Friday, July 23, 2010


I never thought I would be a homeschooler. Homeschooling was for religious fundamentalists, back-to-nature extremists, and parents who believed their kids were the new Einsteins. Homeschooling was for the extraordinarily anal and the extraordinarily loose, not for ordinary people like me. I lack the organization, the discipline, the follow-through to push my kids through the scientific method, daily baths and well-rounded meals. I lack the easy-going, stream-of-consciousness, follow-your-bliss free spirit to focus on Japanese folklore for three weeks followed by concurrent units on locking mechanisms, archery and sculpting clay. I lack the patience. I lack the desire. Or so I thought. Because this fall, I will join the ranks of those educational Froot Loops.

Kayleigh will be in 11th grade. The plan is for her to take art and electronics at the high school and the rest of her subjects at home. With me. State law allows her to take two classes at her home district school while being homeschooled, as long as there is space in the classes she wants. The school can choose to allow her to take more than two, but they don’t have to. She is required to take 875 instruction hours per school year and study, minimally, language arts, reading, math, science, social studies and health in sequentially progressive courses.

We’re busily gathering advice from other homeschoolers and researching curriculum. In some respects it’s exciting. Kayleigh is delighted at the thought of studying history that does not involve the American Revolution or Civil War. But in other ways, it’s pretty daunting. I don’t really remember much about chemistry. I mean, when’s the last time I needed to know the atomic charge of calcium? The last time I took chemistry.

It’s not just daunting academically, either. Kayleigh and I have a lot in common, and I think we get each other. But we also are very different. We’re motivated in different ways and our interests are often miles apart. Basically, we can drive each other absolutely nuts. I know that’s true of any mother-daughter pair, but we’ll be stuck together. She can’t slam a door when she doesn’t like it that I’ve asked her 14 times to focus on the limit of X as it approaches infinity rather than what her Achilles tendon feels like when she repeatedly bangs it against the metal barstool – just as I can’t throw my hands up in frustration and stuff my face with chocolate in said situation. Just wait until we’re both in the throes of PMS. Eek.

Kayleigh is a smart kid with a unique temperament. She also has ADD. Although she has usually done well academically, she has never really gotten along with school. School is very regimented, and there is little room for creativity or exploration. She has the rule-centeredness of most first children, but her head is happiest, and perhaps most productive, in the clouds – or, more accurately, in the worlds she created in her mind. She did not excel at rote memorization of math facts, and a packet of instructions for a history project or an English paper that basically tells her line-by-line what to write is completely overwhelming. But she slogs on. The perfectionist in her has kept her going until recently.

She is a well-behaved child. She doesn’t need to be lectured, yet again, on what constitutes acceptable behavior at school, unlike the children who have cut her hair, spit in her face, sworn at her and dubbed her a reject. Hell, even the rejects have finally rejected her. She was often unaware when other children tried to befriend her, likely a result of the ADD. As time passed, they stopped trying. The teachers she didn’t enjoy have called her aloof and oversensitive. The ones who saw past her shyness and self-doubt think she is bright, talented and a joy to teach. They encouraged her to open up more, but after years as a square peg, she gets no satisfaction from participating. Even now that her classmates simply see past her and she could probably say and do anything without social recourse, she remains silent. It is her defense and offense.

I hope that in the last two years of high school we can give her opportunities for meaningful exploration and expression free from the bounds of brick walls, lengthy assignments designed to prepare her for her next standardized test, and judgmental classmates. We are proceeding with hope and excitement, as well as a bit of fear and nervousness. I think we’ll be OK.

Monday, June 21, 2010

To Dad

If you were here on Father’s Day
I’d feel your rough hands and bristly whiskers
I’d light your cigar and play some Spike Jones
I’d broil you a steak and buy you a beer
If you were here.

If you were here on Father’s Day
I’d watch you wind your watch at your dresser
I’d smell the Old Spice on your neck
I’d listen to you play the piano and not even plug my ears
If you were here

If you were here on Father’s Day
I’d ask about when you met Mom
I’d show you your growing grandkids
I’d tell you how treasured you were and are and always will be
If you were here

I love you.

