A Poem for My Aging Mother

My poor mother is suffering from dementia at 87 and it is very sad and difficult to watch her decline. I will write more if I can at some later time about it but for now I want just to post a poem I wrote for her years ago and then rewrote completely recently.

 

Over the years we have had some troubled times. Because my father disowned me for some thirty-five years, she had to make a choice between him and me, essentially, and the one she made was obvious. I was out of the house by then and I am not sure it ever really occurred to her to make any other choice, but who knows? I do not. In any event, I bear her no bad feelings for this, I do not think. Though had I been “her son” with schizophrenia i believe the outcome and her choices might well have been very different, as they always were when it came to my brother.

 

But that is water under the bridge. The choice was made and I was sacrificed. That said, perhaps it is a good thing, I dunno. If she had given up her life for me,  I might never have developed any independence at all, or written the poems and books I have.  I might never have discovered my art abilities. Who knows? No one knows, of course, what their “alternate futures” might have  held. We can only work with what we have and the cards we are dealt. We can’t make others choose on our behalf. Much as we might wish them to.

 

I never wanted my mother to give up her life for me. I felt guilty enough, just for being the way I was. The worst thing in the world would have been for her to make any sacrifice for me at all. For anyone to have done so would have been damaging to me. So I am glad that everyone went on their way, because otherwise I would have had to kill myself in apology.

 

I could say much more but I am sleepy so without further fanfare, the poem:

 

PHONE CALL TO MY MOTHER AT SIXTY

 

I have not thought of you all day.

A March wind rattles the wires,

wishing you a belated happy birthday.

You are sixty, my grandfather ninety,

my younger sister thirty,

but if there is significance in that,

a syzygy, some conjunction in the heavens

I have yet to figure it out.

Your husband answers, my father,

aligned against me north-north,

between us implacable silence.

So we sidestep confidences,

suspecting he is listening in

until in the distance the line clicks

like a playing card in the spokes.

But even so, how carefully we speak,

expelling words of fragile allegiance

each of us pretending not to know

what the other is thinking.

 

Suddenly you confide, you feel old:

the baby is thirty, you don’t like

your new job, you miss teaching,

the exuberant children, their bright

and lazy charm. There is so much to do,

so little time. Before it is too late

 

you want to captain a boat to the Azores,

learn cabinet-making — you have the tools,

a lathe, a power saw, inherited from your deaf father

who never heard you speak

but built you a fabulous dollhouse

and taught you, at ten, to sink the eight ball.

 

Could I ever confide that I, too, feel old? At thirty-five

you had a husband, four children,

a career in the wings. Older by a decade, I rent

a single room and have no prospects

beyond the next day’s waking.

Instead I carefully quote Joseph Campbell’s

advice: follow your bliss.

And I remind you Aquarians always step

to a different drum’s thunder.

You like these clichés,

and laugh, repeating them, then you say

with a sudden spontaneous sincerity

that moves me how good it is to talk with me.

I think of all the times we have not spoken,

how at sixty it would be nice

to have a daughter to talk with

instead of friends wakened in the night,

reaching over husbands or wives,

to answer the phone, “Hello? Hello?”

their wary voices expecting

death or disaster.

 

You are tired, you say now,

you have an early appointment.

We promise each other a date for lunch.

But I will not call for a long time.

Or perhaps I will call the next day.

Before you hang up, you let slip

it’s your wedding anniversary, one

marked by some mundane substance —

stone, carbon, foil, rope.

Should I congratulate you, I wonder,

or console you? Finally, we say good-bye.

Across the wires I think I hear

your voice crack, but it could be the wind

or a bad connection.

9 thoughts on “A Poem for My Aging Mother”

  1. I’m glad you like my new name. As you know, I’ve tried on several. I agree, Alaina feels like me.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about your last comment. Once again, you manage to convey so much in a few sentences. I’ve been mulling over your statements about the relativity of suffering. Pondering your occasions of prescience (I have had that happen, too. Spooky/Cool, yes?) But most of all, I have been thinking about your mother telling you when you were just a child, that you would never love anyone; that you were cold and unfeeling “just like your father.”

    We have so much in common, Pam. As you said, life is, indeed, hard.

    Before I learned about the psychological phenomena of “projection,” I could never understand the rationale behind so many of the cruel and strange things my mother said to me as I was growing up, and beyond. But, seen in the light of “projection,” it all makes a crazy kind of sense.

    I have commented on quite a few blogs over the years. YOU are BY FAR the most consistently WARM and LOVING blogger I have encountered. (So THERE, mother-of-Pam.)

    As a mother of three adult children, I know how hard it is to be a “good” mother. I am afraid that I did and said many wrong and hurtful things as my children were growing up, partly due to my ignorance and partly due to my brokenness. For this reason, I feel like a hypocrite whenever I judge anyone’s mothering. But… damn. Telling a little girl that she will never love anyone! It makes my blood want to boil.

  2. Dear Alaina,

    By the way, i like your new moniker. Whether or not it is your real name, it suits your online presence to a T. Very nice choice.

