My mother and I stood in line behind the third oldish-daughter-with-old-mother unit I’d seen since entering the grocery store. The mother ahead of us was tall, late 80s, thin and weak looking but sharp-eyed. She turned to give appraising glances at the weary, preoccupied string of humanity behind her. After she’d summed us up, she leaned forward, resting tired arms on the shopping cart.
The daughter, in her early sixties, as I was at the time, had a long frame like her mother’s but fleshed out and smartly dressed. She gazed at a row of magazine covers showing movie stars wearing dresses split to their waists. The V-shaped bodices gave peek-a-boo glimpses of youthful, swelling breasts: America’s fertility goddesses dressed in designer gowns and diamonds. I wondered if she and I were thinking the same thing: Life had flashed by, including the fertility part, at lightening speed.
These mother/daughter sets I’d started to spot everywhere weren’t new. I hadn’t seen them because I wasn’t paying attention, but that summer of 2008 my life changed. I’d become the younger half of such a unit myself when my mother, Alice, 94, moved from Iowa to Oregon to live in an assisted living facility near me.
Patient and in good humor, Alice put up with the long grocery line and used our cart as a walker to inch forward. She leaned sideways to squint at the glossy magazines and asked in a loud voice, “What are those girls wearing? Are they supposed to be dresses?”
The other mother turned her head and took in the booby view. “They must have run out of material,” she said.
An old joke, but I felt glad for a laugh. Alice, with her poor hearing, missed it. She turned to me, questioning. I repeated the woman’s remark and she smiled at the other mother. I tried to make eye contact with the daughter, but she glanced toward the door, perhaps thinking about getting home. To whom, I wondered. Was someone waiting? Did she live with her mother? Or alone? What would she do after dinner that night? Read? Pour a glass of wine and watch something on Netflix? Call a friend and go over her day? Fall asleep wishing for a carefree life again, as carefree as she could create as she grew old herself?
I wanted to know about other daughters. How were they holding up? Being a new caregiver had altered my world dramatically. I could barely keep up with the to-do lists, errands, and medical scheduling. Also, there was financial stress. With Alice in my life, even at an assisted living facility, the demands were so great that I could no longer hold down a job. I was paying for my day to day expenses from my savings account and struggling with the enormous change from a life filled with lots of time for reading, writing, and friends to a whole lot of Alice time. Yet, I felt a fresh sense of purpose in caregiving, and so far that had felt good.
When the daughter ahead of us finally did turn our way, her face was strained. She glanced peevishly at her mother and moved away from her a few inches. I knew then that I didn’t ever want to feel about my mother the way she did about hers in that moment. She appeared tired of comments meant to be funny and bored by impromptu connections with strangers. Given a contentious history, I knew Alice and I could land in that place, but I vowed to try to find the grace not to let it happen. My mother was 94, after all. How much time did we have left, anyway?
I wasn’t yet aware of the emotional, mental and physical hazards of caregiving, so I had no context for where that daughter’s look and behavior might have been coming from. I didn’t yet know that 91 per cent of the people caring for women elders are daughters, and these daughters spend twice as much time caregiving as sons do.
Many of these women lose thousands of dollars a year from their jobs due to time spent away from work for caregiving. They’re prone to stress-related health problems, and experience more depression and anxiety than the rest of the population. Minority and low income women suffer the most because single older women in these groups hit poverty levels at the rate of thirty and forty per cent. According to AgingCare.com, these women are “half as likely as higher-income caregivers to have paid home health care or assistance available to provide support for and relief from their caregiving functions.
Alice lived to be 100, so I had plenty of opportunities to observe and learn from other daughters. An army of us populated waiting rooms, malls, pharmacies, hair salons, libraries, museums, rehab centers, hospital corridors, parks, hearing aid centers, coffee shops, bookstores, art galleries, dentists’ offices. Everywhere Alice and I went, daughters were helping their mothers, or in some cases fathers, to see/hear/communicate/ move from place to place. Look. You’ll see them.
Sometimes I think about that daughter in the checkout line back in 2008. With more information and experience, I can speculate about her now in a way I couldn’t that day. Maybe she had just gotten her bank statement and saw that another thousand dollars had dropped away. Maybe anxiety distracted her from hearing her mother’s joke about the movie stars. Maybe she’d never liked her mother and wasn’t about to start now and had good reasons.
I’m sure my judgment was probably harsher than she deserved. Whatever her truth at that moment, I respect it now. I’m also grateful I concluded what I did at the time because it helped me find my way. Despite challenges, Alice and I stuck together emotionally, psychically, and physically to the end. This is not to say we didn’t hit bumps. Some derailed us for days and some were minor. Nevertheless, we found grace. We both worked at that, and also we were lucky. The devoted support of my partner, Meg, and my friends was critical.
Recently, I came across a mother/daughter pair in a parking garage. They were giggling about something when the elevator doors swept open and I saw them inside. Both wore white polo shirts, pressed slacks, and pixie hair cuts. I got on and when the elevator started to ascend again, the daughter’s hand quickly reached out to steady her mother, who used a cane. I knew she did this automatically and often because her purpose during this phase of her life is to accompany, advocate for, and steady her mother, the woman who had done these things for her a long time ago.
I stood apart from them. Their shared laughter was their own. I thought about Alice and how it’s not reasonable to ask your mother to live more than a century. Still, those times come when I hear a mother and daughter laughing and wish I could be leaning over to catch some funny remark in a waiting room or bringing flowers to her in her apartment, a gesture that would always, always thrill her.
The elevator dinged. The pixie-cut mother and daughter slowly walked off and toward their car, and I began to cry as I walked toward mine. I felt, as I did for a long time after Alice died, like a branch broken off a tree.
I’ve left being a caregiver behind, but there are still days when I need to push myself to carve purpose from the stubborn stone of a so-called “carefree” life. Even without Alice, I still look for those mother/daughter pairings. When one comes into view I usually try to make eye contact with the daughter and, if I can do that, I nod at her: I see you, and I know what you do.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.