Friday, May 28, 2010

40! Happy birthday?

This is my birthday cookie (and my unwashed hair). The cookie was huge, as you can see, and delicious. Highly recommended: Lady Fortunes. They make custom cookies for all occasions. Cool.

I recently turned 40. I'm not thrilled.

Turning 30 wasn't bad at all. I tend to think of the 30s as the heyday of adulthood. You're still young, but you've moved past your 20s, where people still treat you like you're 17 and don't know anything whether you know anything or not. You're often building a family and a career and your body hasn't betrayed you yet, or at least not much.

But 40. Forty is a time to reflect on how much youth you wasted, all the doors you've closed, a time to feel the creaks in your joints and examine the wrinkles on your neck - when did those get there? Your children are older and snottier and demanding more of your money and sucking you of your innate protective tendencies. Your parents are older and dottier and demanding you clean their bathrooms after you've picked up their prescriptions.

But 40. Forty is also a time to exploit your withering hormones and tell everyone exactly into which dark crevice(s) they can stick their, uh, demands. Forty is a time to do the things you were too afraid or too broke to do when you were younger. It's a time to re-live some of your glory days or live them the way you would have if you hadn't been busy with building that career and family. It's a time to reacquaint yourself with your partner now that the kids aren't sleeping between you. It's a time to eat at decent restaurants instead of cheap, family-friendly ones.

And it's a time to buy some new toys. Men get themselves a nice new sports car. And women, that is, this woman, got herself a nice new (used) motorcycle.

This is Julia Joy. I always wanted a Julia. And Joy goes without saying. Red. It matches the drum set I got when I turned 30. Heh.

I had a motorcycle years ago, but I sold it when Kayleigh was little. I wasn't using it and we needed the money. I always kind of regretted it, and every spring and fall since then I've looked through the want ads to see what's out there. This year, Julia Joy was out there. I love her and will take very good care of her.

Those milestone birthdays are so good for giving us an excuse to spoil ourselves. Bring on 50, baby.

Just give me a good 10 years first.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Food has been a struggle of mine for, well, most of my life. I didn't eat enough or I ate too much or I didn't eat the right foods. I just could never do it right. You'd think feeding yourself wouldn't be so difficult. Open mouth, insert food, chew, swallow, repeat. Stop when full instead of repeating, literally, ad nauseum.

I climbed on the scale today after six months of stress eating. You could call it comfort eating, but I haven't been comfortable – not with my choices, not in my clothes, not with my life. But compulsive eating is how I deal with my problems. It's not dealing, though, is it. I stuff my face with food and stuff those difficult emotions down with it.

It's definitely a learned behavior. In fact, as a kid, I didn't eat much at all. I liked most food, though, and was growing properly. But my brother Clinton teased me because of how little I ate. "You don't eat enough to keep a bird alive," he would say. Given my family history of enormous women, a slender girl might be cheered rather than ridiculed. But, no. It didn't occur to me that my brother was rather overweight and had his own food issues. I was a kid.

Still, I heard stories of my sister Cynthia eating 16 pieces of French toast for lunch. "We had to go to the neighbors for more bread!" my mother would say, a twinkle in her eye as she reminisced. I always asked how big the bread was but was just told it was bread size. I couldn't possibly have eaten 16 pieces of French toast. I could hardly finish one piece of French toast. Think of the size of my little stomach. Cynthia was much taller than I was (and is and am, in fact) and thinner, too, and could eat 16 pieces of French toast. My parents raved about her boisterous exploits in and out of the kitchen and enjoyed her company, and as a kid, I felt less valued because I had a more moderate temperament and appetite. They would never joyfully regale anyone with stories about me eating 16 pieces of French toast.

As I got older, I started taking more food. I tried so, so hard to eat more. I thought I was supposed to. I thought everyone wanted me to eat more. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't really care how much I ate. I don't know. I only know how I felt, and that was that I didn't eat enough to make my family happy. My dad would make meals and be angry that there were so many leftovers. My mom would pour me more milk and plop more meat on my plate without asking if I wanted more, declaring, "Milk, Amy," and "Meat, Amy." Yes. There it was.

