. But back then, we thought it would never happen. We weren’t like the boomers who became yuppies. We were cool and angry and tough, and we would stay young forever. I must admit it’s hard for me to believe how old I am, sometimes. I mean, I never thought about turning 40, at least until my late 30s, but it came and went and now I’m just getting older every day.

But you know what? The other day I was at a Kenny Chesney concert, of all places, and they were playing AC/DC before Chesney came on, and I jumped up and danced. Not like the post-baby-bodied mom I am now, but like the curvy, sexy girl I once was. Even though there were a thousand people behind me who could see my big breeder’s butt, I shook it like I did in the old days. And during that dance, I was back. I was sexy Maria once again. I made up my mind that when I play those old videos now, I won’t stay on the couch. I’ll get up and shake my thing and not only will I get some much-needed exercise; maybe I can get in touch with that sexy girl again. And I promised myself I’d channel her at every opportunity. When I strap my daughter in the car seat and crank up the engine, I’ll hit Hair Nation on the radio, and, as I pull my sensible SUV out of the garage, you’ll see me, banging my head and shaking out the old married woman to make room for the heavy metal goddess I once was.


Traveling is Hell

Traveling is hell. Especially when it’s not me. It’s my husband’s traveling that kills me. He goes off on a business trip, stays in a room with daily maid service, eats out with people and comes back to the room where, choreless, he can watch TV and go to bed. I stay home, work, try to take off early so I can get some me time during my toddler’s nap, feed her when she wakes up, run errands or entertain her all afternoon, make dinner, eat silently with her, get her ready for bed, read a few books, put her to bed and go to sleep. And he wonders why I hate his business trips. The worst part is that he will never understand what it’s like to be home without him. When he’s here, he plays with her when he gets home, gets her ready for bed and reads to her. Not a lot of work but definitely a big help. He also does dishes. And, I feel like a 50s housewife when I say this, he breaks up my day. He’s my best friend and I look forward to seeing him. Without him, 6:30 just comes and goes, with TV reruns the only thing left before I escape into dreams.

 

He will never get the opportunity to know how I feel because I’m too worried that he’d snap if I left him alone with our daughter for a few days. Because he would. After two hours, he’s yelling at her to shut up and telling her Mommy went away because she was bad. Once I’m back he does a couple of shots of tequila and retreats to the garage to “Get some stuff done because I can’t do anything with her.”  Duh. And I explain to him that he has to learn to do things with her around in case I get hit by a bus. But I’m sure he would just find another wife, just in time to make dinner and change her poopy diaper. The other reason is that he wouldn’t stand for it. It’s not that he’s the boss of me; it’s that it wouldn’t be worth enduring the ensuing complaints once I announced my intent.

 

I’ve lost three holiday weekends this year and expect to lose a few more. For some reason, every trip this year has stolen one day of a holiday weekend from us, one paid holiday that I will never get back. I would hate to be that dedicated to my job, but I guess I’m grateful he is. I reap the benefits of the pros, but unfortunately bear the brunt of the cons. 

 

I cope with the traveling by over scheduling. I’ve planned play dates, club meetings and doctor’s appointments to fill up every afternoon. It’s dinner that’s going to kill me. I love talking with my daughter but dinner conversation gets a little old when it’s limited to “Stop banging your fork! We don’t do that! Put it down! I said put it down! Now! Ok, no more food.” I told my husband we’re going to call him during dinner so he can help me get through. We’ll put the phone in his place on speaker and he can tell our daughter to stop banging her fork. I will tell him about everything I did that day all by myself. I’ll tell him he’s the first grownup voice I’ve heard all day. I’ll tell him how tired I am. And it’ll be excruciatingly boring. And maybe, for those 20 minutes, he’ll understand, maybe just a little, what it’s like for me when he’s gone.