Having the day off, I chose this afternoon to deliver Mom’s quilt to her. I have a key to her house and picked a time when I desperately hoped she had a client and would be in the office, right in the middle of the day. Driving up to her house, located in a nice although crowded neighborhood near the river, I was filled with conflicting emotions – compassion, frustration, anxiety. Taking a deep breath, I gathered myself and the quilt out of the car. On the front porch, I rang the doorbell, just waiting to hear her dog’s frantic barking and her saying, “Just a minute, just a minute.” Only quiet answered.
Unlocking the door, I hollered a tentative, “hello?” into the silent house. Thankfully, neither she nor Kavi were there. It was calm, empty. I’d printed off a small, plain white sheet of paper: “Christmas, 2009 ~ Here is what I’ve been working on for you the last several months. It’s my first full-size quilt, and my first hand-quilted piece. It’s full of many flaws, but I like the way it turned out, anyhow. Since it’s hand-stitched, it should be washed as infrequently as possible, and then on the shortest, most gentle cycle in cold water, then dried on low. It’s more of a couch throw than a bed quilt; I thought it would help keep you warm as you’re watching TV. Merry Christmas.”
That was all I could manage without going on and on for pages, saying the same things I’ve said over and over previously.
I placed it on her dining room table, neatly folded, panic-stricken to get out and get away before she came home. Once it was situated, I took a furtive look around. She’d placed a Christmas card with lion cubs wearing Santa hats on the half-wall between the dining room and kitchen. I tentatively picked it up, happy someone had sent her a card, uncertain if I should read it – but curiosity got the better of me. It was an advertisement for a hearing aid company – my heart fell and tears welled in my eyes. Was she so desperate, so lonely, that she displayed an advertisement disguised as a holiday card?
Taking a better look around, I realized how much my mother is struggling. She has a mild form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that centers around cleaning and making sure she hasn’t lost anything, yet her house was a mess. The kitchen had dishes stacked in the sink, the counters were strewn with crumbs. In the living room, Kavi’s toys were everywhere, boxes with bills and receipts thrown about. I stopped and took it all in. The house felt so, so sad. Her trinkets and stones did little to cheer the atmosphere of desperation and loneliness.
I set to work cleaning.
Starting out in the kitchen, I loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the sink and the counters and tidied things as best I could. The living room, sadly, was beyond my help; I couldn’t rearrange anything without disturbing whatever scheme she might have had going. Going upstairs, I went into her room, shaking my head at all the items piled up and cluttering everything. The vacuum cleaner receptacle was packed full, so I took it downstairs and emptied it. I fixed her television so it could get cable upstairs as well as down, something she’s been wrestling with. To say my mother is not technical is to understate things by orders upon orders of magnitude.
She had the door to the upstairs bathroom closed. Upon opening it, the pungent odor of stale urine greeted me. The floor had probably not been cleaned in months, the toilet and sink had subtle but noticeable layers of grime. I cleaned it all, even scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees. I remembered when we remodeled this bathroom after she bought the house in 1995 following her divorce from my dad. I installed the sink and the toilet by myself – it seemed forever ago. I can’t remember the last time I thought of her without bitter contempt, not specifically. In 1995, though, we were getting along well – even if she would ask me to drive from an hour away to help her change a light bulb or some other small task. Now? Now I can’t even look at her.
“Thank god she at least has a dog,” I remember thinking, followed by, “both of our lives would be so much easier if she could find a boyfriend who would put up with her.”
Immediately, the guilt set in. What an unkind thing to think of anyone, let alone my mother. And yet, it’s so true – not even a boyfriend, just someone, someone to help her – someone who is not me.
After the bathroom was done, I took out the trash and straightened a few other areas up. I wondered how much of my efforts she would notice, and realized it didn’t matter. It all took less than an hour for me to do, and it would have taken her far longer and a great deal of pain – thus, it worth the effort. Perhaps every time she used that bathroom, the filth bothered her, but she knew she couldn’t do it herself and could no longer hire a cleaning woman.
Standing again in the entryway between the dining room and the living room, I was awash in pity and compassion. I do my best not to pity people, but Mom’s situation was clearly dire. She is 60 years old, in terrible physical condition, in some sort of mental decline and utterly, utterly alone. She has had a private practice with another psychologist for perhaps the last 15 years, and he is the closest thing she has to a man in her life. She has one or two friends she occasionally does things with, but when it comes to daily life, the little things and moments, she only has Kavi.
I empathize so much with this… before I met Mike, I was in the same place. I had transitioned from enjoying not having the responsibilities and compromises stemming from a relationship to being tired of being alone, of not having someone to share life with. I had only been single for a couple of years – Mom has been alone for the better part of a decade. There have been two men in her life since my dad – Stewart and David. Stewart was my age, and they met when he was working on the house I grew up in, getting it ready for sale after their divorce. Apparently, they hit it off.
Stew was troubled, though, struggling with depression and bipolar disorder. He self-medicated heavily with marijuana, something of which Mom never approved. They spent a lot of time together over the next few years, but Mom insisted it was never sexual. Whether it was or not is irrelevant, because he was there for her. He helped her around the house, provided someone to talk to, gave her someone to laugh with and cook for. She loved him dearly.
Stew killed himself with a handgun sometime in 1998, unable to cope with his mental illnesses anymore. Mom was beside herself.
In 2002, she met David online. They chatted extensively and decided to meet. David lived in Oregon, one of Mom’s favorite places, so she came out to meet him in January of 2003. Since she was going to be so close to Seattle, where I was living with my boyfriend Lance, they invited us to come down and spend the weekend with them at a nice hotel on Cannon Beach. Plans were made. The week before we were to go, Lance broke my heart and dumped me, sending me into a devastated spiral of shock and depression. I still went to meet Mom and David and was hammered with food poisoning the whole weekend. Mom was getting hammered by David and secretly regaling me with some of the sordid details – ugh.
I never liked David at all – he seemed smarmy, insincere, overly-sensitive and (for lack of a better term,) hypocritically new-age-y. Mom’s relationship with David lasted a few years, during which time he moved to Michigan to live with her and drained her of money even more than I previously had. Their living together did not go well, and quickly devolved to being roommates. He moved out perhaps in 2005 or 2006. In the years since that time, Mom hasn’t dated or even found anyone she might be interested in dating. She doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t try to meet new people. She goes to work, she comes home, she watches TV.
If she were happy in this life, I would hold no judgment. However, she is so discontented, so tired of being alive and alone. Some years ago, she told me she firmly believed suicide can sometimes be the best option for individuals who are so miserable and who have no other options they find endurable. During my early childhood, she made a couple of casual attempts at taking her own life (not something I would ever advise telling your ten-year-old, incidentally,) but realized she couldn’t leave me alone like that. It would not surprise me at all if she were to try again.
She would probably deny this, and I may be wrong in thinking she might have those thoughts. I’m not sure what, if anything, I could do if she were thinking them. Feeling the weight of her house around me, I was forced to wonder how she does get through each day.
All I could do was shake my head with compassion, confusion and a heartfelt wish things were not so strained between us. I hoped my cleaning helped in some small way. I decided to arrange the quilt on her couch, so she wouldn’t have to lift it up herself to look at the whole of it. With both rotator cuffs torn, it’s unwise for her to lift things – she continues to do so, anyhow.
Wishing I could do more, but uncertain what I really am willing to do, I closed the door, locked it and drove off.