How to Tell Your Mother She Can’t Go Home Again

March 7, 2021   •   By Heidi Croot

YOU ARE IN treacherous territory. You should have seen it coming.

Acknowledge this.

Brace yourself.

Do it fast. The home care manager is waiting. She wants to know that you understand the stakes. That you’ll play your part.

“With your father in hospital,” Mary says, her voice brisk on the other end of the phone, “it has become an untenable situation. It’s about more than your mother needing help to transfer from her bed to her wheelchair. More than it being impossible for her to live alone.”

She pauses.

“She is also increasingly impossible to please.”

“Really.” Permit yourself a wry smile.

“Unfortunately, yes. She accuses the caregivers of stealing and orders them out of the house. Insists they perform tasks they are not authorized to do. Calls the agency regularly to complain.”

You hear this report as a sort of musical motif. A family motif that has been sounding for decades.

“Your mother has been trying to keep control of everything,” Mary says, “even little wee things like where an item should be placed. It’s all been getting harder for her.” Another pause. “And it’s been getting harder for us. Especially finding staff willing to accept an assignment. Frankly, we’ve reached the end of our rope.”

Picture the frayed end of the home care agency’s rope.

Offer up a prayer of thanks to the nursing home and its long-awaited empty bed. Offer up another that this morning your mother agreed to accept it.

“We’ll play bad cop, good cop,” Mary says, as together you plan Mother’s eviction. “I’ll manage your mother’s departure from her house — I’ll know what to say if she puts up a last-minute fight. You manage her arrival at the nursing home.”

Exhale your relief. Do it silently.

“It is important that you do not connect with her tomorrow, during the transition,” Mary adds. “It would not be productive. Daughters aren’t supposed to tell their mothers what to do.”

As if.

Don’t laugh. Thank her. Wish Mary a smooth execution of her plan. Hang up.

You’re allowed to sink into the nearest chair. What you cannot do is dwell on how tomorrow will be one of the hardest days of your mother’s life. You cannot risk getting caught up in the details that call for sympathy. Polio paralyzing her legs at age eight, and all that came afterward. Spinal fusions requiring months alone in the hospital. Crutches, braces, wheelchairs.

Think instead about how little she needs others — her mother, her sisters, her brother. Remember the hostile silences she imposed on your father. How he told you don’t worry, he’d eventually figure out what he was supposed to say to make everything all right again. How he went months, once more than a year, unable to figure it out, as the silence between them thickened.

Remember how she can tangle you so neatly in words that you would stare out mute, bewildered, unable to grasp what had just happened. How she made a fool of you and then despised you for being a fool.

Recall her attempts to separate you from your father, your relatives, your friends, with her insistence on their unworthiness. Think about the decades-long estrangements she set in motion with everyone who should have been important to her.

You always knew you could be next.

Tomorrow could be the day.

Swallow this. Digest it.

Lift the good cop mask from your face and lay it on the table. Spin it like a wheel. Note how the laughing mouth shapeshifts into a wail.

¤

Keep busy. Start a master list of things to do. Wake in the night to add to it.

Next day: Chisel away at the list until Mary reports in, early afternoon. “It went reasonably well,” she says.

Anticipating trouble, Mary had left early that morning for the little brown bungalow at 20 Sunray Avenue. She’d arranged for a social worker and a personal support worker to join her. “I was worried that your mother might, at the last minute, refuse to leave the house. I figured with three against one, we’d have a better chance of persuading her to go.”

Share Mary’s surprise that your mother actually remembered her acquiescence to the plan.

“She allowed us to help her dress,” Mary says.

She brushed her own hair. She put lipstick on. Once in her wheelchair, she took her time, pausing at her desk to move papers around.

The support worker, meanwhile, stuffed three garbage bags with your mother’s blouses and skirts. She packed your mother’s wicker basket of blush, creams, and sponges, her portable stereo, a stack of Beniamino Gigli CDs, and stowed all this in the van that was idling in the driveway. Mother’s do-anything-for-anybody neighbor, Norm, had been enlisted to drive her to the nursing home.

