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  1. Opinion

Ruth: The transformation from son to mother's parent

Ruth Ruth, in Palm Beach in 1945 with her husband, John, who died in 1977.
Ruth Ruth, in Palm Beach in 1945 with her husband, John, who died in 1977.
Published May 27, 2016

At some point somebody has to be the heavy. And that turned out to be me.

Nearly five years ago I took her car keys away from her. The next year I took her home away from her and put her into a so-called senior living facility. Earlier this month, I took her possessions away from her and made plans to move her into an assisted living residence. Three weeks ago, I signed a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. Ten days ago I stood over my mother's 93-year-old lifeless body.

If you live long enough, sooner or later the inevitable role reversal relationship between parent and child takes hold. So it was between Ruth Ruth and her son.

And thus the woman who gave me breath, who instilled in me a passion for jazz, who taught me to deal with life's travails and whose glare could melt diamonds when her ire was raised (a not altogether uncommon occurrence) was now my responsibility.

This wasn't like caring for a kindly, brownie-making, huggy-wuggy June Cleaveresque mother. This was the Patton of matriarchs, who once refused to allow her son home from college to enter the house because he had feebly attempted to grow a beard. This was the woman who forced her 8-year-old son to sit for hours at a darkened dining room table because he refused to eat his peas. And this was the same woman who was infuriated to find out many, many years later the son had never eaten his peas but had instead spit them out in the toilet. She was not amused. There was no statute of limitations for deceiving the Grand Dame of Akron.

A widow far longer than she had been married to my late father, who died in 1977, Ruth Ruth led an active life in Naples, working as a hostess at a country club and serving as a diligent volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. But in her late 80s, the dementia slowly began to take hold.

You can read all the literature. You can do all the research. But nothing fully prepares you for when the realization begins to set in that your mother is slowly, relentlessly losing her grip on the world around her. You can deny only so much. But you are only denying yourself.

How do you prepare yourself for the role of de facto parent to the parent? You make it up as you go along.

You listen. You attempt patience. And you cajole, no easy task in the case of a woman who regarded stubbornness as a divine calling. Before moving her into the ALF I had forewarned the staff they were about to receive a very difficult, demanding, obstinate resident, to which they blithely replied not to worry, they were used to such cases.

But within days of arriving a nurse rolled her eyes as she admitted, "Your mother is a real piece of work."

And she was. As I explained, they were merely experiencing what I had dealt with for 66 years. After all, she was still mad about the pea thing.

This long journey from the twilight of her life to its sunset holds many lessons.

I learned a caretaker of an elderly parent must develop a very tough skin. One of the hallmarks of dementia is a growing sense of paranoia. I thought when she came to Tampa my mother would share in family holidays. But it was not to be since she had convinced herself we were stealing from her and refused to come to the house.

And I learned that senior living facilities are lovely places. But they are still businesses, which promote an image of happy, healthy, active, engaged seniors. An old, infirm resident is bad for marketing. She was evicted and for all practical purposes unceremoniously dropped at the doorstep of Memorial Hospital of Tampa. So much for "first, do no harm."

Her final days at the Some Place Like Home ALF, though brief, were filled with kindness and compassion and comfort from the staff. And as my wife, Angela, and I awaited the arrival of the funeral home personnel, the nurses and residents surrounded her bed and offered a prayer over her body. I'm not a spiritual person, but it was one of the most moving gestures of love I have ever witnessed.

I had visited her the day before, for what would be the last time I saw my mother alive.

"Are you my son?" she asked.

"Yes, Mom, I am your son."

And proud of it.