Refeathering the Nest

From Dutiful Daughter to Self-Aware Caregiver

Magazine Issue
September/October 2007
Refeathering the Nest

When I was a teenager, my mother and I were mirror opposites: both in love with the same distant and preoccupied man, and each brilliant in realms in which the other could barely cope. I aced my SATs, discussed Dickens with my father at dinner, and skipped two grades. She, by contrast, couldn’t spell or balance a checkbook.

I spent hours reading in my bedroom and dressed in Army-Navy surplus, peering at the world through a curtain of messy hair. She wore her blonde hair up in an elegant Grace Kelly twist, and could sew herself an evening dress from a photo in Vogue. She made coq au vin with her own chicken stock, charmed everyone at a dinner table, and could get up the next morning to stain our deck. I often felt clumsy in her presence. I think she felt stupid, occasionally, in mine.

Sometimes, on weekends, I’d cook fudge in her kitchen and then retreat to my bedroom as she sponged off the cabinets and shouted up the stairs, “Everything I touch is sticky!” Occasionally she’d insist I wash the dishes and then redo them herself to fix imperfections I couldn’t see. I once found a letter from her to my father (who was often away doing research): “Katy has been awful, but she always was your child, anyway.” When I asserted my independence, or cooked myself special things, or escaped into the arms of boys, or failed to intuit what she needed, she called me selfish. I wrote, “I hate her!” in my diary, which she found and read.

Yet beneath my hatred, I craved her love a craving that had begun with the births of my two younger brothers, and possibly before. When I was a very young child, she’d given me paints and encouraged me to draw; she’d shown me rabbits and helped me build houses for the fairies in the autumn woods. I hungered for that lost, intimate world, and my hunger, long subterranean, didn’t end when I graduated from college and fled my parents’ home for California.

I made new friends, got a job, took up running, married and divorced, and learned to dress. Over time, my mother and I put down our swords and grew warily closer, even though or because we lived on opposite sides of the continent. I spent my working days in clattering newsrooms and small rented offices. I interviewed Richard Nixon, picked stocks, negotiated leases, translated neuroscience into kitchen-table English for The New York Times, and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. But the drycleaner hemmed my pants, a woman from Guatemala cleaned my house, and I never raised a sentient being more complex than a ficus tree.

Then, five years ago, my 79-year-old father had a stroke, and my family entered a new life stage. Every family wound I thought I’d outgrown and every trusted defense that had seemed to work emerged again, carrying with it danger, and an opportunity for redemption.

On an October morning in 2001, my father, a retired university professor, had collapsed on my parents’ kitchen floor in Connecticut, making burbling sounds. When my mother called me in tears, something primitive rose up from my core, pushing me onto a plane and straight to the hospital where my father lay. (My two brothers stayed put
in California.) Six weeks later, when my father returned home, I flew out again and found my mother a caregivers’ support group, a gerontological social worker, a doctor who specialized in medical catastrophe, and an elder lawyer.

Now I watch her struggle with ambiguous loss (my father isn’t quite alive and not quite dead) and unending physical caretaking. He can no longer take a shower unaided, and he struggles to complete a sentence. He’s becoming her child, and she in some ways is becoming mine.

Trying on a New Role

Today I supervise my parents’ investments long-distance and have legal control of half their money. I fly home when I can and worry when I can’t. I nudge my mother to hire more home help. I send my dad letters with little drawings in the margins and look forward to the ones he sends back, written in a cramped, spidery hand. Sometimes when I’ve visited from California, tears have filled my mother’s eyes and she’s taken my hand in a soft, unfamiliar way. “If only you lived closer . . . in Boston,” she’ll say. She wears her white hair loosely now, gathered at the nape of her neck. She’s still beautiful to me, and still nerve-wracking and entrancing.

Her words are a version of what I’ve wanted to hear her say all my life. For a moment, I’ll wish I could respond like the selfless spinsters I used to read about in Victorian novels that army of “eldest unmarried daughters” who stayed home through the long years of their parents’ dying. But I can’t do that. I’ve been on my own too long, and going far away had been my way of coping with worlds of family pain. Yet much to my surprise, and despite the strains, I’ve found the role of dutiful daughter far more gratifying than I’d expected. I’m grateful I can help. I’m amazed I want to.

