Life with MIL … Just an Act.
The sun peeked over the roof tops as I walked to the car. I was extremely thankful for daylight savings time as I had just scored an extra hour of sleep! I slid across the seat of my rental, opened the convertible top, and set the GPS…ugh…5.5 hours without stops. I sighed, weighing the reality of what my day was going to entail.
The warm sunshine and wind swept across my face. I sipped my coffee and reflected back on yesterday’s call to Frank and Mom to finalize arrangements for today.
ME: Hi Frank! It’s Lisa, how are you?!
FRANK: Oh, the phone told me it was you … we’re visiting at the Garage.
ME: Aw…that’s nice. Frank I’m thinking I should make it to you around noon tomorrow. How does that sound? I’ll shower Mom and visit for a bit.
FRANK: Yeah, that sounds good. We’ll be here.
ME: Great, I’ll call when I’m about 30 minutes away.
FRANK: Here, here’s Rosemary (the phone muffles) say hello Rosemary …. no hold it like … yeah there ya go.
ME: Hi Ma! How are you?
MIL: Great! How are you?
ME: Good, good … I’m coming to see you tomorrow … would you like that?
I can almost feel her smile through the phone. I pause and think … she sounds great. I can hear other people in the background. She doesn’t seem flustered, anxious, or confused as she ‘normally’ is when she’s in public places.
ME: Great Mom. Enjoy your day … I love you …
MIL: I love you too. (the phone muffles again) Here take this …
I hear Frank talking to someone else as he disconnects the phone.
As my GPS announces an upcoming turn, I start thinking that maybe Joe is right, maybe the sun and warm air are good for Mom. It certainly seems like it when I speak with her on the phone … she’s happy, upbeat, and well … good. Could it be that my concerns about her traveling to Florida are just me being overprotective?
The ride is long and lonely, but I’m encouraged by yesterday’s call. I pull into the driveway and park the car. Five hours and fifteen minutes. I open the car door, stand and stretch, and I see Frank in the front window. A light breeze rustles the leaves of the palm tree as if to welcome me as I walk to the door.
Frank opens the door.
Frank: Hey there…be careful, Toodles has been trying to escape all morning.
ME: Hi Frank … now Toodles no escaping …
I walk through the door, step over the cat, and find Mom sleeping in the chair in front of the TV. Frank and I make eye contact and he shrugs. I walk around the front of the chair where Mom is dozing. Her hair is a mess and her shirt is inside out.
ME: (gently) Hi Mom!
Mom jumps a little as her eyes fly open. I can tell she’s confused and startled.
ME: Hi …. (I lean in for a kiss) … how are you?
MIL: I don’t know (she squints her eyes and glares hard at me)
I kiss her forehead and stroke her cheek. Caresses like this usually calm her … almost center her.
I stand up and look at Frank.
ME: How we doing today?
FRANK: (sigh) well ….
I look down at Mom, her head is turned towards the window, and she’s returned to dozing. I notice her hair is a matted mess on the back of her head. I squat down in front of her chair and softly place my hand on her arm.
MIL: What?! (she doesn’t open her eyes)
ME: I’m thinking we should get out for a bit today …
ME: I’ll give you a shower, wash up your hair and teeth real good … you’ll feel so fresh and rejuvenated! (I rub her arm to attempt to rouse her)
Mom opens her eyes and glares at me.
ME: OK! (I smile) I’ll go get things ready for us … I’ll be back for your teeth in a minute.
I look up and Frank has left the room. As I head down the hall I find him in his office.
ME: Hey, how is she today?
FRANK: She’s tough today.
ME: Did she sleep ok?
FRANK: She wasn’t up as much as she usually is … she’s just… you know … tough.
ME: Let me get her showered and cleaned up, then how about I treat you both to lunch? I’m starving!
FRANK: yeah, I guess …
ME: She seemed good yesterday when I spoke with her on the phone.
FRANK: Yeah maybe …
ME: Well, let me get this going. I should plan on being back on the road by 3 … sound ok??
Frank nods. We gather shower supplies and her toothbrush, keeping the conversation light.
I take a deep breath and return to the living room.
ME: Ok beautiful … let’s get this show on the road (I do a little twist of the hips like we’re going dancing).
MIL: What?! (she jumps and grabs both arms of the chair her eyes wide and a bit wild).
