Generations gain insight from Mom's illness

July 14, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

MY MOTHER HAS been standing at the door with her handbag on her arm for a while now.

That has always been her signal, when visiting any of her four daughters, that it is time to go home.

She didn't really do that, of course -- stand by the door with her handbag resting in the crook of her arm. But that is how we described the state of mild agitation she entered not very long after a visit began.

"You know Mother," we would say to each other in a tone of voice that sounded as if we were rolling our eyes. "Dinner isn't over 10 minutes and she is standing at the door with her handbag on her arm."

And then we would laugh at this vague homing instinct in our mother that kicked in when she was too long away from her house, from "her things," as she would say.

There is no house to return to now. And my mother's "things" have been reduced to a couple of bed pillows, a favorite bedspread and a few pieces of clothing that are easy to pull on and comfortable to wear.

She is visiting one of her daughters permanently now. She cannot stand by the door without a walker, and her handbag fTC must be carried by one of her grandchildren.

My mother has settled into a life she promised herself and her daughters she would never live. A life lived with one of us.

"I know you will think I'm crazy," she says every now and again. "But I feel like I could get in my car and drive myself right home to old eighteen-eighty-two."

"You are crazy," we tell her. "You couldn't get the car door open."

My mother is angry at God, I think.

She has been standing at the door with her handbag over her arm for a while now, and he has ignored the signal that even her daughters recognized.

And now she feels she has overstayed her welcome. Her children are grown, they have married decent men and she doesn't need to worry any of them through any more pregnancies. "My job is done," she says, exasperated.

And still, God has not noticed her standing by the door.

My sister, Ellen, thinks God has other ideas. My mother laughs ruefully that Ellen is stating the obvious, but Ellen is insistent that my mother's prolonged ill health is a blessing and a great gift to us all.

Four girls so caught up in their own family lives that they could easily bury old angers and irritating differences have been required to come together and communicate in ways that have revealed the strengths of each to the other. And to the mother of us all.

My mother has seen the men her daughters married as working partners in busy and compli- cated family lives, not as lumps in her living room on a Sunday afternoon.

She has seen her daughters not as too busy for her -- just too busy, overwhelmed as they are by overcommitted schedules.

Grandchildren who have been bored and boorish during visits to Grandma have been seen in their natural habitat. There they have shown themselves to be funny or hyper or thoughtful or troubled or pleasant or a struggle to raise.

My mother has seen her grandchildren for the holograms they are: different with each angle of light that hits them, not as the spoiled fruit of overindulgence.

And those children have seen the obligations each generation has to the previous one lived out in a vivid reckoning:

This is who we are. Daughters, sisters, mothers, wives. This, not a picnic on the Fourth of July, is the working definition of family.

This matrix of caring that we have constructed is holding together at the moment, but it is very fragile and we all know it. There is no privacy in this enterprise, no time to withdraw, no quiet place to which any of us can retreat. We live every moment of every day in obligation to my mother, and she lives every moment of every day with that knowledge.

"I thought I had planned for everything," says my mother, who made us all laugh when she organized and paid for her funeral while still a busy, healthy woman. "But I never planned for this."

This part of life is far more complicated than any of us ever imagined. My mother thought -- we all thought, I guess -- that all she would have to do is stand by the door with her handbag on her arm.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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