I’ve become an accidental inheritor of a long tradition of unpaid female altruism, without which most families would collapse when they hit black ice. At first, this altruism flowed into the channels that wounding had laid down in my childhood, outside conscious awareness. As time has passed, I’ve found that I’ve had to dig new channels for that stream. If I hadn’t, I’d have ended up sacrificing my own life my livelihood, my dreams, my friends, my relationship with my man, and my sanity-preserving walks in the mountains. To behave in a consistently loving way, I’ve had to confront my mother and my brothers, to stand up for myself, and to accept my limits.

This is the story of how I’ve muddled my way, over the past five years, between two well-trod pathways for women’s lives. One is the path my mother has followed: the ancient tradition of female, home-centered self-sacrifice, in which such notions as saying no, talking about money, and having boundaries are irrelevant, if not immoral. If I’d taken this path, I’d have drowned. The other is the feminist road I’d taken for nearly 40 years: going out into the world to earn a livelihood, expressing myself creatively, and living a self-actualized life. If I’d chosen to follow the second path slavishly, I’d have denied my deepest emotional bonds, and I couldn’t have lived with myself.

No fairy tale of filial devotion or image in my storehouse of cultural cliches was adequate to guide me. Even though I live in a suburban county full of well-off older people, I found no support or therapy group for the dutiful sons and daughters of elderly parents in health crises. Kaiser Permanente, my HMO, offered classes in assertiveness training and marital communication and managing children with ADD and chronic pain but not in this.

At the same time, as it turned out, I couldn’t simply steer by the seat of my pants, driven by my childhood wounds, hoping, at long last, to be seen as the good daughter to my mother and the good sister to my younger brothers. With help from friends, three good how-to books, and an occasional catch-as-catch-can therapy session, I’ve had to learn when to say yes, when to say no, when to ask for help, and when to draw the line.

The Perils of Aiming for Sainthood

Being assertive wasn’t hard for me when, nearly 30 years ago, I helped crash the gender barrier on a city newspaper. Nor did I have trouble speaking out when I walked picket lines, negotiated raises, and took part in give-and-take with my editors. But after my father’s stroke, my backbone melted. I couldn’t say anything but yes.

My yes, at first, brought enormous rewards. Visiting home the year after the stroke, I found my father sitting uselessly in the living room, stripped of all the markers of his professional adulthood. Gone were his wallet, his belt, his car keys, the ID from the university where he used to teach, and his watch. Using strategies I’d gleaned from my 20 years of writing about psychotherapy and behavior change, I didn’t reproach my mother, as I once might have. Instead I quietly took him on a drive to check out local swimming pools, signed him up with a community van service, and bought him a waterproof plastic watch. The first two mornings, I drove him to the pool and swam while he did water exercises. The next two mornings, I rode with him in the Red Cross van to the pool. The following two mornings, I put him on the van and drove separately to the pool to meet him.

By the time I packed to leave, two weeks later, he was taking the van to the pool three mornings a week and doing water aerobics on his own. On my last day there, as I swam laps and he did his water-walking at the shallow end, he looked over and said to me, “This is something I could really come to enjoy.” He looked at his wrist. “It’s so nice having a watch.”

That moment was more important to me than most of the articles I’ve written, more valuable than every plaque and hunk of engraved crystal that bears my name. My self-confidence took a leap, and so did my capacity for unconditional love.

In my teenage years and beyond, my mother had frequently called me selfish, and I’d always been perplexed what exactly did she mean? and cut to the quick. But I’d gone on to live much of my adult life as a single, childless career woman who loved her work and her solitude, and I’d sometimes worried that my mother’s accusation was right. Now I’d become the family heroine.

But there was a barb in this sweetly baited hook.

After a couple of years of being there for my dad, I realized that my brothers weren’t carrying much of the load, and that I was even edging them out. Middle-aged men whom my mother and I still called “the boys,” they rarely flew East to visit my parents. At the time of my father’s first stroke, Jon, the youngest of us three and a long-haul truck driver in southern California, was “taking a break” and living off his savings. A practical man, he told me he didn’t see much point in flying to Connecticut and “just sitting around being miserable together.” Michael, the middle one, was an impoverished actor who struggled with depression and had been estranged from our parents for seven years.

Perhaps in an expression of our female chauvinism, my mother and I neither asked for, nor expected, much from either of them. Just as perfectionistic young mothers sometimes unintentionally shut their young husbands out from diapering and other intimacies of infant bonding, my mother and I were shutting my brothers out from our shared familial suffering and intimate helping. Truth be told, this had a perverse payoff. During one of my visits, as I was explaining my mother’s investments to her for the nth time, she sighed and said, “Thank God I have a daughter. Sons are useless.”

