This is normally a blog about international labor and human rights. Sometimes Life with a big L intervenes, pushing the topic at hand off the dais and placing the inconvenient and uncomfortable at the forefront.
I heard about Brian Morton's Tasha: A Son's Memoir on NPR a couple of weeks after my own mother passed. The book called to me as the tale of an adult child grappling with the decline of a beloved and maddening, eccentric but traumatized, idealistic but cynical, angry but spirited parent in post-WW II United States. It was a book I could not not read. I cried when Morton cried, I laughed when Morton laughed. At times I was seized with envy - Morton's mother was accepted to a rehab facility after her stroke - my mother languished for months in the hospital waiting for acceptance to a rehab facility without hope because there were not enough rehab beds in her home state for seniors with "Behavioral issues." She was not the only one in this predicament.
At other times I felt deep relief that my mother, brother, and I did not have to face what Morton, his mother, and his sister faced - home caregivers who screamed abusive invective at his mother; broken bones; surreptitiously slipping a recording device in his mother's room to get a handle on the quality of the care she received.
Then there were shameful things none of us want to talk about. The admission of helplessness in the face of a parent's decline from a competent person with a fine mind to a person who is too afraid to leave the house or let anyone inside. The regret at not seeing what was happening sooner. The weakness in not being able to master Acknowledge, Comfort, and Deflect in the face of an angry and fearful parent who cannot stop yelling. The nasty neighbor who shows up at the yard sale not to buy anything but to yell in your face, "SO YOUR MOTHER'S GOT THE ALZHEIMER'S, HUH?" The Police. Senior Behavior Health. The Ambulances. The fight for a dignified discharge from the hospital. Never being able to get it quite right, no matter how many Alzheimer's Association trainings and online articles you read. The ejection from the inadequate assisted living for "The Behaviors." Always "The Behaviors." Neighborhoods and Hospitals - a whole world full of people that like you, have not mastered Acknowledge, Comfort, and Deflect.
And the poignant and beautiful people and moments in the midst of it all. The cousin and aunt who send the cards with loving notes to wherever you tell them - no questions asked. The amazingly competent manager of the county senior meals program and the drivers who wear the Covid masks and make your mother feel loved when they drop off the meal with its little bag of chips and half-pint of milk every day. The assisted living house manager who looks at your intransigent and stubborn mother with genuine love and affection. The non-profit worker who picked up your mother's medications even though your mother refused to let her in the house or accept in-home assistance. The hospital nurse who helped your mother learn how to walk again after Covid when wasn't really her job. The senior housing consultant who knew the good places and the bad. The perfect van driver who comforted your mother on the ride while you sat in the front seat. The hospice nurse who, upon learning your mother was a nurse for 42 years, told your mother, "You spent your life taking care of other people. Now let me take care of you."
Watching the Jacques Cousteau documentary on your tablet in the hospital and having your mother confide that she thought Jacques Cousteau was very sexy when she was a young teenager. Grossing your brother out by telling him that story.
On the face of it, Brian Morton and I have little in common. Yet with all the differences, we have everything in common. The contours are different, but the story is the same. The human frailty and inability to meet the mark are the same. And the oddly comforting little coincidences. Morton's mother's deep trauma was the sudden passing of her beloved husband. My mother's trauma was different - but no less impactful, with some similar outcomes. The frustration with a system that is not quite right - and trying to make do in a system that is not quite right. A system that our mothers spent some portion of their lives trying to reform.
And, while I am still deeply envious that Morton's mother got to go to Rehab - and sympathetic, not to mention slightly amused, that his mother got kicked out of rehab because of "The Behaviors" - I am grateful to Morton for putting it all out there. The screw-ups. The sad but funny moments. The few and far between tiny triumphs. The exasperation of dealing with a senior who refuses help no matter how much it is needed. The fantasy that suddenly a person who has lived alone for decades doing exactly what she wants to do when she wants to do it will suddenly adapt to assisted living and "make friends." It is the deep emotional honesty that makes Morton's very particular tale a universal story.
After finally achieving the Dignified Discharge from the hospital, I went on an odyssey for the perfect chair for my mother's room. Something comfy she might herself sit in; something inviting so caregivers would want to sit next to her and chat or watch television. I went to what seemed like every furniture store in the city. I ran away from some of the furniture salespeople. Then I started telling the salespeople I was looking for the perfect chair for my mother's room in assisted living. Like Zola, I ran into as many stories as the stores I went to. Seniors all over the city who got kicked out of senior homes due to "Behaviors" or for financial reasons. Sad tales of not being able to afford the $8,000 / month assisted living where your parent would get the very best of care.
Learning of the collapse of the very best places due to Covid. As bad as things were for Morton and his family and mother, the Covid pandemic seems to have made it all that much worse - with a hard struggle ahead of us to make things better.
My mother always quoted Plato, observing that No Man can rise above or be taller than his City. It is an apt observation, especially for those of us grappling with aging in the modern United States.
She was a bright but flawed woman. I think of her every time I watch Star Trek (any Star Trek) or enjoy a television murder mystery show. In Memory of Lee Brigit Harley.