Sometimes I would put the food in my mouth, chew it, then spit it into my napkin. Especially the meat. I just couldn't stand that gristly old beef roast my mother would make, so blackened and stringy. She got wise to that napkin trick, though, and scolded me. Other times I tried slipping my food onto other people's plates when they weren't looking. Again, moms have eyes in the backs of their heads, and it didn't work.

The only time food was ever taken away from me was when it was dessert. "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," my dad would say. "You'll never finish all that," my mom would say as she'd snatch a good portion for herself.

When I was about 9, I noticed I was getting heavier. My thighs started rubbing together. It hurt and gave me a rash. On a particularly sweltering summer night, as I sat watching television in our dark, humid living room with a big bowl of strawberry swirl ice cream in my lap, my dad said, "Amy, you're fat!"

I looked down at my exposed belly and the bowl of ice cream I didn't even like but whose chill felt so good against my sticky skin. "No, I'm not," I said. He'd always been proud of my strength and athletic ability, and to have him think I was fat was a huge blow to my ego.

"You are!" he said.

"I am not!" I yelled. He laughed and walked away. I wouldn't talk to him the rest of the night. I knew how he felt about fat people. Fat people weren't athletes; they were sissies and slobs. I didn't want to disappoint him.

I probably weighed about 70 pounds.

My parents lived through the Depression. If there was something salvageable on a piece of food, they salvaged it. And they wouldn't buy more until that nasty shit was gone. So, bruised, sour, rotting apples sat in the refrigerator drawer next to shriveling oranges and darkening bananas. Bread would get so dry that the jam, which had nearly reverted to juice, would run right through it. I used to take empty lunch boxes to school and beg food off my friends. I just couldn't stand the ick factor of our sandwiches. And there was no way my parents would buy me a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Jif. If my dad didn't like it, we didn't buy it.

Once at the grocery store, in the most thrilling of aisles, the cereal aisle, my dad told me to choose whatever I wanted. I looked up at him, knowing he didn't really mean that. He meant, choose Corn Flakes, Bran Flakes, Shredded Wheat or Cheerios. He probably figured I'd go with the Cheerios since, to him, they were junk food. But I kept a close eye on him. I knew I couldn't get the Sugar Pops or Cocoa Puffs. When he was beginning to grow more impatient, he looked away, and I snagged a box of generic frosted flakes. I put it in the cart backwards so he couldn't see what it was. He saw the plain, blue box and was likely assured I hadn't gotten the Froot Loops or Cookie Crisp. I made sure to keep the box surrounded with other groceries as we shopped.

When we got to the check-out, he took the box out of the cart and finally saw what it was. His face turned red and he held it up. "Who put this in our cart? We don't get this crap!" Then he looked down at me.

"You told me I could get anything I wanted," I said, and I started to cry. I was embarrassed to cry, upset that he was angry about a box of cereal, mad that I was right he hadn't really meant I could get what I wanted, only what he wanted me to want. He relented. Kids are famous for grocery store meltdowns, and he caved with grace.

As the years went by, he loosened up about cold cereal. I think I was about 20 when he finally read the nutrition information on the Shredded Wheat box. He said, "There's not much junk in Shredded Wheat, but there's not much of anything else, either." What an epiphany to have in your 70s.

As a teen, I quickly learned I got attention from the popular kids if I had a big bag of Skittles around. Or M&Ms. And you know how most teenage girls spend all their money on clothes? Not me. I spent it on food. I knew pizza delivery guys by name. I knew the best and worst delis and cafes, and I was the youngest person hanging out at Steep & Brew, the ultra-hip, dark and smoky, mostly gay coffee joint downtown. (It’s not like that anymore.) I had definitely learned how to eat more.

And it showed.

One of my former tennis teammates (former because I stopped going out for sports) jogged past my dad and me one day. He said, “You should do something like that. When you’re active you eat a lot, and when you stop being so active, it’s hard to stop eating as much as you did, and you gain weight.”

He was probably trying to be helpful. But it hurt. Every 16-year-old girl wants her dad to tell her what a pig she’s become. Right?

