I woke up this morning with a memory of my mom from at last 20 years ago when she was still cleaning offices twice a week (plus working full-time for my dad in the family business and keeping up the household chores of cooking, shopping, and cleaning). This particular memory I woke up to, was a scene from one of the many times she had called me to ask for help in her office cleaning. She used to clean multiple doctor offices within a local two-story office building and she would go from one office to another, locking herself in to each office for safety’s sake.
She tirelessly hauled the vacuum, bucket and mop, and bags of rags and cleaning supplies from the one office to the next—chiropractor, gynecologist, dentist, podiatrist—it didn’t matter. They were all the same. They all had garbage cans, sinks, desks, and toilets that needed to be cleaned. Only the tools of the doctor’s trades made any difference as to what was behind those doors.
In my dream memory, I arrived at the office building, with a coffee and cheese Danish from 7-11 for her in hand as a treat. I reached for the front door, feeling relieved that it was unlocked, which meant one of the doctors was having office hours. Some days, if she knew she was going to be alone in the building she would lock it up tight and if I was coming to help her, I would have to bang on the glass doors or find an open window, a good indicator of which office she was in, and yell “Anya!” from the parking lot (that’s “mom” in Hungarian). Sort of like a Hungarian version of Marlon Brando yelling “Stella!!”
There was nothing striking or particular about this memory and why it popped into my head but I went with it, like I was watching an early morning movie. It was a scene that had repeated itself many times in my life and helping my mother clean offices is one of the core parts of my childhood. This random memory also held my attention because of its vividness and how it held me as I lay there still half-asleep but seeing all the details as closely and clearly as if I crossed a dimension and was standing right in between us that day.
In this memory, I walked into the first floor of the office building and I assume because she heard the front door, out she popped from the utility closet where she had been filling a bucket with water. Her mass of curly black hair only mildly kept in place by the headbands she favored. Her face was flushed and peppered with beads of sweat on her forehead, but when she saw me she broke into a big smile. “Hey!!!” We came together to kiss each other hello, and I wiped her sweat off my lips. “Hi honey,” she added. In the memory, I watched us take a quick coffee break so could have her Danish and she’d bring me up to speed with what and where she’d cleaned already and what still needed to be done (vacuuming always being a part of my job to help save her back). After we discussed the reassignment of the cleaning, we’d always spend a few more minutes catching up on other personal details of each others’ lives.
For as long as I could remember, my mother had a whirling dervish type of energy and it was palpable in my dream memory. It’s been so long since I’ve felt that level of energy from her I forgot what it was like and it was startling to feel it again. She stopped cleaning many years ago but still works a full-time job and makes her way through the day, her energy down to around 25 mph from her old 150 mph. Going back again in my mind and remembering her lifting the pails of water, vacuum, and scrubbing on her hands and knees, I can see the origin of all of her current aches and cramps. It’s so clear to me now how my mother’s constant pain and discomfort are a legacy from those days.
My mom is one of the smartest women I know and I’m incredibly proud of her. It’s been so hard to see her get caught up in the mental loop and sometime obsession of things that become bigger than life for people in their older years. I see changes in her confusion and thought processes and sometimes when she can’t remember something, I find myself trying to discern whether this is a normal forgetting or a another sign.
Sometimes when I explain recent mom-events to my brother I realize that I sound as though I’m on a Witch Hunt looking for signs of trouble or decline, but in my heart I’m not. In keeping her as independent as long as possible, I listen and I try to gauge whether her latest “You won’t believe what happened to me” story is another line that’s crossed or mom just being mom and the victim of circumstances.
The memory of her this morning, showed me in aching detail how fast the years have passed and how acutely things have changed with my taking care of her now as she increasingly looks to me for guidance and guardianship, especially being the closest to her physically.
I’m not fighting my role now as much as I did. I still get angry and frustrated, and there are days she’ll catch me off-guard, but I feel that I am finally coming to terms with the fact that this is the way she is now. My husband always said that I get angry because I fight the situation and he’s right. Instead of living in the memory of the way she used to be and missing being in the moment with who she is now, I think it’s more important to work on creating new memories with her and recognizing that sometimes it’s her fears that drive some of her reactions and not just her being stubborn (though there is still a lot of that!).
As it happens with many older people, there are aspects of her personality that have become exacerbated as she got older, which can be infuriating such as her obstinacy, selfishness, and manipulation. At the same time, however, it is exactly these qualities that she needed to cultivate and make bigger than life for her to have as a child, survived poverty; bombs; and soldiers holding her family at gunpoint, as they searched each household for traitors during the War, and then finally as an adult, escaping Yugoslavia with the clothes on her back.
Her story of survival is a remarkable one and I plan to tell it one day. But for now, this is the story of a mother / daughter flowing and reconciling into a relationship of caregiving and waiting for the next phone that will open up with “You won’t believe what happened to me”. Taking things deeper….