Today is my mother’s yahrzeit—the anniversary of her death on the Jewish calendar. I was a long distance caregiver to her for the three years she lived after my dad passed away. I’m living proof that you can dislike someone intensely and yet truly care for them. It’s all a matter of mindset.
Granted, I live in New York and she in Florida, but there was her routine, medical forms to be dealt with, private aides to counsel and console, and of course her constant complaints about everything and everyone in our daily phone calls. There was also the weight of knowing that the call could come at any minute for me to fly down because she was in the hospital—yet again. She loved the hospital. There she felt like the center of attention.
She was not an easy person to care for—even from a distance. An extremely vain, supreme narcissist with a chronic lung condition that required four separate hour-long treatments every single day is a handful. She was disciplined. In her late sixties, she was given two years to live and showed them all, dying fifteen years after her diagnosis—which I credit to her diligently followed drug regimen (and the superlative care my dad provided). He was literally dying of cancer and she was the sick one.
I didn’t just go down when she was hospitalized, I would visit for a week every month and I did so out of duty and great love for my father, who as so many caregivers, pre-deceased her. On his deathbed, I promised him I would be there for her and gave him permission to let go. Our visits basically consisted of my driving her to her various doctors’ appointments, the hairdresser, a lunch or dinner out and maybe a movie. She tired easily, mostly because she lived a totally passive existence, living only to spend hours getting ready to go out and show a good face to the world. There were times I’d watch her putting on her make-up and see the exhaustion set in. She was never moved to try and get stronger. I was at my wit’s end trying to motivate her to do something pro-active.
To say we had a contentious relationship is putting it mildly. On my 50th birthday we actually came to blows. She took the first swing. I knew if I took a swat at her, she’d break. I may have detested her, but I didn’t want to hurt her. After all, she was my mother. So, how did I do it? How could I possibly have been kind to this woman with no redeeming qualities?
I credit my sister-in-law with giving me the key to surviving a situation I could not escape. “Just agree with everything she says. Treat her like she’s a crazy woman and appease her. Don’t take the bait.” It was that simple.
For example, my mother loved harping on the poor character of my father’s family. Before I changed my mindset, I would have argued otherwise—knowing my opinion would fall on deaf ears or lead to an argument, I learned to utter “Uh-huh.”
This tactic worked face-to-face or over the phone. When my father was alive, I would avoid calling because I hated the way I felt before, during and after we’d speak. The guilt for not calling would build up and I knew what would be waiting for me on the other end of the line when I’d finally phone. Once my dad died, I called very frequently, but the daily barrage of complaints became unbearable. I asked her “What can I do to make your life easier?” My mother said “Call me every day.” Despite the way I felt about her, I knew that a two or three minute call to say hi, fill her in on my day and let her live a little vicariously was far easier than hearing her bitch for a half-hour.
It’s twelve years since she died. “Ding dong the witch is dead.” Horrible to know that’s how I felt when she passed. But I took good care of her. I was her advocate. I was her counselor. I may have been the only friend she had left in the world—she’d pretty much alienated everyone else.
Funny though, every now and then I’ll get a pang in my gut at 8:00 p.m. and gasp “I’ve got to call my mother.” We do what we gotta do.
Adrienne Gruberg is a former family caregiver and founder of The Caregiver Space. After six years of caring for her late husband and mother-in-law she conceived of an online support space all caregivers could come to. Adrienne holds a BFA from Boston University. She founded AYA Creative in 1982, an award winning graphic design, marketing and advertising company. Her design training has helped shape the website and her personal and professional experience continues to inform and influence the caregiver centric support experience she has created at The Caregiver Space.