I am sort of momentum-driven, so when I had the fortune of getting mono in 11th grade, the weight that fell off from being so sick stayed off. And I lost more. And once I got out of high school, I headed to Mexico. I can tell you, if you want to lose weight, there’s nothing like a couple months of diarrhea to strip the pounds away.

How awesome it was to come home and buy new clothes and get a real job and meet people who liked me. It was a confidence booster, and I kept shedding fat.

When I shrunk to a size 9, my sister and mom told me I was too thin and they were worried about me. Now, as I mentioned, my sister is a few inches taller than I am. Yet, she wore a size 9 even after her second child was born. Apparently I was supposed to be the fat one. It pissed me off.

My weight stabilized there for several years. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and ignored my family’s incessant remarks. I loved oat bran and pizza and seldom ate candy or cookies or ice cream. My mom told me I was no fun at all.

And then I met Eric.

At work one day, I bought a Hershey bar from the vending machine. Oh, it was perfect. The chocolate was so sweet and sour and it melted just right in my mouth. I had another. Oh, man. It was good.

When I got up to get another one, my friend Rekha said, “Amy, my god, what is going on?”

I stopped and looked at her. “What?” I said. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me.

“I’ve never seen you eat a candy bar, ever, and now you’re eating three? When you want a snack you eat a bagel. What is wrong with you?” She was laughing, but she meant it.

I laughed it off. Then I realized I was eating instead of dealing with this craziness called love and the fact that I would have to hurt my boyfriend because there was no way I could stay with him after meeting Eric. I didn’t get the third candy bar. I don’t remember what I told Rekha.

I did put a little weight on, and my family was pleased. Eric told me he wouldn’t want me to be any heavier. He liked skinny women. He thought it meant they took care of themselves and had a healthy relationship with food. (He no longer believes that to be the case. And he's always been totally on my side, supportive, gentle and caring.)

I was a pleasant size 8 when Eric and I got married. And then the weight started coming up again with all that eating out new couples do. And then I got pregnant, and that was pretty much the end of being thin ever again. God. Oh, sure, I lost most of the 55 pounds that I gained with Kayleigh. Then my dad got sick (sicker) and then he died and I ate my way through my grief. I lost some of that weight. It was harder. Eric and Kayleigh put the pressure on for another kid. I told Eric I wanted to lose some more weight before we attempted conception. I hit my target weight, which was more than I wanted to weigh, but it was acceptable and reachable, and we had at it.

I tried harder not to get so big with that next kid. And it worked. My doctor congratulated me for keeping my weight under control, that it was hard to do.

My weight went up and down after Kelsey was born, but last year I tried rather successfully to lose it again. I bought some smokin’ jeans and girly tops and felt OK about myself.

And then my mom’s health fell apart, and my diet fell apart with it. I can feel that I’m almost at the end of my grief bingeing, although I’ve been thinking that for a few months. My clothes don’t fit. I weigh almost as much as I did when I was at my most pregnant with Kelsey. My percent body fat is obscene. I don’t want to turn into my mom, whose health would have been a completely different story had she kept her weight down and moved her body. I don’t want to do that to myself or to my family. But I can’t seem to stop eating and it just makes me feel bad.

I love my mom. I love all my family. I want to honor them and the love we share by being better than I have been. I want to be healthy for all of us. It’s just so hard. Bad habits and coping mechanisms are pretty hard to overcome. It makes me feel weak for not being able to just put down the candy bar or turtle sundae or 5th slice of pizza and stop. What am I getting from food that it’s worth the pain and the guilt and giant, roly-poly belly? (I do like my boobs. They’re big and soft and squooshy boobs like I always thought I’d have, not the little pimples I had when I was young and trim.) I honestly don’t know. I feel less frantic, less afraid. Maybe I just feel less.

Because what I have to feel these days isn’t very pleasant. My parents are dead, my daughter is sick, my husband’s health is always on the edge, I just turned 40. Midlife crisis? I suppose. Then I think about people with real problems and feel like I should be grateful, and I am, but apparently not enough.

I just need to move my ass, shut my mouth and get that momentum going in the right direction again.