Mary said, “Come on Irene. Norm is waiting for you.”

“Let him wait.”

Picture her making a last tour of the sunroom. Feel the heat of the sun pouring into this glassed-in paradise in what was otherwise a gloomy house, crowded with leggy geraniums, a massive hanging spider plant hunched over a Gordian knot of spiderettes, and philodendrons in need of pruning. Hear the hum and click of her wheelchair as she pauses to peer out the window at the concrete birdbath, brittle helicopter keys from the Manitoba maple crusted in its bowl.

“She took her time in the kitchen,” Mary says.

Imagine her wheeling up the galley, where, in pre-wheelchair days, she used to stand in her braces, wooden crutches splayed to the side to give her arms range of motion, as she prepared roast beef and golden Yorkshire pudding dinners, thin tender pancakes, and stained-glass Christmas stollen studded with raisins and glacé fruit.

Finally, she rolls out the front door and past the four panels of windows, clouded with sheers. Past her cherished barberry bush at the end of the walkway, first greeter of guests, its thicket of quarter-inch spines aimed in all directions.

“Good afternoon, Irene,” Norm would have said, before guiding her up the wheelchair ramp into the van.

Observe how Mary’s voice is full of relief as she describes watching the bulky back end of the vehicle disappear down the street.

“Over to you,” Mary says.

When she asks if you’re all right, tell her yes, of course, you’re fine.

Hang up and call Norm. Banish your guilt that it was he and not you who carried out the role of driver.

“It all played out very smoothly,” he says, “other than perhaps a couple of delay tactics on your mother’s part.”

Tick off the 15 minutes it would have taken him to drive your mother six kilometers and a lifetime away to a long-term care facility where she would recognize nothing and nobody.

Close your eyes as he describes how he dropped the bags and baskets of her belongings on the adjustable bed with rails in her new room. “Once they started the paperwork,” he says, “I said goodbye and left.”

“That must have been incredibly hard for you.”

“Yes,” he replies with a quaver.

Say thank you to Norm. Hang up. Wait for the call you know will come.

When it does, pick up after the first ring.

Remember, you’re a good cop now. Put on your good cop mask.

“Extricate me from this,” your mother whispers to you. Her voice sounds fierce, desperate.

Realize this is the first time your mother has ever needed you for anything. Or is it just the first time she has asked? Note the loosening sensation in your belly as the balance of power shifts.

Tell her you will come. Tell her everything will be okay.

Say, “It will be okay,” as if you are comforting a hurt child you do not know.

Say, “I’ll bring your favorite dinner.”

Yes, you can say this. She won’t mock you for being soft. Not today.

¤

You spot her at the far end of the hall, a tiny, 82-year-old force with a brown pageboy, sitting in a bulky, black wheelchair parked as close to the nurses’ station as she can get.

Put your hand on your husband’s arm. Pause from a safe distance to observe.

Mark how she looks around her, hands folded on her lap, alert and aloof. Notice the fixed smile she’s put on for the busy staff. You know that smile. It says, I’m on top of this, I know who I am, and you’ll know soon enough.

Go to her. Make the long pilgrimage down the tiled hallway of this nursing home wing, brightly named “Iris.” Accept that you don’t have the equilibrium to give a friendly greeting to her new neighbors, who line the corridor in wheelchairs, mostly women, frail and bowed as white tulips in a dry glass. You see them look up with hope, then quickly down as you walk past. You are not their family, their tribe. You are as lost as they are.

She sees you.

Wave. Walk toward her wearing your own fixed smile.

“Hello!” she calls loudly. Staff turn to look at her, then at you and your husband.

“I’m so pleased to see you.” She beams at her son-in-law.

She gives you no opportunity for the usual cursory hug.

She pushes the green button on the armrest of her wheelchair, grasps the joystick, and moves skillfully around and past you. “Let’s find a place where we can talk.”

Do not cringe at the word “talk.”

