Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

Green Grapes

Part 1

I arrived at my mother’s house the day after an angry phone argument—not at all unusual in our rancorous relationship. I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but part of it was her worry about soiling her bed. I suggested she use Maxi pads or adult diapers or padded underwear which she refused to do because they never fit very well. Then I suggested a protective plastic cover for her mattress.

No, she said, I don’t want that either. No, that won’t work. That won’t protect my clothes or blankets. I could hear her tears over the phone.

I suspected it was already too late for a mattress cover.

When I think about her typical responses to my suggestions and my frustration with her, I remember my own stubborn refusal to cooperate with my diabetes nutritionist. In our meetings, she offers many suggestions as to how to eat a well-balanced diabetic diet. For each of her suggestions, I rationalize why I can’t eat those foods. I never liked them. I don’t want to cook them. It’s too complicated.

Could I eat a tuna salad? She asks.

No, the last time I had a bit of tuna from a can it was mostly bone and fat, tiny flakes of something that wasn’t recognizable as fish. I won’t try it again.

What about adding different fruits, oranges, bananas, blueberries, not just apples?

I answer, I like apples. I like to eat cold Braeburn apples with lime chicken for dinner. It’s simple. I only have to cook once to have enough to eat for three days. Bananas have too much sugar, and I can’t eat just half a banana because the other half turns brown and I don’t like brown bananas or other brown or bruised fruit. I would not eat the other half. It’s a waste of banana money.

Can or do you eat veggies?

I can eat broccoli with my eggs in the morning. Eggs are the best for me in regards to my sugar levels and my overall strength. Nothing else seems to work like eggs.

But your cholesterol is high.

Yes, I know. I need to bring that down. I like to eat sugar peas cooked or raw. Carrots. Snow peas. Broccoli coleslaw.  I cook Chinese-style with pea pods, water chestnuts, celery and carrots and a bit of chicken thrown in. That’s simple enough. Or I make hearty veggie soups to last a few days. I want to keep my eating and cooking as simple as possible, I said. If it gets too complicated and is too much work, I know myself well enough to know I will not stick to my diet. Keeping it simple is the key for me.

How about exercise? Can you walk everyday?

Yes and no, after I build up my muscle strength. At present, I’ve lost so much muscle since 1998; it’s going to take me a while to get it back. That’s one of the reasons I’ve switched from a vegetarian diet to eating eggs and chicken protein. Also my left foot hurts, so it makes it difficult to walk or stand for long periods. And my back too, I add.

Well, how about swimming?

No way. I don’t swim. Nope. Fear of water over my head, getting in my nose. I climb up and down my stairs to my apartment every day and I can throw in one or two extra trips for exercise.  It’s helping to build leg strength.

Well, stairs could  prove dangerous, she said.

Yes, but I have to go up and down to get to my apartment. I could fall any day and hurt myself. Why not call it exercise?

Finally with frustration, she said, I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know how to work with you if you keep finding reasons why you don’t do this or why you don’t eat that or why you can’t exercise. Why don’t you tell me what you can eat or are willing to eat and do? Maybe we can come up with a plan.

I don’t like plans. I didn’t tell her that, but I don’t like plans.

I realized at that moment how frustrating it was for her to deal with me. I negated all her suggestions with my rationalizations as to why I couldn’t do or eat what she suggested. I resisted the idea of having to change my entire lifestyle just for a disease called diabetes. I had developed my lifestyle and eating habits over 64 years and in the last twenty years beginning with the dissolution of my marriage (or what I thought was a divorce; apparently I didn’t lose that completely), I had lost so much that I did not want to change—or lose—one more thing, and changing my diet meant a major loss:  a loss of all the foods I like to eat. Of course, in those same twenty years I gained a new sense of self, so it was not a complete loss. And I do understand that the losses that come along with change—while I perceive them as a losses now—are replaced with gains—a healthier, more energetic life, for example.  Happiness and contentment arrive with a change in perspective.

Nevertheless, I resist changes especially if they are complicating changes, like cooking when I hate cooking. I need to make my life simple. I wear simple clothes, the same thing everyday. Black. To maintain my sanity, I allow myself a cappuccino or iced Americano and a pastry everyday and I don’t want to lose that, too. It’s my sanity time.

I know, bitch bitch bitch. I am my mother.

Part 2

That night on the phone, my mother was doing the same thing, resisting the reality of her aging life, of incontinence, of having to wear Depends or soiling her bed and clothing. She had a bucket by her bed to pee in, but I’m sure that was hard for her to do. Hit or miss, I suspect. I know I couldn’t hit it.

It was a scary transition for her. She had never been easy or open to my suggestions about anything, but this time our fight wasn’t about me, it was about her. It was about aging, loss of youth, loss of control over her body and life. Arguing with her was pointless. So I agreed to visit her the next day.

With a great deal of anxiety about what might happen, I grabbed a package of adult Depends and a plastic protective sheet for her bed at Safeway and drove over to Pacific Grove to see her. I wanted to help, but didn’t know how much she’d let me do. In the past, whenever I did anything for her she made it feel like I was intending for her to feel obligated to me, so she always refused.

I parked my car on the street and walked up the winding path through her dying garden to the front door. I knocked. No answer.

I opened the door. Hello?  It’s me.

No answer.

I walked inside. Mom? I’m here.

Still no answer.