    As for parents, i do know you cannot really compare pain, that when someone suffers from lack of love (not to mention housing, food, etc) no one can say their suffering is less or more than anyone else’s…

    I have always been afraid that i can’t love anyone…i have never fallen in love, which people are quick to tell me is over-rated but they are always the ones who have indeed experienced it. In any event, wouldnt you know that it was my mother who ALWAYS told me that i would never love anyone! Not only that but that i was cold and unfeeling “just like your father!” which was rhe worst insult and accusation she could throw at me…how i shudder to think of how much anger she had at me. And why? Because she…well, i wont go into it now, but maybe i will later in a poem or blog post. Although she tells me she loves me all the time now, she is also not “here” inthe way that she used to be. Nevertheless, i think it is a real love, a primal love, one from someone who knows i am there for her and love her…

    Life is hard.

    So many of my poems are actually prescient it amazes me. For instance, ones i wrote about her having Alzhemiers 20 years ago, before i had any inkling she might develop it. Not to mention having written about my younger sister’s having breast cancer, a good ten years before she was diagnosed!

    Go figger.

    Pam

  3. Thank you. Your compassion and caring means so much.

    I think that in some ways the overt rejection from a parent may do less harm, in the long run, than the covert subtle freezing-out kind of rejection. Because at least with the overt kind, there is no question you are dealing with an a-hole who cannot love, so the problem really Isn’t you.

    Although we always think the problem is us, don’t we? If only I did not have this “mental illness,” then I might be “worthy” of love.

    We all need love. We need food, we need water, we need air, we need shelter, and we need love. Deprive a dependent child of any of those things and we are not going to grow up healthy. If we can grow up at all.

  4. Dear Alaina,

    Yes, but you know ALL too well how cold parents can be don’t you? Argh, I sweat literally when I read about your abandonment and being kicked out of your own house at such an age…I dunno what I would have done. I guess we manage to survive or not. But it gives me worse than shivers, it makes me nauseated…I cannot go there, to think about how your parents treated you. It would indeed be PTSD-inducing to the maximum degree. It is a tribute to your spirit that you not only survived, you turned and indeed made yourself into a lovely person. I am honored that you call me “friend.”

    Pam

  5. I’m glad my words cheered you, dear friend. I wrote and posted my heart-felt response to your beautiful poem, before reading the first two comments here, Marie’s and your response to Marie. I fully understand your “sensitivity” ~ I am at times exquisitely, painfully sensitive to even the smallest perceived criticism of me and/or my work, particularly during stressful and unsettled times. The major move you are presently undertaking certainly qualifies as that.

    However, I think that Marie’s comment, taken as a whole, is meant in a positive and supportive way. I believe the “pathos” she was referring to, had to do with your parents’ attitude toward you. THAT is very pathetic indeed, in my opinion. All the more so when seen through the eyes of a mother. It breaks my heart and also angers me that parents can be so cold toward their offspring.

  6. Dear Alaina, thank you so much for your comment. I was feeling low today so it cheered me up. I appreciate your generosity of spirit. Not all writers can share what you shared…

    Thanks again,

    Pam

  7. Dear Marie,

    As a serious fellow writer, and a poet for many years, when I first read your comment — “my first response after reading all this was – Pathetic” — I was horrified, because I interpreted your word “pathetic” in the informal sense as a commentary on the quality of writing: “feeble, woeful, sorry, poor, pitiful, lamentable, deplorable, contemptible, inadequate, paltry, insufficient, unsatisfactory.” (I quote from the Apple dictionary). Then as i read further, I think I understand that you meant it in the first formal sense (from the word pathos) “pitiable, piteous, moving, touching, poignant, plaintive, distressing, upsetting…etc.” and were commenting on the content more generally than on the quality of the writing. (Oh, I am so exquisitely sensitive, but aren’t all writers?) I hope so, because otherwise it is a difficult word to take in.

    Still, I am not certain. Why use the word “Pathetic”? Do you refer to my life at that time, or to my writing? I would be interested in your answer.

    Please Don’t get me wrong. I do not need you to like my poem. I am confident enough as a poet NOT to need anyone to like every one of my poems or even to like any of them at all. We all have our own tastes in poetry and as the French say, “Chacun a son gout” or to each his own… But usually people who find a poem pathetic don’t bother with it further, or with telling the writer so. This is why your response mystifies me. And almost hurt me. If you only mean literally pathetic from the word, pathos, then okay. I get it. But the surrounding words of your response don’t go along with this. You almost sound a bit angry at first…

    Well, I do belabor a point, don’t I? In any event, if you feel like explaining, do so. If not, you owe me nothing. Thank you in any event. I could sense the overall positive nature of your comment by the end!

    Yours, in the struggle,

    Pam W.

  8. My dear friend,

    I am sorry to be candid that the first word that came to my mind after reading all this was – Pathetic. But then, I read again the flow of your writing, choice of words, gentleness but firmness, art mixed with reality… I could go on an on. Life they say has its own course: we only meander through depending on the winds and waves.

    Cheers to you 🙂

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