Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Combing Mom's hair

My mom is 75 and lives in California with my sister, K. Mom hasn't been healthy for a while. Last week, she was in the hospital for a few days with heart trouble and pneumonia.

I went down to California for four days to visit her. In the same hospital room, there was an elderly Mexican-American lady with lung cancer. Her daughter, a woman in her 50s, was visiting her. When I walked into the room, the old lady was sitting in a chair, and her daughter was brushing her hair. I only glanced at them as I walked by -- I didn't want to stare, of course -- but it was a very tender and moving scene.

The next day, my mother asked for a comb. She wanted to look presentable when her own doctor came on his rounds. So she was combing her hair, but she was having a little trouble. She couldn't get the comb through it. Her hair hadn't been combed for days, and it was all tangled and knotted in back. Of course, I said, "Let me comb out the back," and I did.

The whole time I was combing her hair, I was thinking, why isn't my sister doing this? Why is my mom's hair all tangled in the first place? Why can't my sister see this kind of thing and take care of it before it ever gets this bad?

A couple days later, I combed Mom's hair again. I asked her, "Why don't you ask K to comb your hair sometimes?" She said, "Ach. She wouldn't do it." I knew that she would say that. It was only my frustration that made me ask at all.

And I realized, that's our family in a nutshell. My mom has no one to comb her hair. When I come and visit, I'll gladly comb her hair. But then I have to leave again after a few days. And when I'm gone, there's no one to comb Mom's hair. There's no one who even notices that her hair needs combing. My mom needs things done for her that aren't getting done. There's no one to do them for her. There's no one who even notices that they need doing.

I guess I can't really blame my sister for that. People are what they are. I suppose it's not her fault that she isn't warm and attentive to others' needs. (After all, no one would ever describe me as "warm" either.) And maybe she's doing the best she can. Maybe more than the best, because she's not healthy herself, and living with and taking care of our mom -- however inadequately -- is wearing her out.

But just because somebody's doing the best they can doesn't mean that enough is being done. My mom needs more help than she's getting, more help than my sister can give her. Mom could get all the help -- all the love -- she needs if she came up to Oregon to live with us. I couldn't take care of her by myself either, but I wouldn't need to. I have five other willing people (my spouse and children) to help me.

We've been trying to get her to move up here for years. When she was healthier, it was "Come live in an apartment near us." For the past year or two, it's been "Come live in a house with us." Naturally, Mom's been somewhat apprehensive about the idea. It would be a big change. But it would be tremendously better for her. Not just because she would be loved and adequately cared for, but because our town (except for the weather) is so much nicer than the one she lives in. There are so many more opportunities here, for recreation, for friendship -- Mom doesn't have any friends around her own age -- for things to do and see and learn. And lately, she's been coming around to the idea.

But lately every time my mother has a health scare -- she's had to go to the emergency room before -- my sister breaks down. K sobs and wails, she basically turns into Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind. Right in front of my mother, mind you. She doesn't save it until Mom can't see her or anything. She just lets go and falls apart. Then my mother has to lie in her hospital bed and worry about whether K is all right. And she's a little afraid to leave K. She worries if K would be OK on her own. So she's not willing to just up and leave, which is what she should do. She needs a little push from K, at least an "Are you kidding me? Of course I'll be fine alone."

But that push isn't coming. Because here's the thing: my sister refuses to let Mom move up to Oregon and live with us. K constantly complains about how terrible the situation is, how hard it is on her (and it is), but she refuses to let Mom go. And I do blame her for that.

Of course, there would be some logistical problems to work out. Mom should get healthier before she makes a long trip like that. They bought their house together, and would need to sell it, and this is a bad time to sell houses in California. But I've got some ideas to work around that, to fix up the place and wait a year or so to let values start going up again. Those aren't the real problems, though.

No, the real problem is that K doesn't want to be alone. She thinks the solution is for me to uproot my family and move down where they live. And she thinks I'm selfish for not doing it. She thinks I'm selfish because I don't want to uproot my children from the town where they've lived for over 13 years, take them away from their friends and from their schools, and bring them to a place with inferior schools, more crime, more gangs, more drugs, and different values from the ones my children are being raised with. And why? So K can still live with Mom. So she won't be alone.

Well, I'm sorry she'd be alone. It would be hard on her for a while. But the world doesn't revolve around K, and the needs of seven other people are involved as well. And if Mom is to be properly cared for, all seven would be better off in Oregon. Besides, K has friends, who should be able to keep her from getting too lonely, and she has a good salary and a lot of days off to come visit anytime she wants. Yet she refuses the obvious solution. Because it would be hard on her.

Before I left to come back home, my mom said, "I don't know what I'm going to do on Tuesday after you leave." It broke my heart. Because what I want most is for her to never have to think that again, to never wonder again if she'll get all the help she needs. And I -- we, I mean -- could give that to her. If only they'd let us. But they won't.


  1. if she is anywhere close to Burbank at all I'd be proud to go hang out with your Moms and comb her hair and do her nails and read some books or watch Movies (on the laptop).

    I understand the long distance family being ill and it breaking your heart.

    I lost my Gramma not to long ago. I was here in So. Cal. and she was in Texas. it was horrible.

  2. I have a similar experience with my aunt and grandma right now. I don't believe that my aunt wants to be close to grandma or care for her, she just wants to live in a much bigger house than she could ever afford on her own. I fear for the day when grandma actually needs someone to be there for her.

  3. Wow Mayren, that's so nice of you, I don't know what to say. Unfortunately, Mom lives way out in Victorville, and she's not really comfortable with people she doesn't know, so it wouldn't be practical, but thank you so much for the thought.

    Andrea, and if your aunt is anything like my sister, she probably doesn't even like living with your grandma very much, nor actually enjoy the house itself. Sigh.


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