ME: Shhh, shhh, shhh. It’s ok Ma, I didn’t mean to startle you! I’ve got your bathroom ready for your shower … ok?
MIL: Why?! … WHY?!
ME: Because we need to clean you up a bit.
MIL: (staring hard at me) Humph! I guess … (clearly irritated, she pushes hard off the arms of the chair to rise). Why am I doing this? (huffing) … are we going somewhere?
ME: Well I thought after your shower we could go for a late lunch, my treat.
She shuffles her feet as she moves toward me. She’s clearly struggling to steady herself. I hold out my hand to assist if she needs it, but she waves it away. We struggle through the shower. The space is about a quarter of the bathroom back in Connecticut. It’s tight just for Mom to be in there, never mind throwing me into the mix too! This shower day is different than others. For the most part by the time I get to washing her hair, even on her worst days, her attitude has softened, but not this time. I finish dressing her and hang up the wet towels.
ME: How about you sit in your chair while I brush out your hair?
MIL: Why? (glaring at me over the top of her glasses)
I lean in and kiss her forehead, reminding myself gentle acts of affection always soften her difficult temperments.
ME: You’ll be more comfortable in your chair.
MIL: Why are you doing this?
ME: Doing what Ma?
MIL: (she sets her jaw and sends me a shot with her laser eyes) THIS! … this … the …
ME: I love you Ma, and I know you need the help.
Mom gives me a partial smile as she grunts and grimaces while she struggles to stand. I walk behind her as she shuffles down the hallway to the living room where she nothing short of collapses in her chair. I decide to let her sit for a bit while I finish up her teeth and clean up the bathroom. I stick my head through the doorway of Frank’s office and I tell him I’m just about done. He nods and continues shuffling through his papers.
I return to find Mom sound asleep in the living room. I approach and tenderly stroke her arm to wake her.
ME: Hey there beautiful … time for me to brush out your hair.
ME: There you are! I’m going to brush out your hair.
MIL: (sigh) ok ….
Frank enters the living room.
ME: Did you decide on lunch Frank?
I concentrate on the ‘rat’s nest’ (as my Mom used to call these snarled messes) I’ve found in Mom’s hair. This knotted mess is becoming a regular occurrence with her more sedentary state.
FRANK: You don’t holler for her like you do me!
FRANK: You yell like crazy when I do your hair …
ME: Aw Frank, I’ve got years of experience with Ashley’s ha..
MIL: What are you talking about?! (whipping her head so fast towards Frank I almost brush off her glasses!)
ME: Easy Ma …
I place my hand on her shoulder and look over to Frank. He shrugs and pulls the corner of his mouth into a frown. I finish up her hair and pat her shoulder. Frank suggests we sit outside for a bit before we head for lunch. Mom is reluctant but agrees. I pull one chair into the sunshine while Frank and Mom sit in the shade side by side. Frank and I make small talk about how his town in Florida survived the hurricane and their friends as well. Mom just stares off into the distance; she barely has anything to contribute to our conversations anymore. Finally Frank suggests we head out to lunch. We slowly make our way to the car while every other step Mom grunts and scrunches up her face to express her uncomfortableness.
We arrive at Frank’s choice for lunch, a local Chinese Buffet. He rattles off his favorite dishes as the hostess seats us. I guide Mom to her chair as Frank’s phone rings.
FRANK: Ut oh … Who’s calling? Oh (smiling widely) It’s your son!
FRANK: Hello? …. Yes! Hey! ….. uh huh … Well, we’re just sitting down with your mother for lunch here at the buffet …. No, Wednesday …. (chuckle) … No we decided to stay through the weekend … Lisa’s here … yeah. Oh, ya know, I told Lisa to tell you, I just saw flights to Daytona from there in Bradley for $249.00 if you want to come … uh huh … yea … Here, say hello to your mother.
Frank taps Mom on the shoulder.
FRANK: Here, talk to David.
Mom takes the phone and briefly looks at it.
FRANK: Just hold it and talk into it.
Mom knits her eyebrows, stares at the phone, then raises it to her ear.
MIL: Hello? …. Yea, I guess so! … I am? … Yes. Hmmm. Yeah.
Her voice is pleasant, upbeat, and even endearing. Her face is softer and I see a glimmer of old Mom.
