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Our Later Years

I am my Mother's Keeper


But, God, why can't she just take her clothes off with some verbal prompting while I put this laundry away, give me a little slack?. 'Cause she can't, Judy. But since 7:00 this morning I've been trying to tempt her flagging appetite; and taking her to the bathroom every couple of hours. And going on errands with her in tow so she'll get an outing. And tuning the television to something that she shows signs of enjoying. And giving her medicine one, two three times and the fourth still to go. And washing and drying and folding her urine-soaked night clothes and bed pads... And monitoring her physical state and emotional state because she can't frame the thought and then the words to express discomfort or preference but she still has them (stuff registers--like a creepy serial killer plot on New York Undercover that was scaring her--but I have to locate what she's feeling and thinking and name it to her before she can report on her state)... And reminding myself I choose this, I choose this, I choose this, and that her being in this good a condition is due to the miracle drug tacrine (brand name: Cognex) and where would I be without it?... And making myself hug her in the midst of my boiling frustration so I can feel how the Parkinsonism that goes with Alzheimer's is making the major muscles of her neck, throat, and upper torso turn to stone--so I can feel how frail and frightened she is and how brave she is to be still saying she wants to go on pushing her loyal turning-80-now body forward in that penguin-like waddle--so I can touch the fact that she is someone, the one, who is love in the world to me, the only love I trust. 

My biggest challenge is emotional control. The sustaining rage of my life is my undoing now. It's my response, my defense, my coping mechanism, my motive power, has been for much of my life. Rage against segregation, injustice, amoral capitalism, against petty greed, lyin', cheatin' hearts, and fundamentalists of all kinds. Noble, artistic rage that fueled my ambition to write world-changing poems. Idealistic, pioneering rage that drove me to hurt myself proving that a woman and a Black person could cut it in Fortune 500land.

But the rage that propelled me to socially constructive acts of art and freedom struggle is incompatible with and destructive to the domestic, nurturing enterprise I have undertaken. Yet I still have it. So many frightening realities are bearing down on me that I maintain the little sanity I lay claim to by taking it one day, one hour, one minute at a time--when I can think clearly enough to remember that, when I can hold myself that still.

Here's where the blunder of canceling that longterm care insurance policy comes back to haunt me. Doing this twenty-four, seven (hours a day, days a week) is too much for any thinking body. Being able to pay someone for regular breaks (a day a week, a couple of weekends a month) would make all the difference in my life and probably be refreshing for Momma as well.

Failing that, I find myself screaming at Momma, creating a sound barrier that protects me from hitting her. I slam a glass down hard enough to break it on the rug. I snatch away the tray bearing the food she won't eat; it's done with ill-grace and a punitive attitude, but it defuses the moment, gives me the nanosecond of space/time it takes to demagnify the situation and restore a sane perspective.

Predictably it's usually around period time that such fits of frustration and desperation occur, or when I've gone flat out to make a writing payday. Off and on since 1992 I had managed my moods with Prozac and Librium. Since fall of '95, I've been sustaining myself through tai chi and Chinese herbal therapy. I had a job here for two years but eventually couldn't handle job stress (sexism and racism) and caregiving stress as Ma's dependence increased.

And gradually as Momma continues to live, AD will continue to disconnect words from concepts and feelings and referents. "Daughter,'' "Love,'' "Judy'' will not add up to anything discernibly meaningful for her. Who will I be without my mother? How will I stand it when she doesn't comprehend that I am her baby--"My one little chick," she called me in '91 with infinite tenderness when I had broken my ankle. It's like the whole Alabama experience is a black hole and I'll never again reach escape velocity.

'Course it's silly to think that way because Mother will die.

Then I will have nobody and nothing.

Now you see why I'm learning to take one day or less at a time. Now I see why people learn to pray.
It's three in the morning, that's what this is. Three in the morning ten days before Christmas. 1995.


As the tardy spring of 1996 settles in, marking the five-year point of this huge change in my life, I sense I'm letting go the last of my two-plus decades in New York--which is to say, of  habits, expectations, and hopes no longer appropriate for my location, age, and responsibilities. It has been one hell of a transition.

I am being gentled and healed by living in a loving relationship--with my mom. Being around her is instructive. Watching her improvise around the gaps Alzheimer's gouges into her brain humbles and shames me. She is aware of being changed, impaired, but she does not despair and she doesn't complain. Some people would argue that the disease itself, promoting forgetfulness as it does, is its own anesthetic. I say that is wishful thinking on the part of those reluctant to witness a terrible engagement between a human and the impersonal poetics of life, existence. Being.

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