Initially, this classic, sexist and let’s be honest, at least partially voluntary division of labor didn’t bother me. To the degree that I thought things through at all, I figured our family faced a short-term crisis, not a new life stage that would require of us new language, new roles, and the stamina of marathon runners. Although neither my brothers nor I put our thoughts into words, I think we assumed that my father would pretty much recover within a year or so or die. This wasn’t just wishful thinking: my father’s heartbeat had slowed, and the family doctor, much to my relief, had recommended against implanting a pacemaker.

Then things happened in rapid succession, as things will: my father developed a hernia, the surgeon was afraid to operate because of his failing heart, and my mother and the family doctor made a decision that I didn’t hear about until it was too late. Instead of giving my father a temporary external pacemaker to see him through surgery, a permanent pacemaker was implanted, practically guaranteeing that this damaged man will live on among the over-85-year-olds, the most rapidly growing and most health-compromised age group in America.

When my mother couldn’t sleep, I was the one who looked up her medications in the Physician’s Desk Reference and had trouble sleeping myself. When her first financial adviser (whom she’d hired in a panic) mistakenly sold a chunk of high-interest bonds, I chewed my nails in California, diplomatically eased my mother toward firing the woman, and finally helped her choose someone more reliable. It wasn’t easy: my mother and I were beginning to negotiate a major intergenerational shift. She wasn’t sure of my competence I’ve never been good at details and though she wanted my help, she didn’t want to share power with me. I’d volunteered for a position of “high responsibility and low control,” the classic recipe for stress.

The time I spent on family business bit into my life, my serenity, and my earnings. The second poststroke year passed, and the third began.

I’ve heard it said that quick deaths are easier on the dying, and harder on their families. Slow deaths, they say, are harder on the dying, but give family members more time to prepare, talk, and accept. For the first couple of years, that proverb held true for us. Exhibiting the stoicism, dignity, and patience that are part of his legacy to me, my father doggedly settled for little victories and accepted major losses. He learned to fasten his belt again, to comb his hair, to brush his teeth. He had trouble finishing sentences and finding words, and he was self-conscious about his newly wobbly and oddly miniaturized handwriting. But with the encouragement of a speech and language therapist, he returned to his computer, opened up Microsoft Word, and began an autobiography, writing vividly about being wounded in a foxhole in Italy during World War II. An old colleague from the university regularly took him out to lunch.

At the same time, my mother grew stronger. She’s descended from French and Swiss Huguenots who fled to South Africa in the 18th century, and with the toughness of her ancestors, she adapted. She hired a woman named Toni an old friend of my brother Jon’s who began giving my father his shower three mornings a week. My mother learned to balance her checkbook and started doing it far more faithfully than I ever have. Long a perfectionist, she became more accepting
of human frailties mine, her own, and even those of the grocery checkout clerk. She took over my father’s computer and signed up for Netflix. She reestablished her morning routine of meditation and yoga. Over time, Toni became much more than household help. She turned out to be as hard a worker as my mother, and as they bonded over shared housework and personal care and deck-staining, Toni became almost a surrogate daughter or niece. In my home in California, I returned to sleeping through the night.

As my mother grew more confident in her dealings with the outside world, I grew more confident in the natural kindness of my heart. Talking to her on the phone, I sometimes felt the protective softness a mother must feel. It seemed that she and I were erasing decades of pain. I kept saying yes, and the approval I got in return was like a drug.

Then my father had another stroke. He could no longer remember how to get his computer to open Microsoft Word. Not long after that, the honeymoon between my mother and me ended. I came for a visit, got the flu, and extended my stay until I got on her nerves. Just as I had as a teenager, I cooked special dishes for myself in her kitchen; I borrowed a pair of socks and returned them without washing them. Finally, irritated by my small thoughtlessnesses, she stood on her doorstep and shouted that I was “selfish, excessive, and disgusting.” I could have been a teenager again, standing in the cold, tears filling my eyes. There on the doorstep, as alive as ever, were my ancient angers and griefs: my craving for my mother’s love and my fury at not getting it.

Hard Lessons in Setting Limits

I left in a depressed fury, staring out the window of the plane as it flew West, ticking off my resentments. When my brothers hinted that they needed money, my mother handed out cash: $1,000 here for car repairs, $500 there for rent. But although she always paid my plane fare when I visited, she’d once insisted that I pay separately for a lip balm that I’d put into her grocery cart.

The old strategies of female altruism help out, don’t be petty, it’s only money, she’s got enough on her mind were no longer enough.

