My Mom Drank Her Way Through All My Sympathy

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Photo: Peter Hince

I’m 40, and I work full-time as an urban planner. I live with my partner and two children. About six months ago, my 71-year-old mother moved in with us.

I’m an only child, and she was housebound, falling, drinking, and unable to feed herself. When I first decided to look after her, I was very optimistic. I told myself things like: “I will only do her washing and take out the trash – that’s not hard.” “Whenever we cook, I will make an extra portion — easy!” “I won’t worry when we go away for the weekend because I will introduce her to friends who live locally and they can check on her!” “She has a great view overlooking the creek, so she can watch people go by and feel like she is part of something without having to leave the house — that would make me happy if I couldn’t leave the house.” I thought she’d teach the kids art, and maybe even paint again! I planned to get her to walk a small way each day to feed the chickens.

Mom was a very talented artist, fashion illustrator, and model. She came from a poor German family who migrated here when she was 10. Her father was very strict — there’s a German saying “Wir biegen aber wir brechen nicht,” meaning “we bend but we do not break.” Her mother looked like Ingrid Bergman. She wore her hair tightly pulled back and never spoke her mind. The extent of the knowledge about being a woman that my grandmother passed on involved getting a tampon out when my mom first got her period. Mom still has a very warped sense of her femininity, her body image, and bodies in general. She did not know that there is a separate “pipe” for air and food until I explained it when I was 14. I’m making her sound stupid: She’s not. She’s very intuitive, and people have always loved her. She makes you open up immediately and feel so comfortable that before you know it you are spilling all your secrets. We recently hired a cleaner, and after one day the two of them were out on my mom’s back deck smoking and gossiping like old friends. From then on this woman would do anything for her — laundry, her liquor run.  

Mom was a bohemian. She worked with an exciting bunch of creative friends who held exciting parties. She had a crowd of admirers. She knew it and she worked it. She grew up acutely aware of her body and spent most of her teens on the beach, strutting her stuff with her best friend. They endlessly compared tans and boob sizes and shoved socks down their bras. They sung in talent quests. Throughout my childhood, she would regularly comment on my appearance. I didn’t notice until I hit puberty. Up until that time we used to bathe together and think nothing of it. Then one day when I was 13, I was getting undressed and she commented excitedly about how I was “getting little hairs.” I was mortified and it was the last time we bathed together. I had a short burst of anorexia around the age of 15. In retrospect, that was partly because I had learned to scrutinize every aspect of my body. It may have also been a way to gain control in a situation that made me feel helpless.

Mom drank, socially and at work. Late-night art deadlines. There was lots of smoking pot, drinking, and driving drunk, and no seat belts. When she was in her 20s, Mom had a serious car accident. Her jaw had to be reconstructed. But you know, she’d always had a dramatic life. My dad appealed to her because he was funny, stable, and smart. He’s logical and rational, organized and well-informed. He likes routine and structure. He was drawn to Mom because she was charismatic and vivacious. When they met she was wearing a semi-see-through dress. Mom loves drama and spontaneity, and has some very ill-informed views. She says crazy shit like, “I don’t believe in seat belts.” “I think Hitler was misunderstood.” But she has all the time for people, all people, including a homeless person she happens to walk past. Oh, and animals. She recently acquired more than 13 stray cats.

When I was a toddler, Dad cheated on her. I knew about it, but I never felt resentment. They explained it to me, and I grew up confident they made the right decision by splitting up. They were happier apart, and so was I. They shared custody, which turned out to be a bad arrangement. Mom couldn’t get me to school on time, give me regular meals, or get me to bed. So Dad started looking after me during the week. My dad bore most of the responsibility of my upbringing while Mom and I did fun stuff. We would go on camping trips just because the weather was nice. We would dance and sing around the campfire and go fishing. But when I went to bed I would listen to Mom and her boyfriend getting drunker, their tone changing and then the sounds of fighting. I remember the glow from the campfire through the tent. I would monitor it for shadows and movement and level of intensity. Sometimes her boyfriend started bonfires. He’d smash bottles, drag her by the hair and hit her. The violence wasn’t directed at me, but they did a bad job of hiding it. I quickly learned the black eyes were not from a “tennis accident.” He tried to strangle one of our dogs. He burned any trace of Mom’s former life: books with dedications in them, the clothes from her modeling days, her paintings. He tried to grow pot in the stable on our farm. I watched him get taken away by the police.

We were living with my maternal grandmother, and once she pulled out a pick from under her pillow and in her thick German accent whispered “Don’t vorry darlink, I vill protect us.” Mom’s boyfriend didn’t sexually abuse me, but there were dodgy moments. He watched porn, and one time he asked me to sit on his lap while it was on. When I was 14, he put his hand on my inner thigh. I was old enough to call him out on it. I made his life hell. I took out my anger about my mom’s inability to leave him. I would kick him in the balls underwater at the swimming pool and pretend it was an accident. He had a weak stomach and I would try to make him vomit. He used to buy gifts to make up for his “dark moments.” We stayed with him until I was 16.