My new motorcycle should help with that. But that’s a story for another day.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Mom, the end

Donna Jean Boughey Wagner
July 16, 1925 - February 24, 2010

So, it's taken me a long time to try to write this. I'm not sure how much detail I want to rehash. It's strange getting used to someone being gone. It's strange going to my mom's house, sorting her things into piles for her children, the inevitable garage sale, and Good Will.

I hate seeing her clothes. Her jacket was slung over her walker in her living room, just waiting for her to come back, but she won't. I avoided washing a bag of her laundry that I'd taken to my house from the hospital, and when I finally opened it, only a couple of weeks ago, the clothes still smelled like her. It was a gut punch, and I bawled my eyes out, clutching her stained sweatpants as I leaned over the washer.

What was she thinking those last few weeks? Was she thinking? She couldn't speak well, she'd been very confused and hallucinating. As it became clear her body wasn't going to work the way she wanted it to, she just seemed to check out. She withdrew, settled into her own mind.

We had to just let her go. We honored her wishes as set forth in her health care directive, and we felt like we were killing her. It was freeing to have decisions already made, and made by her, so when we were asked how to proceed, we could say, this is what she wanted. At the same time, we likely hastened her death in doing as she asked, and there's no feeling of liberation in that. There is the knowledge, though, that she suffered less and that we did as she wanted. Still, what if she changed her mind? We'll never know.

I talked to her before I left her the last time. I told her she was a good mom, that I was glad she was my mom. I thanked her for giving me a good life and teaching me everything she had. I thanked her for being a good grandma. I told her I hoped Heaven was real and that Dad was there waiting for her. I told her I'd miss her. I told her I loved her. I touched her face, feeling her full cheeks, her wrinkly forehead, her round chin. Then I kissed her goodbye and went home. She died a few hours later.

So now we're all getting used to life without her. We've been busy trying to settle her estate, and I've enjoyed seeing my siblings more. It's funny the different memories we all have.

My kids had a hard time, and it brought up a lot of memories for Eric of his mother's death and life. We've held one another a lot in the last several months. Love and hugs are good healers. And so is time. Sometimes it seems like it's been so long since she died. Other days I remind myself it really hasn't been long at all.

Now Mother's Day is coming up. What a strange day it will be without her.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Eric says it's time for My Mom, Part 3

Today I got a call from the VA Hospital informing me that Power of Attorney was activated, and I am named in that capacity. Any decisions regarding my mom's treatment would be mine to make. What a bizarre feeling.

The plan was, she was going to come stay with me starting February 4. But before we got her room ready and before she was ever discharged from the nursing home, she got a little goofy. She has had trouble distinguishing dreams from reality, and her motor control and speech have deteriorated. On Tuesday, the nurse called the doctor about her motor control, speech and dazed mental status, and the doctor ordered her to the hospital, suspecting a stroke. It's been a rapid slide since.

I hadn't given the VA the most recent POA papers my mom had signed, which also names my sister as POA, but I told the doctor over the phone that she was on her way with said papers in hand. Now we share the responsibility on an either/or basis. I think my mom chose us because she planned to stay in our homes and we'd need the ability to act on her behalf.

I don't think she'll be staying with either of us any time soon.

Today, my sister says, my mom was traveling. She was heading to Venezuela, with a stopover in Miami, to visit her boyfriend, Cesar, who is 86. She also picked some strawberries today. Yesterday she planted roses and paid her bills and was quite annoyed that she didn't have any stamps or underwear. She saw my dad and our neighbor Lenny, who died in 1987. There were birds in her room. She believes she is at home.

Now, some of this is plain hilarious. Seriously. Cesar? He speaks English, by the way. It's also difficult to watch her struggle to figure out what the hell is going on, and she really tries hard. She held a pen in her hand and worked diligently to write out a bill to UW Health. She was apparently satisfied with herself, so I snatched the paper away from her as soon as she paused and told her I'd put a stamp on it at home. Later, after I left, she lined up tissues on her table and tried to write on those, paying more bills, just like a little girl playing pretend.

It's not heartbreaking to me to see her mind go, and I'm surprised at that. She is busy and mostly at ease and content, except for her underwear and the stamps, or whatever the problem of the day is. I think if she were aware that she wasn't really there it would be heartbreaking.

