What’s on Your Plate?

This “Daughter on Duty” blog post, cut from the Mother Lode manuscript, was written long before I understood that encouraging my mother to continue to age in place was possibly a very big mistake.

I was chauffeur last week to Mama and our neighbor Sandy for a visit with a long time friend. Chloe, largely debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, lives in a progressive care community 50 miles away. Both Sandy and Chloe are nearly 20 years younger than Mama, who likes to imagine that she is the more fit because she doesn’t use a walker; and, ergo, all concern needs to paid to their infirmities. Perhaps worrying about them makes her feel stronger and more able to ignore the fact that they can see and hear. Whatever gets you through the night.

The visit has been in the works for weeks. By that I mean obsessed over. Picking the date, misremembering the date, considering changing the date. Lunch out or lunch in. What car to take that will be comfortable for Sandy. My small SUV will be difficult for her to get into. Mama’s car might need repairs. (Mama’s car has no air conditioning, the only concern in reality, but not one she thinks of.) What time to arrive in Shelton; what time to leave home, allowing time to get Sandy and her walker in and out of the car; how long it takes to drive there; how far it is from the interstate, there might be traffic lights to consider; wanting to arrive in time to have time to have time.

Mama wants to orchestrate it all, and her preference is to do it without getting any real information, but to stick with her modus operandi: Speculation. Which is not to say without multiple phone calls to all parties. She makes up what she thinks will be the barriers and presents them along with her idea of solutions. Sandy tells her getting into my car is not a problem, but we solve the dilemma by taking Rebecca’s Outback. I tell her I have the directions from the internet and she doesn’t need to turn her stacks of paper upside down looking for the brochure. She does anyway. I tell her it’s a 53 minute drive, and we do not need to leave an hour and a half before Chloe suggests arriving. We do not need to allow additional time for the bathroom and visiting before lunch, because the suggested arrival time is 30 minutes before lunch for that reason.

Mama says I’m like my father: I don’t like to leave time for contingencies. I practice my listening-behind-the-words skills: “I know you don’t like to be late; neither do I. I will make sure that we are not. And if we are five minutes late or early, it will be okay.” She relaxes.

Mama insists that Sandy sit in the front seat so she has more leg room, even though Sandy protests and Mama can’t hear any conversation from the back.

We arrive in Shelton 10 minutes ahead of schedule and Chloe is waiting at the lobby door. We sit down in the private dining room, then wait 40 minutes for wait staff to greet us.

Chloe reserved the private room because it would be (and is) quieter; but the florescent lights do not supply enough light for Mama to see. She asks me to sit beside her so I can tell her what’s on her plate. (The answer is “nothing,” as it will turn out.) But then she can’t hear because Chloe, at the head of the table, turns toward Sandy across the table from Mama. Mama fiddles with her hearing aid remote to no avail. I know she can’t hear a friggin’ thing. I am frustrated for her and anxious. Will she be upset if I ask Chloe to look at her when she talks? Or if I suggest a rearrangement? Finally Mama whispers to me that she hates to upset things, but maybe if Sandy and I traded places, Chloe could talk across her instead of away from her. It helps moderately, but Chloe still talks softly and tends to turn her body away to watch for wait staff, whom she finally goes in search of.

A young waiter who appallingly talks baby talk to Mama finally comes in to take orders. Then leaves again to get the menus that were never brought to us. There is not one thing on the menu that Mama can eat except strawberries. There really isn’t much that Chloe, with some of the same intestinal issues Mama has, can eat. Salad or carrot and celery sticks. Strawberries. Vegetable/ steak soup. Chef Salad. Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. M&M cookies. Mama doesn’t eat raw vegetables, lettuce, cheese, or beef. They are out of strawberries.

They could make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Baby Talk tells her. I ask if they have tuna. He leaves and finds out there is enough for half a sandwich. Fine. She will have that and the soup ladled without the steak. He takes the order to the kitchen and returns to say it’s not tuna, it’s chicken salad. Mama says that’s okay if it doesn’t have celery in it.

When the food arrives there is a bologna and cheese sandwich for Mama. The chicken had celery in it. She rejects the sandwich. (Why didn’t I ask for toast and peanut butter?) She has a tiny cup of soup, which she says is good, and a few oyster crackers. If the soup isn’t her preferred scalding hot (which I doubt it is), she doesn’t say anything. Sandy gives her the single slice of hard boiled egg from her chef salad. I would have, but my serving doesn’t have one.

Chloe talks about her children and Mama interrupts to ask about her children; thinking she is filling silence. Chloe does not ask about Mama’s activities, but Mama does manage to find an opportunity to say that she got too much of a medication in the hospital and it made her blind.

I thought the day was a disaster, but Mama says it was so good to see Chloe and she had a good time. “I didn’t go for the lunch,” she says. (I, on the other hand, had naively thought I would be off the hook for cooking dinner.) “Perhaps not,” I say, “but it was a good lesson in why you need to stay at home, not move to a place like that, nice as it is.”

“I would have a kitchenette,” she counters.

“You are going to prepare three meals a day?” I ask, aware that she is struggling to get a simple breakfast and lunch herself. No response. I wonder if she secretly appreciates her personal chef just a bit more.

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