One Sunday afternoon years ago I received a call from my almost hysterical mother. “Find a place for us to move to! I am a prisoner in this apartment! I have nowhere to get even a breath of fresh air and there’s no one to talk to!”
My normally stoic seventy-eight-year-old mother had finally flipped and I was shocked into action.
My parents had been living in a Brooklyn apartment for about twenty-five years. They were forced to move there when the neighborhood they lived in became too dangerous. Both were crippled by arthritis and were dependent upon their walkers.
Dad was totally happy to be left to his television programs and hated almost any form of sociability. Mother, entirely opposite, longed to be with people. Her Brooklyn neighbors helped only a little to meet her needs, so it fell upon me to be her stability, company, sounding-board, and partner in hour-long discussions on all topics. My personality, much more like my father’s, experienced this as an enormous burden.
At 8:00 every morning (Mother was a 6:00 a.m. riser), I knew that she was impatiently waiting for my call. Often she would be angry with someone and wanted to vent. Other times that someone was me, but I would never be told what my offense had been.
My husband and I lived then as now in a house on Long Island where we had raised two daughters who had already flown the nest. We managed to find a beautiful light-filled, terraced apartment for my parents, located less than ten minutes from our house. My parents employed a woman who spent five days a week taking care of them, doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and errands. A great set-up
on all counts! They were miserable! They felt displaced and restless.
About four years after the move, my father had a stroke and died. Mother was left with her helper for five days a week but was alone nights and weekends, albeit with constant visits from her family. She continued to set a place at the table for my father when she ate alone.
By this time, I was taking care of one of my daughter’s three young sons. He was about eighteen months and had both a younger and older brother who were cared for at home while my daughter worked. At about 8:30 one morning I received a frantic call from my mother, “I am paralyzed, I am all alone here. I can’t get out of bed even to go to the bathroom. Help me!”
As quickly as I could, I returned my grandson to his house and rushed to my mother’s. I pleaded with her to come to live with us and she reluctantly agreed. For the moment, we had to get her dressed and collect things she absolutely had to bring with her. These included her mink hat and her ancient potato baker. The baker had been used every day since I was a young child. It was the size of a stove burner and was topped by a rusted metal dome. I suppose to her it was a symbol of home and normalcy.
We left the apartment with mother seated in her wheelchair, sobbing and wailing and the potato baker covering her lap. Unmindful of the spectacle she was creating, Mother was lost in noisy despair going down the elevator, through the lobby, to the car, and finally to my house where she stayed the night. The next morning she insisted upon taking herself, her hat, and her potato baker back
The comic aspects of this story seem less humorous and more tragic to me as my husband and I grow older. We are close to the time when one of us will be left to cope alone or be forced to give up our own autonomy and that most precious place of all—our “home”—that haven of ultimate security, normalcy and belonging.