MIL: Ok …. Uh huh … love you too … bye bye.
Mom pulls the phone away from her ear and looks at Frank. He quickly takes the phone and returns to his conversation with Dave. As he talks a dark cloud drifts across Mom’s face, quickly pulling a veil of displeasure over that glimpse of sunshine I just saw.
Our waitress approaches and asks to take our drink requests. Frank quickly orders an unsweetened iced tea, I also order an iced tea, and then the waitress looks at Mom.
MIL: (waving the waitress away) I don’t know what I want!
ME: Would you like iced tea too Ma?
MIL: (she squints hard and snaps) I … SAID … I don’t know what I WANT!
I jerk my head back from her outburst, quickly recover, and look to the waitress and smile.
ME: We’ll think about what she wants.
MIL: I don’t know ….
The young waitress quickly moves away from the table and I stroke Mom’s hand. I look at her staring at the table. What happened to the woman that just talked to Dave on the phone? I make Mom a plate, cut up her food, and slide the plate and fork towards her. She looks at the fork for a moment, picks it up, and starts to use it to eat her lunch. As I watch I realize she’s now only using the fork for half the food she’s eating, the other half she’s picking up with her fingers. I realize it’s taking all of Mom’s concentration to just eat her lunch, so I don’t attempt to engage her in our conversation. She pauses on occasion and looks at Frank or me with knitted eyebrows or a deep scowl.
As we finish up our plates, our waitress places the check and three fortune cookies on our table.
ME: Oh fun! Fortune cookies!
MIL: huh? What’s that ….
ME: A cookie with a message … or your fortune.
Ma says this while raising her voice with a mouth full of food, some of it falling onto her shirt. I lean across the table with a napkin and clean up her shirt.
MIL: Oh, thank you.
ME: It’s nothing.
Frank opens his cookie and ironically finds a fortune about travel (their plans are to drive back to Connecticut in three days). Mom’s fortune gave Frank and me a chuckle…it was about patience.
FRANK: What did you get?
ME: (attempting to create a little anticipation and fun) Oh it probably says I’m perfect in every way and people will want to be me. (giggle)
Mom glares across the table … I smile and blow her a kiss, as she rolls her eyes at me and sighs. She folds her arms across her chest and returns to glaring at me. I crack open the fortune cookie and slide out the message. I swallow hard…
FRANK: Whadya got? …
ME: ‘Your example will inspire others’ ….
FRANK: Nice …
I look across at Mom as the death stare continues. I know I don’t deserve the outbursts or the dirty looks. It would be so much easier to just not deal with her. Yet, I also know she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. If she did, she’d be mortified. I realize again I miss her so much.
ME: Mom? You just about ready?
MIL: I guess …
On the ride home Frank takes the scenic route sharing their other hometown with me. Mom stares out the window offering nothing to the conversation. When we arrive back at their house I help Mom out of the car and get her settled in her chair. I watch as she almost instantly drifts off to sleep again. Frank and I chat for a moment more about their upcoming trip home when I look at the clock and know I’ve got to get back on the road myself.
ME: Mom? (gently rubbing her hand)
MIL: huh? (eyes half open and groggy)
ME: I’m leaving ….
ME: I love you and I’ll see you when you get home.
I sit behind the wheel of the car and look back at the house. Frank is standing in the door waving goodbye. I raise my hand, return the wave, and put the car in reverse. I reach the stop sign at the end of the road and turn right. I accelerate the car and let the sun and breeze dry the tears that start to slide down my cheeks. The wind feels good on my face as I relive the visit in my head. I was so encouraged by my conversation on the phone with Mom the day before, she seemed so … ‘good’. I understand now that these phone conversations are just an act. It was amazing and disheartening to watch her flip an internal switch to be someone else on the phone.
I’m only a half hour into my trip when I decide I’m going to need coffee. I still have five hours ahead of me and the weight of the day is heavy on my mind and body. I open my wallet to pay for the coffee, smile to the young man at the register, and scoop up my coffee. I start to walk away when I’m called back…
CASHIER: s‘cuse me ma’am?
ME: (I stop and look over my shoulder) Yeah?
CASHIER: You dropped this … you might need it …
He smiled and held my fortune in his hand.
CASHIER: ‘Your example will inspire others’