What is more heartbreaking is seeing how my kids and my siblings are dealing with it. She's our mom, you know? Kelsey said it made her sad that she can't make cookies and cakes with Grandma anymore. Kayleigh is sad, too, and worried Grandma is going to die, and angry that Eric is supporting me – to her mind – to the exclusion of everyone else's needs.

On top of it all, I'm horrifically sick. I don't want to go down there and pass on my germs to her. She just doesn't need that. So I'm hunkered in bed with Tylenol and cough drops and a chocolate malt (thank you, Eric), resting, coughing, sneezing, moaning, and hoping I get better soon, just as we're hoping the same for my mom.

The doctors are hoping that a different dose of antibiotics will knock out an infection and help clear her mind. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Mom, part two

First, thanks to everyone for all the support and love you've given me and my family. We've all needed it, and we all appreciate it. Thank you. I'm not usually so out there with my emotions, but I had to unload.

Second, my sister spent a lot of time at the hospital and nursing home with my mom over her winter school break, and I am so grateful to her for that. It's not the way she had planned on spending that month, but she was such a comfort to my mom – and to me. Knowing she was there and having her stay at my place was a huge stress-reducer. We spent mornings chatting increasingly later, and she cleaned my microwave and kitchen sink! I told her to bring her clean-freak friend next time and take care of my whole house.

So, my mom just finished two weeks at the nursing home and expects to be there another week or so. She's been making slow but good progress in rehab. She was frustrated at how slowly they were taking it, but they explained that many exercises put strain on the heart, and with a new pacemaker, they have to very gradually increase the workload. She seemed OK with that explanation. Prior to that, my sister reported, she'd been a little snotty sometimes about the exercises she was doing. My mom tends to poo-poo things as silly or pathetic, but it seemed like she got more on board after being told why things were moving at the pace they were.

Despite progress, she's still very weak and increasingly dizzy and light-headed. We spent ALL DAY at the doctor today, and they're trying to figure out what could be causing the dizziness. It seems to accompany some pretty serious dinginess on her part. She couldn't find words today, and mispronounced a lot of them. It was as if she were totally hammered – like, about-to-pass-out hammered. (I've never seen her that hammered, by the way. She just falls asleep when she drinks.) She also couldn't remember her Social Security Number, which really, really made her mad.

It was nice to kidnap her from the nursing home for the day. We had an appointment at a clinic I didn't know existed with a doctor I'd met before at an urgent care. I think she might have been the one who took care of Eric after a bee sting. Anyway, she was fantastic, very kind, patient, and thorough. Most doctors can't seem to wait to get out of the office, but she really took her time, asked a lot of questions, and seemed to genuinely care about what she was doing and for whom. Nice.

The afternoon was spent at the VA hospital in cardiology. (I even managed to call a couple of sources while she was having an EKG. Smokin'.) Her pacemaker is working fine, but they changed a setting to see if it would help her light-headedness. We ended up spending a little more time there than expected because they really want to try to figure out the dizziness. We'll be going back in a month.

Between appointments we went out to lunch. She'd been so excited to go out to eat. Institutional food is just the pits, although she says the nursing home is better than the VA, which she considers a wonderful incentive to anorexia. Bummer that her food was a little cold, even after she asked them to warm it up again. She did, however, have two cups of real coffee, not nursing home coffee, which she suspects is really decaf even though they say it isn't.

Fussing with the wheelchair was a hoot. It has two different foot rests, which bugs her, and I had to figure out how to take them off and put them on again. I also had to hoist this wheelchair into my little bitty car. Cheap entertainment, folks.

Anyway, she made it through the day, tired but ticking. I guess that makes two of us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Balance and flexibility: life's gymnastics

This has been a busy work week and still a tense one with my mom in the nursing home. I don't like having such important parts of my life so uncertain.

I thought freelancing would be a good way to have some flexibility in my personal and work lives. I wanted to work but also be available to my family. And mostly that's the case. But then I got a whole bunch of work all at once, and the thought of all that money and more recent clips sounded good to me. Gotta keep your name out there, right? It was also right around Christmas, which is a rather busy time, that I got all these jobs. I figured that'd be OK, though. Then my mom had her problems, and all of that piled together made me think freelancing wasn't quite as flexible as I thought.