I walked to the back of the house where I found Mom recumbent on the bed surrounded by tiny bits and pieces of her green telephone scattered about the bed. She had been trying to fix the phone for god knows how long. Maybe since last night’s call. Maybe if she fixed the phone, she’d fix us. She reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in her movies reclining on a chaise in a gold and silver lamé gown and an elaborate gold headdress, popping grapes into her mouth, sipping wine, with a huge frondescent palm above her head pumped up and down by a dark slave to keep her cool; all of her little minions sitting on the floor at her feet, adoring her, laughing at her witty, wry comments and wicked gossip.

Only Mom wasn’t wearing gold lamé. She wasn’t young and beautiful like Liz Taylor.  And the only places  in Pacific Grove where she had a bunch of adoring minions was at the local Pancake House or at Tom’s Cafe where she had held court almost everyday for years.

Hi Mom, I said. I’m here.

Still nothing. She refused to acknowledge my presence.

She glanced furtively in my direction from under her half-closed eyes as she lay there trying to put her broken phone back together again. All the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men couldn’t put green Humpty Dumpty back together again, but she kept trying. All her life she had fixed broken things, plumbing, electrical outlets and appliances; she had built shelves, furniture, sewed draperies, upholstery, clothing and hand-made sandals. There was very little she couldn’t do, except acknowledge my presence on this day.

I assumed she was still angry with me after our angry phone conversation. But this particular lack of response was unusual for her. After our fights, she always acted as if nothing at all had happened, like we were best buddies, the most loving mother and daughter duo on earth; as if there had been no fight, no nasty words uttered by each of us, and everything was normal. No apologies, no expression of sorrow for what she had said. Nada. It was me. Each time, it was me sitting there seething with hurt and anger, asking myself How could  she be in so much denial?

As I grew older I realized it was a pattern of her narcissism. She could not accept blame or responsibility for anything that went wrong or for anything hurtful that she said to me. Always, I was wrong. And with some bitter internal argument, and not knowing any better, I accepted all the blame. The world revolved around her needs, her desires, her emotions, and not mine. I was guilty of being a bad daughter.

Everything about her continued anger this day was unusual, except for the fact she was habitually bizarre and emotionally erratic, so I thought nothing of it.

I sat on her home-made living room sofa waiting for her to get up, to come out and do her usual hosting, fixing coffee or tea and offering me cookies or brownies or beans and flour tortillas. She often had a pot of beans on the stove and a pile of hand-made tortillas when I visited, but not this time. This time there was nothing cooking but our mutual anger.

I waited for thirty minutes, then I stood and said, Well, Mom, if you’re not going to talk to me, I don’t know why I’m here. I’m leaving now. Goodbye.

I left the Depends on her hand-built black kidney-shaped coffee table and walked out of the house, down the path through her decaying flower beds, over her peeling red home-made Japanese garden bridge, and down the crumbling and uneven steps to my car. As I got to my car, I turned to take one last look. She was not there. She had not followed me down to my car as she used to do.  Even when she was angry, she used to rant and yell at me all the way down to the road, waving her arms in anger, and on the last step, say hurtful things like, Don’t ever come back Susan! Don’t ever come back!

Not this day.

Several weeks later my sister Venée found Mother in bed, near death. She called the ambulance. The paramedics carried her down the steps, placed her on the gurney in their van and sped off over the hill to the hospital. On the eighth day, Venée called to tell me Mom was in hospital. When I arrived they told me they were releasing her the next day, sending her home, alone. This was not going to happen, I said. She was not capable of walking, could not make her way up the path to her house, nor to the toilet. She could not prepare her food nor take her insulin. I pleaded with them to place her in a nursing home. After a few hours, the hospital social services found a nursing facility in the wooded hills above Monterey that was willing to take her. They arranged for her admission.

When driving back to San Jose that day with the smell of urine and feces from the facility’s dirty laundry cans in the hall permeating my nostrils, my clothing, I was sick with fear and guilt.  I cried copious amounts, but still had not made the connection between dementia and her bizarre behavior when I had seen her weeks before.

The facility psychiatrist finally gave me his diagnosis: dementia and mental illness. She was psychotic and had to be subdued with Haldol. I knew for sure then that her behavior during my last visit was symptomatic of dementia and a mental illness. With her regular behavior being so bizarre and difficult during our entire lives, downright nasty and vindictive, verbally abusive, and narcissistic, it was easy to miss the signs of dementia. And I had been in denial for a long time. But now, obviously, the two primary markers were there: she was not only mentally ill but suffering with full-blown dementia at the same time.

The day I visited her, she had not known who I was. That’s why she would not look me in the eye; why she would not say hello or acknowledge me in any way; and why she did not greet me at the door nor walk me down to my car at the end. Terrified and helpless, she was only capable of lying on her bed in her focused cocoon fiddling with the bits of green phone that she had dismantled.

After years of struggle between us, years of hate and anger, it all made sense. Compassion for my mother washed over me. I felt sad for her, but relieved that she would finally get the care she needed in the nursing facility; and relieved to have a name for her disease. The darkness was over for me. I now knew what I was struggling with and what she was struggling with. And I had help in dealing with it.

Placing her in the nursing facility was the right place, the right thing to do for both of us, for all of us. The staff helped me understand what her needs would be; they gave my mother medications to keep her calm but awake and mobile, and made sure she had her diabetes insulin. Her psychiatrist and the staff told me they enjoyed her company. She entertained them with fantastic confabulations when most of their residents, if they were mobile, just sat in the lobby waiting for their loved ones to fetch them home. It was a sad, sad place, but I know for Mom, she took ownership and called it her hotel.

© 2011 Susan Canavarro. All Rights Reserved.

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