Mom maintains that it was better for me to have had an “interesting” childhood full of “dark moments” than to have merely lived a normal, boring life. I don’t know what another childhood would have been like. I guess all those experiences have made me strong. But I always wanted a sibling in the hopes that they could share the load and be my confidante, and I really feel that now that my mom needs so much care.

Mom lost work as an artist and ended up having to take a job in an orange-juice factory. She got more and more depressed, drank more, put on weight. Then she had a back injury and lived on disability until a law change stopped her checks. She saw doctors and psychiatrists, but they didn’t help. She took up teaching art, which she was extremely good at. She inspired everyone and brought out their creative expression — she really had a way with people.

Then her house burned down and she lost everything. Our three dogs died, and what she had left of her books and art were destroyed. I wasn’t there that night, but she escaped and was traumatized for decades. I got a call at 6 a.m. and found her at a friend’s house — hair singed, face black, trembling and incoherent. You could list the impacts it had on her: panic attack, complete nervous breakdown, identity crisis, agoraphobia, nightmares. I was devastated but as usual pulled together to be strong for my mom.

Then she started falling. She was diagnosed with a brain disease caused by alcohol abuse. It impacts her balance and movement. There was a parade of health-care professionals installing ramps, cleaning her house. She’d keep falling. Trips to the ER. Broken bones. She stopped cooking and had food delivered, which she hated, so she would live off smoothies and up to two bottles of vodka a day. Then she got breast cancer and had a mastectomy. My son was 6 months old, and I was desperately trying to breast-feed and stay home for a year and give him quality time without being stressed.

That was when I said to my partner that she should come and live with us. I knew it would be big for him. She’s a tough customer, and I needed to give him a lot of time to think it through. He agreed, with a lot of caveats around making sure the impact on us was minimal. I wanted her to be closer to us so I could check on her and make sure she ate. I also wanted to give her that last bit of independence in a more manageable self-contained home before she needed a higher level of care.

We decided to buy a new house and build her a granny flat. We moved two years ago, and it took a year to finish, and we had to borrow to our limit and wait for Mom to sell her house to pay us back. We were raising kids all that time and working – my partner was studying and working as an artist. When we moved we had to renovate in two weeks. That nearly killed me.

I explain Mom’s situation in different ways to each child. For the little one I say she is sick and falls down sometimes and she is in pain a lot of the time and that can make her grumpy. He loves watching TV with her and he loves her cats. He’s learned to be gentle with animals (his natural tendency would be to pull their tails off). My daughter is 9 and loves her grandmother. They have a very special bond, they will sit and talk for hours. But she also thinks the things she says are nuts. She understands that Mom has an unhealthy addiction to alcohol and cigarettes and that she’s made some bad choices.

I have to tell Mom not to comment on my kids’ physical appearance, like, “Don’t they have lovely long legs?” or “Isn’t her tan great?” I noticed my daughter becoming self-conscious and even asking if her legs were fat. We avoid talking to her after 5 p.m. because she is generally incoherent and repetitive and that’s pretty upsetting. I have a rule that if they knock on her door and there is no answer they come and get me or Daddy.

Since she moved in, I have had to pick her up off the floor at least four times. My partner has, too. I can’t stop her from drinking. She’s an adult and she makes bad choices, but they are hers. I tell her my observations, and, when I am concerned, about the effect she has on my kids. She has cut back quite a bit. She drinks one bottle a day instead of two.

It took one fall four months ago when we were all away camping to take all my initial optimism away. She also developed an agonizing pain in her throat that is still undiagnosed. I spend my days negotiating time off work, taking her to specialists, staying up late with nurses because the pain is so bad and she is too drunk to communicate with them or remember what they told her. She can’t chew, and can only eat soup and smoothies. I can’t even feed her. She tried a range of hard-core meds that turned her into a zombie, and now she thinks vodka and Tylenol are the best painkillers.

When I see her for a few moments at the end of the day, after I have been at work or running errands with the kids, I’m too exhausted to sit and listen to her woes. I feel there is nothing more I can do to help her. My enthusiasm is spent and I can’t listen to her tell me again, slumped in her chair sobbing, that she can’t believe someone can be in pain for so long and nobody can do anything about it. She has a care button around her neck she can press in emergencies. Every day, she tells me that tonight might be the night she needs to press it. I just want her to do it. But I think going to the hospital is like admitting defeat and she is scared they are going to “find something” (they discovered the lump in her breast during an emergency admission after a fall). I don’t want her to die in a hospital or a home, but I can’t keep picking her up off the floor.

When I was 15, I found her sobbing on the bathroom tiles in the middle of the day. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “I don’t think I am going to live much longer.” I screamed and ran and cried, devastated at the prospect of losing my mom, because I believed her. She has been telling me she is about to die for 25 years now. It’s like a drama with the same formula, and I have lost interest in the show.

I often find myself wondering in the most bittersweet way how I will feel when she is gone. She has been a burden, so I know there will be intense relief. But I also feel the need to savor this time and have meaningful conversations with her to create my last memories. But I don’t know how to start those conversations. I end up looking at her devastated face, emaciated arms, and watery, pleading eyes, and I just freeze up and walk away.