When the Daughter Becomes the Mother to an Ailing Parent

by Lynda Lampert

Image via Olga Filonenko/Flickr

Image via Olga Filonenko/Flickr

I had to say no.

My mother's face was tear-streaked, her hair a black and white nimbus around her head. "Please, I just want a chocolate bar. Why won't you listen to me anymore?"

Diabetes is a terrible disease, and it had already claimed my mother's leg and her vision. A smart woman, she knew what she should eat and what she shouldn't. It didn't matter, though. The comfort she felt from having her sweets meant more to her than her health.

I stood at the doorway, afraid to enter into the room where my mother sat pleading. All of my life, I never had the nerve to go against her. I wasn't even a rebellious teen. Growing up Italian, I learned at a very young age that respecting my elders is more important than what I wanted.

Now, I was in an untenable situation. Either I give my mother the candy that I knew would send her blood sugar sky high, or tell her no. She was in a wheelchair, trapped in her room. If I didn't get it for her, then she wouldn't have it.

Many of us have had the experience of dealing with a parent who suddenly becomes the child. As we enter our 30s and 40s, mothers and fathers start to lose their health. In many cases, it is the daughter who assumes the role of caretaker.

My mother was my best friend. I looked up to her from an early age, and I would feel bereft when kept from her for long. When she got sick, the choice to care for her wasn't even a question. My father had left her. My brother was building his own family. I wanted only to be with my mom. We took care of each other.

It was a tradition in my family. Mothers and daughters were always close. My mother grieved until the day she died over the loss of her own mother. In a family with more women than men, it fell to the daughters to care for the women that raised us.

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I am not sure when the shift began, when I became the parent and my mother became the child. Maybe it was after my grandmother died, when my mother couldn't recover from her grief. Maybe it was when her diabetes spiraled out of control, shocking her doctors with how quickly it ravaged her body.

Peripheral neuropathy took the feeling in her feet, meaning she couldn't drive anymore. Macular degeneration limited her vision until I was nothing but a shadow in front of her. A sore on her foot led to the amputation of her leg below the knee. As she descended into loss of independence, I ascended into the one in charge of all of her care.

We had many fights, some that would leave us both crying. She wanted her old life back. She wanted her mother back. She didn't want to be a burden, and she didn't want to be the child to my parent.

I didn't want it, either. I wished with a fervency that surprised me that someone would come and save me from this responsibility. Frustration was my normal state of mind. Dread was my constant friend when entering my mother's sick room and dealing with the various unpleasant activities that assaulted me.

It didn't change how much I loved her, but it made me look at her differently. No longer the strong and towering woman of my childhood, I wasn't sure who this person was. She was needy and clingy, stubborn and emotional. My compassion for her allowed me to understand why she felt this way, but it didn't make it easier to deal with. Her needs surpassed my own in every way, and I couldn't do anything about it.

To control her diabetes, I had to control her eating. I controlled everything else, and this one last bastion of independence I had to take away. I knew the sugary foods would kill her eventually. I knew that I was responsible for what happened to her because I was in control now.

I was her mother, and her my beloved child.

I stood in the doorway and looked into her pleading eyes. Life had denied her almost everything, had treated her poorly, and reduced her to ashes. All she wanted was chocolate. All she wanted was for me to give her something so simple it's laughable.

All she wanted was the poison that would lead to her death.

I stood at a crossroads. I could give her the dignity of deciding what to eat, or I could save her life by walking away, ignoring her cries. She was a pitiful creature in front of me, and I wished in my heart that she was still the woman I knew when I was a child.

I should have said no. I should have walked from her room and let her cry over it. I knew what the right choice was. Of course I did. Anyone would have known.

I walked to the kitchen with a heavy heart, got the candy bar, and returned to her room. She cheered when I walked in with her prize, delighted that I finally decided to do what she wanted.

I handed it to her, and her face lit up with pleasure. She tore into the packaging, ripped off a bite, and then smacked her lips in satisfaction. I didn't have the heart to check her blood sugar after that. I knew it would be high, and I knew it was my fault.

For those precious few minutes, though, my mother had some control over her life. She could decide what she ate, and that made her happy. It made her strong.

Did I make the right choice? Should I have left a miserable woman even more miserable because I was trying to protect her? Was I a bad mother to my mother because I didn't protect her?

I don't know the answer. I know that she was grateful, happy that I did this small thing for her. She smiled despite her pain, and I knew that she loved me. Oh, she would have loved me either way, but this was a boon that solidified that bond. I gave her a moment of light in the darkness.

This story doesn't have a happy ending. She died shortly after. I still wonder if I did the right thing, but when I think of how grateful she was in the moment, I know I would make the same choice every time.

 

Lynda Lampert is a woman on the cusp of middle age who had to grow up fast. With no children of her own, she has learned to mother family, friends, husbands, and pets.  In addition, the various curveballs and startling changes life has thrown her have challenged her, awakened her, and provided for very interesting therapy sessions.