For now, balance. I do what I can for whom. We'll see what the future holds when it unfolds.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

My Mom

How do you watch the woman you care most about in the world slowly slip away?

On Wednesday I drove my mother to a nursing home. My siblings and I knew she never wanted to go to a nursing home. She protested, but on the day she relented. Part of her seemed to know she needed rehab after losing a lot of strength during a recent illness. The rest of her was mad as hell, resentful, surprised, betrayed, defeated, placating, depressed, disbelieving, sad.

When my husband and I bought this house, we bought it with her (and our) later years in mind. Everything is on one level – just right for an old fart or even a young fart. Walking through the first time, she said, "This is my room," referring to the room that is now my daughter Kelsey's.

Over time, my mom has grown weaker, slower, sleepier. Her body and her breath are shorter. Her eyes don't work, her hands don't work, her legs don't work. She slurs her words. She eats poorly. She smells bad. But she maintains, even now, that she is well enough to live in her own home, even after telling us on Christmas Day that she would need to move in with one of us kids soon.

She can't even get in bed by herself. She shuffles and grunts and wheezes from her bed to her chair to the toilet with assistance, and a lot of it. She falls asleep mid-sentence. There were times last week, in the hospital, when she woke, she couldn't distinguish dreams from reality. Not all of her dreams are nice, little old lady, cookie-baking, sweet grandma dreams. Her paranoia and lack of logic frightened all of us. Fortunately, her mind seems to have cleared.

And now she lies in a hospital bed in a little corner room in an institution full of other women and men unable to care for themselves, with the hope that rehabilitation will make her strong enough to go home again. An activities chart hangs on the door: Bingo, cards, sing-alongs. They wear bibs at meal time, and scarcely a meal goes by without that drab, drippy, lifeless fruit cocktail. She will stay with the bingo, fruit cocktail and bibs until she stops making gains in rehab or until 20 days is up, when Medicare stops paying 100 percent, whichever comes first.

When the kids and I arrived last night for a visit, she was asleep in her bed, her food tray on her table over her lap, a mug of hot chocolate in her bent hands, resting on her chest. She didn't wake until I touched her head, running my hand through what is left of her coarse, white hair. She was happy to see us, but she didn't have much to say. She kept falling asleep. I imagine she was worn out after the activity of checking out of the VA hospital and into the nursing home. It's a lot of change, a lot of newness, none of it welcome.

Seeing her there, after driving her there, I feel like a traitor. I said she could live with me. I work a job that lets me choose to work or not so I could be more available. I bought this house, this plain rectangle, with her in mind. She expected to be welcome here, or with my sister or my late brother's family. She never wanted a nursing home.

"I'll never go to one of those places," she said. "My kids will take care of me. That's why you have kids."

I always believed it was my duty to care for her. She took care of me growing up. I owe her.

But it's more than obligation. It's also a privilege; an honor; a maddening, difficult, heartbreaking joy. I love her. I want to help her. And I failed her.

After she settled in, she lay in her bed and looked around at her little room. "So this is where I live now," she said. "Until I get better." We all hope she gets better.

She says she will not use her money to pay for her care. She wants us kids to have it, not a nursing home or at-home nurse. I think she will have to change her mind about that. She needs more assistance than we can give her ourselves. She should have put her house in trust or transferred ownership years ago. We talked with her about it years ago, but she just said she'd never go to a nursing home; they would drag her out of her house in a box, or her kids would take care of her. She should have taken better care of herself. She should have eaten right and kept her weight in control and gotten up off her ass and moved her body and stayed active and strong. But she didn't do any of these things. And now she is suffering for all of it. And so are we.

I imagine she will move in with my sister when she leaves the nursing home. My sister has no kids at home and she eats meat and she plays Scrabble and she talks more than I do and she seems less terrified than I am.

I hope my mom uses this time in the nursing home to get stronger. I am afraid she will just give up. I hope she forgives us for putting her there. I guess we'll see.

So, how do you watch the woman you care most about in the world slowly slip away? Sadly.