After I got home, I took a walk in the mountains with my close friend Audrey, a successful artist in her fifties who manages the finances for a widowed mother and a brother disabled by muscular dystrophy. She’d recently had a stare-down with her mother, and she advised me to do the same.

Audrey had been staying at her childhood home in West Palm Beach, when, one evening, the bedroom door burst open and her mother flew in, scolding her like a teenager for being on the phone past 11 p.m. The next morning, Audrey sat her mother down at the kitchen table. “I’m 50, and I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time. It isn’t your business when I go to sleep,” Audrey said. “If you ever walk into the room without knocking again, I’ll stop coming here, and stop helping you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Her mother first tried to hold on to her old maternal power, saying, “Well, I am your mother.” Audrey looked her in the eye and would not let the topic drop until her mother explicitly promised not to barge in again. (She hasn’t.) It was a necessary upending of the generational hierarchy, as brutal in its way as the physical knockdowns that sometimes occur between violent fathers and their strapping adolescent sons. It isn’t the sort of scene that’s usually described in sentimental newspaper stories about the joys and rewards of caring for one’s aging parents. But Audrey said it had to happen if she was to survive, and she advised me to do the same.

Easier said than done. I was too upset and still too cowed by memories of the rejections and intimidations of my childhood to confront my mother face-to-face. Instead I wrote her a four-page letter demanding an apology and detailing a series of small but humiliating slights. I told her I’d no longer be her convenient Cinderella. She told me she found my letter searing, but wouldn’t apologize, saying she’d “just been impatient.”

After that, I didn’t talk to her for months. I even flew East on business without telling her. On a train from Boston to New York, I heard the conductor call out Meriden, the station five miles from my parents’ home. I sat there with my stomach in knots, but I didn’t get off.

I’d been running virtually nonstop, trying to be the Platonic ideal of a dutiful daughter, ignoring my need for basic courtesy and respect, let alone love. Now my very body was rebelling. But I didn’t yet have the language in which to do things another way with my mother. I was still afraid of her. I didn’t know how to set a limit without blowing up or piling on reproaches.

When I was a budding feminist in my twenties, I’d joined a consciousness-raising group and read books, and the commonalities I’d discovered with other women helped me reclaim my dignity in my relationships with men. Now I was a suburban journalist in my fifties, needing support to contend with a fiery and overburdened elderly woman a woman playing the bad hand that life had dealt her with an integrity that sometimes took my breath away. After fruitlessly searching for a local support group, I turned to books again, and got a magazine assignment to write about setting limits with one’s aging parents.

As I began to read and interview experts, I quickly got relief from my delusion that I was the first dutiful daughter to seethe with rage at parents who were living through a daily tragedy. Psychologist Barry Jacobs, a medical family therapist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers told me that ambivalence comes with the territory. “I worry about the people who aren’t ambivalent,” he said when I interviewed him. “I’m sure there are people out there who are happily selfless, but more commonly, people adopt a selfless stance because they think they’re supposed to. They wind up burning out over time.”

Next I spoke to psychoanalytically oriented clinical social worker Roberta Satow, who interviewed 50 midlife adults for her book Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You. She hinted that my intense feelings were fueled not only by the present, but by the past. People who feel loved and well connected to their parents in childhood have less difficulty balancing their own needs against those of their aging parents, she said. By contrast, those whose childhood parental attachments were unstable often lose themselves in the process or simply run away. Her book contained a cautionary tale that I took to heart: it was a profile of a woman who waited on her invalid mother hand and foot, while her mother denigrated her and lavished attention and money on two ne’er-do-well, hard-drinking sons.

Satow told me that her own mother had never bothered to remember the field in which her daughter had taken her Ph.D. Now the old woman had Alzheimer’s disease, and Satow had to remind herself that her mother’s present forgetfulness was an expression of a biological process, not another manifestation of just not caring.

“Caregiving is a developmental stage,” she told me. “It gives you the opportunity to repeat the same old stuff and feel just as angry and disappointed as ever, or to redo it in a different way, and to resolve things that have gone unresolved. If you don’t give voice to your old feelings, you can’t cope with the demands being put on you.”

Now I had a new way to frame what was going on in my family. If this was a new life stage, my mother and I could evolve, rather than silently flinging our long-rehearsed accusations at each other: her longstanding disappointment at my “selfishness” and my resentment of what I saw as her continuing harshness and domination. There was a chance for growth for either one of us.

