Parenting a Parent by Robin Gorman Newman
I feel like a contestant in The Dating Game television show…only I’m participating on behalf of my father. And, it’s not for a love match, but rather a live-in aide….two to be exact.
My mom passed away over ten years ago, and five years after that, we brought in a live-in aide for my father, though she’d really been largely more of a companion. It worked fine for some time, but in recent years, their chemistry has become challenging. Of late, I’ve grown certain that she isn’t the one for the long run for my father. He recently suffered two strokes, and now that his needs are more acute, I’m working on bringing in two live-in aides to take shifts who I have greater confidence in in terms of managing my dad’s daily care. Competence and compassion are essential, not to mention compatibility. It’s like a marriage of sorts, and one that will ideally have staying power.
It’s not easy witnessing the deterioration of a beloved parent. My dad has always been so vibrant and social, and now, due to aphasia from the stroke, his communication ability is severely compromised, and he has weakness on the right side. For the first time in many years, he looks like an old man. G-d bless him…he’s 93….and though he doesn’t look his age, he does look like he has aged. A stroke would knock the socks off anyone, and his recovery is a challenging one. Though he can be stubborn, for the most part he’s a trooper, plodding along with the OT, Speech and Physical Therapy. It’s not easy. There has been improvement, but he’s got a long way to go, and we don’t know how far he’ll get.
His situation brings to mind an endeavor I’m immensely proud to be a part of. I am Associate Producer of Motherhood Out Loud, a play by some of America’s most celebrated writers, that had a successful Off Broadway run recently at Primary Stages in NYC, and is now poised to tour worldwide. Motherhood Out Loud shatters traditional notions about parenthood, unveils its inherent comedy and celebrates the deeply personal truths that span and unite generations. One of the pieces by David Cale, entitled Elizabeth, touched me to the core from the first time I read the script…and even more so when it came to life on stage so poignantly by gifted actor James Lecesne, who speaks the words of both the mother and son in the piece. I’d like to take the opportunity to share a portion of it with you, with the hope that if you find yourself parenting an elderly parent, you will know you’re not alone.
By David Cale
(BOBBY BARNES, a man in his early forties)
After my divorce became final I moved back in with my mom.
As part of the settlement my ex-wife got the house. Mom was living alone and she’d said,
“Come and stay with me for a bit, it’ll give you a little breathing space to figure out what you want to do with your life.”
So I did.
She was standing on her doorstep when I pulled up in the car. The first thing she said to me was,
“I don’t want to be called Betty anymore. I want to be called Elizabeth. That’s my name, but everyone’s always called me Betty, I don’t know why. Elizabeth says something, Betty’s just blah.”
I said, “Sure Mom, I’ll call you Elizabeth.” And I hugged her hello.
* * * *
Living at home, I noticed the first thing my mother did in the morning was turn on the TV, and the last thing she did at night was turn it off, and she was now participating in it.
I walked in the house one evening and she was sitting in the armchair with her home phone in one hand and her cell phone in the other.
“What are you doing with those two phones in your hand, Mom?”
“Voting,” she said, and she had a slightly guilty look in her eyes.
“Why do you need two phones?”
“I’m voting for my David. I’ve got both the phones on re-dial. I’m voting for him over and over. He’s so talented, Bobby. And sweet. He’s got to win. It’s going to really upset me if he doesn’t win.”
“Mom,” I said, “Do you have a little crush?”
She got all defensive.
“Don’t be ridiculous Bobby, I’m fifty one years older than he is.”
“Oh, so you’ve done the math? When you’ve finished voting for your boyfriend, I have an idea I want to talk to you about.”
* * * *
I sat her down at the kitchen table.
“Mom, I have an idea. And don’t just say no without considering it. I think you should go to night school. They have classes at the community college.
There’s one coming up on American Short Fiction. You used to love reading. And we have to get you on a better diet. I brought home some Ginkgo Biloba, it’s good for the memory.”
“Alright,” she said, “Whatever you think best.”
I filled in all the forms and enrolled her as Elizabeth Barnes.
“I’m so happy I’m going to be Elizabeth again,” she said, “it feels like a fresh start.”
* * * *
The first day of school arrived, and I couldn’t get her out of the house. We had an absurd showdown in the kitchen.
“Elizabeth, get in the car.”
“Why are you calling me Elizabeth? I’m your mother, call me Mom.”
“You’re going to be late for school. Please get your books and your bag and get in the car. And don’t make faces at me.”
”I don’t want to go to school today, I’ll start tomorrow.”
“Mom,” I said, “I’ve had a long day at work, please get in the car.”
She had three hours of classes. I was a nervous wreck. I parked outside the college, and sat in the car waiting till she came out.
* * * *
The following evening, we were in the kitchen.
She stood at the window looking into her yard. She went quiet for a long while, and seemed to be floating out into another world.
“What are you thinking, Mom?”
“You know what I was just thinking, Bobby? I was just thinking, I don’t want people to call me Betty anymore. My name’s Elizabeth. People called me Elizabeth when I was a girl. But as soon as I became an adult I became Betty. I want to be Elizabeth again.”
“Alright, Mom, I’ll call you Elizabeth. Now sit up at the table and do your homework.”
“I can’t move out. I can’t leave her on her own.”
She sat there reading, gently tapping her lip with a pencil.
I made us some dinner.
When I glanced back at her she was drawing cartoon birds in the margins of her notebook.
“Oh my God,” I thought, “I used to do that at school.”
Note: This blog post also ran on Huffington Post.