My mother has lived with our family since 2000 when we moved to our current home in Colorado. I thank God everyday for my husband’s tolerance that has allowed this to be our family’s reality. I pray regularly for patience and tolerance with regard to living with my 84-year old mother.
There are days when I wish I hadn’t invited Mom to live with us, because our lives would be very different in many ways that are more suited to our likes and dislikes. For one, I’d have control of my kitchen, which is a source of constant irritation to me when I’m being totally honest. Most of the time, I sublimate, and I’ve gotten good at it. It is the dutiful thing to do. I had chosen the words “Duty and Sacrifice Beyond Reproach” for my father’s columbarium marker, and I suspect his example holds me in thrall.
Mom had been living in San Diego, California, from whence she complained for several years at me by phone. I dreaded picking up the phone and hearing Mom’s complaints of being lonely and not having an appetite. Whether the complaints were true or not, they served the purpose of making me feel guilty and manipulating me into actions that Mom wanted. As the eldest child growing up with two younger brothers, Mom used guilt as the preferred means to control my rebellious nature. Other threats, including physical ones, didn’t seem to work on me.
Mom had originally moved to San Diego to spend time with my nephew, then 5 years old, because my youngest brother had died after a swift decline from cancer. It was a significant sacrifice for Mom, selling her restaurant, giving up her house, and leaving the place where she had lived for 43 years, but she did it without looking back. I’ve always admired that about her. But by age 12, my nephew had his own life after school and didn’t need a doting grandmother to oversee his everyday activities. She had become superfluous.
Mom has survived Dad by almost 25 years and been a wily and steely-spined eldest sister to three sisters and three brothers while also self-employed as a restaurateur. She and Dad sponsored eleven people from Hong Kong, who, in turn, sponsored the rest of the clan to immigrate to the U.S. In accordance with Chinese tradition, Mom has gloried in her role as matriarch. She and Dad sacrificed a lot for the family. Mom has earned respect and demanded obeisance. Not every sibling has been duly cowed. Several siblings have been major disappointments, lacking character.
My surviving brother and I have resisted the cultural memes that would have placed cataracts on our psyches with regard to viewing Mom for who she is and who she isn’t. We mean no disrespect, but we also cannot acquiesce to carrying collective grievances of which we have no part and deem wrong on so many levels. We've worked hard in our adulthoods to become self-differentiated people.
Over the years, Mom has attempted, unsuccessfully, to drag my brother and me into family feuds that are often centered on the daughters-in-law of the multiple generations in our large extended family. A daughter can be loved for who she is as an individual even while her gender casts her into a secondary family role. But a daughter-in-law is not so easily accepted or loved, because she isn’t “real” family and is, after all, only a female. (Pause for a big sigh as I’m writing this.)
I’ve said it before over the years, and I’m finding myself having to say it again to my mother that I’m not getting in the middle of these petty grievances which get expressed in long-suffering and self-denying behaviors. My brother, who moved in with us a year-and-a-half ago, isn’t getting in the middle either. We know that calls for reason have no traction in conversations that are about being right and feeling wronged.
It’s not easy living with someone who’s entered into the final years of life, where life is full of fears once again, and remembrances of losses. Some of the losses are of physical faculties that I am still young enough at age 63 to take for granted, like stamina and night vision.
I understand the very human need to make a stand and hang onto one’s gradually slipping sense of self. If you don’t stand up for yourself, even when you’re wrong, then how will people know that you’re still here, that you still matter. How will you recognize yourself?
I understand the selfishness that arises out of ego-needs that aren’t being met in other ways like gainful employment or useful contributions to the ones you love. It’s a lot like the grasping of little children who haven’t yet learned how to wait their turn and who fear that their turn will never come. For elders, the fear is that they won’t be here when their turn finally arrives.
So, this is what I know. I know that I am not my mother’s mother. I cannot intercede and make things right for Mom. That’s not my role or responsibility. I cannot explain her motivations to others. She must do that for herself and deal with her own emotions while interacting with others. I cannot make excuses for my mother. She must be accountable for her own words and actions. And all of this is hard for both Mom and for me.