What Do We Owe a Dying Parent?

Notes from a Reluctant Caregiver

Posted Mar 12, 2013

My mother wore a coral sweater and matching nail polish the day she came to tell me she had stage 4 lung cancer.

I took a deep breath and exhaled.

In her usual and offensive communication style, my mother shook her head. “Pitifully, Ariel,” she sighed, “you’re all I have.”

I didn’t want to take care of my mother. But I knew I would.

I’d join 65 million other Americans—almost 30 percent of the U.S. population—who care for an ill, disabled, or aging friend or family member.

These “informal caregivers” offer an average of 20 hours a week in unpaid labor and more than $5,000 a year in out-of-pocket expenditures. These are our measurable contributions, anyway.

And the typical caregiver, it turns out, is me: A working woman with children of her own caring for her widowed mother.

We take care of our ailing parents for any number of reasons: Love, duty, necessity, or some combination.

Some caregivers want to reciprocate the care they themselves received as children.

But what do we owe a self-centered parent who never really took care of us?

I’m sure there were plenty of loving, attentive mothers in the “me generation,” but none of them lived at my house.

When I was a kid, my mother's parenting style teetered between benign neglect and intense bouts of violence.

My step-dad was gentle, but he didn’t intervene if my sister and I were getting our heads bashed together.

I left home at 16, started my own family at 19, and tried to build a life free of meanness and abuse.

I reared a daughter, sent her off to college, then had a second child.

That’s when my mother showed up at my door with the news. She might live six weeks or she might live a year. She was 68 and a widow.

My grandmother had just died a few weeks earlier, so my mother had a small inheritance, but beyond that she relied on Social Security and Medicaid. She didn't qualify for most of the assisted living facilities we could afford, and her epic temper tantrums had already gotten her kicked out of the one we could afford.

To be fair, my mother wasn’t bursting with excitement at the prospect of having me as her caregiver. “If I’m a burden,” she promised, “I’ll just blow my brains out.”

I guess this was supposed to make me feel better.

“You’re not a burden,” I lied.

And I agreed to buy a duplex with her and move my family two states away from our home and community.

Friends who didn’t know my mother promised all the beauty and dignity that our cultural mythology promises—reconciliation and a gentle death.

But what if the way we die is no gentler than the way we’ve lived?

Cancer or no, my mother was harsh, charming, and chaotic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, for example, when, as we were en route to this new life, my mother had the duplex we’d bought gutted and burned half my furniture.

My partner and I were horrified, of course, but we told ourselves the situation was temporary. Stage-four lung caner is no joke, after all. We hated to think of it this way, but truthfully it was reassuring: My mother would die soon.

But, alas, my mother did not die soon. As a good friend warned me the night we got the diagnosis, “I know your mother. She’s a narcissist. And narcissists take a long time to die.”

I don’t know if my mother was a narcissist—or bi-polar or borderline. Those were words she tossed around over the years. As in: “You wouldn’t believe what that moronic psychologist suggested.”

But she was something.

Home hospice nurses would catch their breath when they first met her, and whisper “Your mother is so beautiful.” Within a few days they’d quit, crying, “Your mother’s a witch.”

Both observations were true enough.

My partner and I stayed on, tried to do our part. There were nurses and naturopaths, radiation technicians and shamans. And there was my mother.

One morning I woke to discover my bank account overdrawn by thousands of dollars. In a late-night shopaholic moment she’d hacked both my Paypal and Ebay accounts--easily answering my security questions like "in which hospital were you born?" and "what's you mother's maiden name?"—and bought more antique French dishes than we could ever eat off of.

One night, upset to find a good knife in the dishwasher, she woke me, blade pointed at my throat. She hummed a Simon and Garfunkel song. And then started laughing.

When I commandeered the knife, she cried, “I have cancer!"

When I told her that cancer or no, her behavior was unacceptable, she dramatically disowned me.

After the knife incident, I moved my family out of harm’s way, but between her rages, my mother got sicker.

My mother a few days before she died

But I didn't have it in me.

It wasn’t payback time. It was time to be the grownup.

I may have raised myself, but I raised myself right.

I didn’t take care of her fulltime, but I bottom-lined the show for those last three months: I called everyone I knew to come and help, hired nursing students to stay with her nights, fed her soft foods even though I couldn’t remember her ever feeding me.

I didn’t owe her anything in the caregiving department. Still, I tried to behave in a way I would be proud of.

Some days I wanted to slap her (and I didn’t).

Some days I wanted to scream expletives at her (and some days I did).

Some days I wished she would have some miraculous end-of-life revelation and stop being so abusive to me, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

She died the way she had lived: mean and beautiful, with a good manicure.

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