You’ll fight to keep your breathing steady, your face composed, as you and your husband trail after her like two lap dogs on leashes, glancing at one another as you wait for the tirade, the demands to be liberated, forthwith and without delay.

Think what you’ll say to the woman for whom control has been an identity, an intoxicant, a weapon. Think how you’ll tell her that there’s no road back to that little brown bungalow, her home for more than 50 years.

Hope to preserve dignity, yours and hers, when making your escape.

Ready?

Watch her cock her head as she peers into room after room, until she finds a small dreary space, a common area with stiff blue curtains, a laminate table, a few chrome-legged chairs with plastic seats, a sink. “This will do,” she says.

She surges in, using her metal footrest to nudge a chair aside so she can claim her place at the head of the table.

You do not know how to introduce the looming topic in the sudden quiet. Forgive yourself for this. Remember how silence was your native tongue in a home where your mother had an ample supply of words for both you and your father.

Keep breathing.

Follow her lead.

Maintain surface chatter as you open the paper bags and set out the containers of steaming chicken and fries on the dark brown table. Break into cellophane sleeves containing white plastic knives and forks. Inquire who wants water, who wants tea?

When you can stretch the commotion no further, sit.

Try on different expressions. Discard them all, including the one that arrives when you reflect on what it must be like to leave your home, to be forever separated from your own bed, your own bedside table with the magazines and tissue within proper reach, the precise slant of light through the windows signaling time of day, the screech of blue jays at the feeder.

If you put that face on, she will scratch your eyes out.

Smile when she remarks that dinner smells good. “So, tell me what’s been going on in your lives,” she says. “Phil, tell me about your painting. What’s your latest project?”

Your husband launches into a lengthy lesson on the challenges of watercolors, compared with acrylics.

“Watercolors have no mercy,” he says. “At least with acrylics, you can paint over your mistakes.”

He describes in detail his struggles with his latest creation, a watercolor of me in sunshine, wearing a red floppy hat.

Silently thank him for the fence of words he builds around you to delay your fall.

She will not ask you about your latest project. Make peace with this. Know that it was never in your power to make this day okay. All you can do is line up your words like soldiers for the moment when she demands to be released from this place.

Mentally step through the logic of why she cannot go home again. Anticipate rebuttals. Do not look at her until you’re ready.

When you’re ready, try to catch her eye.

See how she refuses to be caught? Notice how her glance ricochets off your edges, the way a falling object bounces off the broken face of a cliff before it hits ground truth. Your unstylish shirt, your humdrum hairstyle, the way you’ve placed your plastic knife and fork on the plate: this is what she looks at. Wait for the criticism. This is how she always begins.

But she doesn’t begin.

Pay attention to this not-beginning. She is telling you something. She is telling you that you will never tell her anything, least of all that she can’t go home again.

She already knows. She has told herself.

Take this in.

Wipe the anxious frown from your face. Stop tormenting her with it. Try to understand: you have no need to be in charge here.

Exhale your relief.

Chew. Swallow. Chat.

“How was your drive in?” she asks.

“Slow,” Phil says, “That highway is permanently under construction.”

We cooperate in executing this theater-worthy enactment of normalcy, interrupting each other with news and embellishing on this story or that, while she nods and asks questions and laughs, playing the role of practiced hostess making her guests comfortable. “Oh come on now,” she says, and, “Do you mean to tell me…?”

In the middle of this gush, this waterfall of fiction, she cracks.

Pretend not to see her face collapse, her flashing eyes go dim. Act as if you don’t see, for the first time, her fear, as she becomes once again the young girl contained in a hospital bed, legs like twin saplings, watching her parents wave goodbye the night before she is scheduled to have life-altering surgery.

A wracking sob escapes her. She drops her face into her hands and shudders with the effort to regain control. She begins to cry. “I’m sorry,” she says through her fingers, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry. I told myself I wouldn’t do this.”

Look away. Bite back your own tears.

Lift off your mask. Lay it on the table, next to hers.

¤

Heidi Croot’s corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in Brevity, Linea magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Canada, and is working on a memoir.