As I writer (and reader) I’ve always found it interesting how certain words on the page can resonate with you more deeply depending on where you’re “at” when you read them. This was the case for me when I came upon the following passage about mothers in Louise Erdrich’s brilliant book The Painted Drum:
“It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weaknesses the rest of her life. It is alright to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that it has no principles. She simply must be to blame.”
When I read this several years ago, my mother was in some of her darkest days of depression. She likely had been depressed for many years, but it hadn’t been diagnosed as was often the case for women of her time. There’s no doubt that I, the (recovering) perfectionist had set ridiculously high standards for my mother. Somehow my dad always got off easier.
For much of her life, my mother was known to be the life of the party (in a good way). Whether it was jumping up on a table to dance, or putting together the most hilarious costumes for a curling bonspiel or the annual labour day parade, her huge smile and boisterous laugh could light up a room (I’m blessed with that same laugh). Maybe that’s why, seeing all of that disappear as it slowly did, was so hard to watch and understand.
Our house was the usual gathering place for our large extended family and these were always great times. My mother wasn’t one to stress out about preparing enormous meals with all the fixings. Her sisters, my aunties and my grandmother – all my heroes – contributed to the feast. Washing up afterward was even fun as the women, including cousins and “in-laws”, would come together in the kitchen sharing stories, laughing at each other’s various mishaps. We were a lively bunch and family was everything.
Then my grandfather died and 15 years later my grandmother. In both cases, my mom was with her parents as they left this world and I think that has always stayed with her. I know she considers it a gift to have held them as they struggled for their last breaths, but at the same time, a piece of her left with each of them.
It wasn’t long after that when my mom’s depression, which had been percolating under the surface as she cared for all of us, my dad, her dad, our growing families, and then finally her mother, bubbled up. It was still slow though, showing up as physical symptoms for which no diagnosis could be found.
My brother intervened when, upon visiting my parents at their winter retreat in Osoyoos, B.C., he found my mother in really bad shape. Knowing what I know now, I can see that this was the worst place she could have been, as she was isolated and alone during the days while my dad golfed (she doesn’t). He called me and said something had to be done. I was defensive at first, and then ashamed. I write about mental health for crying out loud. How did I miss this? I then finally did do something, on the advice of a colleague, by filling out the free online assessment Check Up from the Neck Up, pretending to be my mom because there’s no way she would have done it at the time. The results clearly showed depression. I remember being petrified driving out to my parents to deliver these “results”. While my mom knew she was sick, she was resisting our intervention. Regardless, and with her glaring at me across the room, I tagged along to one of her doctor’s appointments to share my “findings”. Even if she disagreed, I knew she’d need an advocate.
The doctor was new, as they often are in my parent’s small town, few staying long enough to really get to know their patients. I described some of the symptoms from the “Check Up” I’d done and then said, “The woman you see here isn’t my mom.”
While those words were an effective strategy to get the doc to look beyond her physical symptoms, they weren’t true. She was still my mom, but over the past years leading up to that day, she had become a little lost to me. I’m ashamed to admit I judged her for not seeming interested enough in a lot of things that were important in my life at the time, including those beloved large family dinners, my work, and more painfully, my children. Now, looking back, I wince when I think of how hard it must have been for her to “show up” as much as she did.
Medication helped, and with more understanding and a diagnosis, my mom showed tremendous courage in opening up about her illness and assembling her own amazing support group to help her through. She wasn’t interested in psychotherapy, told me it would stress her out (!), so we never went that route. It took a while to get the dosage right and there were some relapses, but she was always brave enough to call me and tell me she was feeling “that way” again. Once she knew what it was and how she could feel better, she never looked back.
Then, as things continued to improve, my dad was diagnosed with dementia and my mom with COPD, which actually helped spur on another series of events – The sale of our family home of over 50 years and their moving into a 55+ apartment nearby. We were bracing ourselves for the worst, when my mom called me one day ecstatic that the doctor had said my dad’s was a misdiagnosis and that he didn’t have dementia any more than the doctor himself did. He said it was likely he was just going to be a weird grumpy old man. We continue to track my mom’s COPD but she’s doing well.
My parents have now both said they are happier than they’ve ever been (at 78 and 79!) in their apartment. The complex is in the community my mom grew up in, next door to the town where I was raised and my dad was born. It’s also the last place my grandmother lived independently and is filled with those great memories. I think my mom feels like she’s come home.
My parents are looking after one another like never before…well my mom doing most of the looking after as always, but there’s a renewed appreciation that seems to be mutual. I can’t say enough about the value of our aging parents having social connections as mine have found in their new “community”. Who would have thought my deeply depressed mother of five years ago would be out in the common room playing cards and doing puzzles several times a day, running the complex’s fun night, cooking up some of our favourite dishes again, and just generally being the life of the party once more.
I have always needed my mom and I missed her terribly when she wasn’t well. Now I can call her anytime and regale my latest successes or failures. And she’ll give me the ass-kicking, spot on advice she used to. She’ll say what needs to be said. Always with an I love you to wrap it up.
Always my hero.
I’d like to dedicate this story to all the women, like my mom, who have raised us up and shown us the way. Because of them, we and our daughters have a greater understanding of what it takes to make a difference in the world. And that it isn’t always easy. Hopefully we, like they, will continue to #PressforProgress on issues like mental health, equality and inclusivity.
It is not lost on me how lucky I am to be able to share this story with my mom still here. Most of my best friends’ mothers are gone. But man, have they left behind some strong, loving, kind-hearted, spirited women who are changing the world—One day, one daughter or son, one great act of sisterhood at a time. I’m sending my gratitude, love and admiration to every one of you. You know who you are. You inspire me every day.
Have a great International Women’s Day!
Printed with permission from my mom.
Update – As of International Women’s Day 2019, my mom’s COPD symptoms have not worsened dramatically although her cough continues. She is experimenting with Reiki and starting to see some moderate improvements. I am again duly impressed by her resilience and openness to try something new so she can have the best life possible, and grateful that she and my dad continue to enjoy life in their new home. Our children are also indebted to them for all of their support. Grandma has definitely been “present” more than ever!