I sat down at the computer this morning to write about poetry. “They’ve had enough,” I thought to myself, “I need to write about something other than my mother, the hospital, my thrawn, tired, pathetic, disconnected life.” I even took, and uploaded a picture of my most beloved, tattered book of poems to put at the top of the post. I took the dogs out, fed them, and opened the front door to let in the relatively cool morning air. I made a pot of coffee, talked to Rob who is starting his working day in another state, and texted Sam, who is at his cousin’s house, undoubtedly still asleep. Like a cartoon pianist, I interlaced my fingers and extended my arms, warming up my typing hands. The phone rang, as I had known, in some recess of my soul, that it would. There is no free pass, quite yet.
It was my father, groggy, still half asleep and gravel-voiced. He had gotten a call at midnight, he said, from my mother. He hadn’t had his hearing aids in, but he thought that the call had been placed by a nurse and that maybe my mother had fallen. He told me that when my mother was given the phone she had talked for ten minutes about how awful he was, how awful I was, and how we were trying to control her and ruin her life. This is par for the course at the moment, but no easier for being the status quo.
She’s been through this before; we all have. There seems to be something in her wiring that causes her, at some point in the long process of clearing anesthesia and narcotics from her body, to become angry, resentful, and not a little paranoid. My-brother-the-doctor explains that part of it is post-traumatic and involves the frontal part of her brain. Her filter is missing, and the Id is minding the store. We see a confusing mash up of her “real” self, which is assertive, passionate, and used to being in charge, and her “crazy” self, which lacks the ability to apply the brakes.
All of those days that I longed for her to wake up again, worried about coma, brain damage, and death have led me to this place where I am struggling to balance compassion for her against concern for my dad, and the need to set some boundaries. My brother, who has pointed out correctly that my father and I did not come equipped with adequate fence-building materials, has told me that we can be kind and loving and supportive, but that there is no need to sit and take abuse. He says she won’t remember, that she doesn’t mean it, and that in some ways it’s positive that she’s pushing back and fighting rather than remaining passive. We can walk away, hang up the phone, try again later to see if the wind has shifted.
Easier said than done. I have always had a hard time setting boundaries; I always had the drunk, miserable and/or suicidal friends who called and kept me on the phone for hours as I convinced myself that I alone stood between them and certain ruin. I had difficulty walking away from the genuinely terrible situations in which my clients often found themselves, and ended up driving them to the hospital, calling the electric company or attempting to smooth over family issues. I cannot, now, end a phone conversation easily, say “no” to something I do not want to do, or mentally detach from the idea that someone else needs help. Like “The Empath” on the old “Star Trek,” I absorb other people’s need and it somehow becomes part of my own mission.
There is undoubtedly secondary gain, I probably get off on the feeling of being a White Knight, but that stuff is subliminal. In my conscious mind I feel tired, and yearn for boundaries. Yesterday, my father and I met with the Nursing Supervisor, her assistant and one of the residents. I was all about pragmatism, balance, and boundaries. I explained that, because she was so smart, my mother compensated well for the lapses in her cognition. She could appear perfectly fine to a nurse popping in to change an IV, but she really shouldn’t be left to her own devices in a chair, or expected to remember to order her own meals. I also requested that she not be permitted to call my father in the middle of the night. The staff was responsive, and the meeting was highly satisfactory. They could help, they really hadn’t understood the Big Picture, and we all wanted to help her get better and be more independent while keeping her safe and making sure my dad wasn’t worn to a nubbin. I left the conference room feeling smart, caring, and surrounded by the whitest of boundary fences. I believed that I could only do what I could do, and then it would be okay for me to walk away if she was irrational and unkind.
She knew about the meeting, and she was livid. Things were said, ugly things that I will not preserve for posterity because she didn’t mean them, can’t have meant them. “How would you feel?” she asked at one point, looking at me with eyes that were her own, real eyes and not those of a delirious person. How would I feel? I told her that if I felt like I had just woken up and found myself in a prison in which everyone thought I was crazy, and prevented me from going home, moving around or eating good food, I would be angry and frustrated and hurt. Before I was finished answering, she was gone, replaced by the Irrational Other. I envisioned my strong, white fence, took my lumps for fifteen minutes, and excused myself. I called her later and she seemed to have forgotten; she sounded worn out and we talked in a desultory way about how hot it was, whether she could have her own pajamas, and what was on television.
Then, some time in the middle of the night, she was furious again. She wanted to call my father and was told (because of my request) that she could not use the phone. After becoming increasingly agitated for an hour, she climbed out of her bed despite the sides being raised and the bed alarm being set. Before they could get there, she fell. All my tidy and appropriate setting of boundaries had energized and enraged her to the point where she hurt herself. I keep wondering how much of her rage is delirium, id, and chemical residue and how much is legitimate. How would I feel? How do I set reasonable boundaries without really knowing what I am shutting out, what’s legitimate human suffering and what is just a thousand tiny paper cuts from a chemically-altered mind? What good is that high, white boundary fence if it made her panic and fall in an attempt to climb over it and rejoin her life as the matriarch of our family? It’s hard to tell from my current position, skewered on a picket and flailing impotently. I’ll climb down, or I’ll fall. We’ll see.