In the early nineteen nineties my phone calls to my parents increased from weekly to daily. Then twice daily: morning and early evening. Except when I was overseas. In England, China, India and Egypt, lengthy and descriptive emails with photographs took the place of my calls. Daddy and Mom printed the emails and photos, kept them in a thick binder to share with visitors.
From hotels, airports and theatres all over the continental United States, Canada, Hawaii and Alaska, I did the math and called. At first, to North Carolina. Then Arizona and lastly, Nebraska.
Those conversations bracketed my days and the days of my parents. Occasionally I would suggest that I cut back to once a day, thinking I was interrupting the retirement fun and relaxation and had little to report when speaking so often. Daddy adamantly refused to entertain the proposal. Mom would say, “if it’s too much trouble for you, of course.”
The calls continued. I needed them, too. Just like Mom’s lovely and cherished letters, which awaited me in hotels around the country for over twenty years, we all relied upon our connection.
Until Daddy became ill and I was waking him unnecessarily.
I stopped the early evening calls.
The last weeks of his life, Daddy sometimes didn’t want to speak to me on my morning calls. Mom would make his excuses or say “hello” for him.
Stupidly, through all the years of calls and letters, I never considered how bereft I might be when they ceased. Or (and which is worse?) became less important to my parents than to me.
After Daddy died, I spoke to Mom every morning.
I’ve always been able to rely upon Mom to carry the conversational ball. It was little effort and lots of pleasure to listen to tales of hers and Daddy’s retired life, answer her questions, let her marvel and comment on my exploits wherever I happened to be. Mom’s Southern upbringing, inborn interest in people and her curiosity about everything made her a joy to chat with. Daddy, on the extension, would chime in occasionally and laugh often but mostly he was simply there as he had been for nearly all of my life—a secure, comforting, trusted presence that I relied upon so much more than I ever realized.
In the six years since Daddy died, Mom has, of course, aged. Her world has become smaller, her conversations more repetitive, her interests fewer and her attention span shorter. More and more, it has become my responsibility to juggle the conversations, find a topic to engage her. But until recently, she was sitting there in her chair nearly every morning at 9:30 by her watch, waiting for me to call.
“Right on the dot,” she would say. Or, teasing me, “You’re late this morning!”
Seven months ago we had to move Mom into a Memory Unit in a different facility. The bits of familiarity that had held her fragile world in place for nearly six years suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. We knew that this move would be horrible for her. We delayed it long past when we should have, relying upon a part time caregiver and door alarms to keep Mom contented and safe in an Independent Living apartment which was far beyond her capabilities to manage.
What I didn’t anticipate was that Mom would be unable to reestablish a routine in this new place. Is it the brain power she has lost? Or the interest? For someone so rigidly routinized throughout her life, she can no longer find, build, fall into a schedule. She now spends much of her day in bed. Is it boredom, resignation, anger, preparation for dying? For someone always so interested in cooking, eating, dieting, feeding others, she now often misses meals and doesn’t care.
I continue to call her daily—when I’m not visiting her.
In an attempt to make this easier on her, I’ve requested that the nurses call me from Mom's phone when she returns from breakfast. I hope to catch Mom when she’s already on her feet, before she lies down again instead of making her struggle to rise from her bed and walker herself to the phone across the room.
Our conversations rarely last longer than a minute. Usually she tells me that they are important to her, these calls, that she doesn’t know what she would do if I didn’t call her every day. But that is a sentence she has spoken for years and years and years, something she still remembers somewhere in her fading memory. I don’t know if she’s still telling me the truth or whether she wishes I would stop. Once she said, seemingly with irritation (but I’m overly sensitive to tone, emotion and mood), that she’d only gotten out of bed to answer my call. Twice, recently, she said, “why are you calling me.” I then remind her that this is our routine. “I know that,” she will blurt.
For whom am I doing this now? If it’s only for me, at what point do I stop? My precious relationship with a stranger who became my beloved Mother when I was seven weeks old hasn’t been about me for many years. It’s all about her now. And I don’t know how to answer my question.