A few months later, my mother sent me some newspaper clippings and then a letter and a book. She’d surmised that I’d been East, and hinted that she missed me. One day, I called her. Another day, she obliquely suggested she’d learned something from my long absence. That Christmas I went to visit. Nothing was said, but something power, for want of a better word had subtly shifted. The financial adviser I’d chosen was working out well, mother said. My parents had settled into a manageable, though constricted, rhythm, watching more videos and taking slower walks. She didn’t squawk when I cooked my own dishes. A week later, reconciled and relieved, I flew back to my writing, my mountain, and my man.

That spring, my father developed macular degeneration and started losing his sight. After a trip to the pool one day, he couldn’t remember how to get home and wandered down to Main Street. Some months later, he went out for another walk, and my mother found him crumpled in the driveway, one eye covered in blood. A CAT scan at the local hospital showed more bleeding in his brain, and he was taken to a crowded university hospital in the inner city an hour away. There my 82-year-old mother stayed up all night with him while he lay delirious on a gurney in a hallway; they waited nearly two days for a bed.

She cried to me over the phone: he was being neglected, and she didn’t know what to do. She needed an advocate. She needed a driver. She needed me. I was furious with the hospital and our health system. But I was exhausted too, and my partner, Brian, and I had booked a nonrefundable week in a cabin in the mountains.

It was time to say “help” instead of “yes.” I thought of calling my brothers, and then worried that they wouldn’t give my mother support in exactly the perfect way I fantasized I would. I looked at the ceiling, contemplated calling an airline, and groaned. Then I called my brothers. Both offered to go within a couple of weeks. Michael, for instance, wouldn’t give up his upcoming acting workshop, but was willing to fly East a week later. This time, I gave up the perfectionism I’ve inherited from my mother and said “Thank you,” instead of “I’ll do it myself.”

Brian and I went off to our rented cabin and had a good, restful time. Michael, for his part, stayed East for three weeks, during which he and my mother talked late into the night. He’s a master of empathy, just as I’m a master of research and logistics, and he gave her emotional support far more skillfully than I probably would have. I’d believed I was indispensable. If I’d asked, a family therapist might have told me that if I stepped back, my brothers might step forward. And that would have been right.

Love and Money
and More Love

Family growth follows a zigzag path. A month later, along came a new “AFOG” (Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.) One Saturday morning, my mother told me over the phone that she’d decided to give Jon the truck driver $20,000 to buy a secondhand Jaguar, which he’d told her would “improve his self-esteem.” My brother had never gone to college, whereas they’d paid my tuition, she reminded me. It was time to even the financial score.

This wasn’t the mother I knew. The mother I’d grown up with was a product of the Great Depression. She rarely gave me more than a $300 check for Christmas; she regularly got her shoes resoled, bought cheap vitamins by mail, and pursed her lips if she saw me spend $8 on a hunk of goat cheese. The cars she and my father bought were transportation appliances, not pimpmobiles: they’d never owned anything more glamorous and expensive than a Camry.

There I was, the putative family moneymanager, sitting in a bathrobe on a Saturday morning with my ear to the phone and my mouth open, afraid for the future and overwhelmed by the past. The adult within me knew that I was the one who’d be picking up the pieces and dusting out our spare bedroom if my parents’ money didn’t last through their years of increasing care. The child within me remembered feeling displaced by my brothers and forced to work for crumbs of parental love. It seemed to be happening all over again. I was the one doing the work why didn’t she give me thanks, or offer me a Jaguar, or, better yet, give me a week at Esalen or a trip to Greece? I was the one she’d accused of being selfish for not intuiting her needs. Now I was hoping fruitlessly that she’d intuit mine. I went beserk and shouted at her much as she’d long ago shouted at me.

Reading books and interviewing therapists had taken me only so far. I needed both practical, old-fashioned family social work and therapy at the depths. The next time Brian and I saw our couples therapist, the subject wasn’t our boundary issues, but my relationship with my family of origin. “If you don’t set limits with your mother,” said our therapist, Richard Lipfield, looking me straight in the eye, “You’re going to get sick.” A few minutes later he added, “I’m telling you this as an expert. If money isn’t distributed equally, everyone plunges back into rehearsing the wounds of their childhoods, and there’ll be no end to it.”

For years, I’d felt guilty for becoming more financially successful than my brothers and for being the child whom my mother had found to be so difficult. I could no longer shape my actions around the geometry of my fear. My mother, I realized, could live another decade, and the inequities, responsibilities, and resentments were only likely to grow. I had to act in a new way.

At Lipfield’s recommendation, I drove into the city and had a few sessions of EMDR, once again exposing the old wounds of my childhood. Then with his coaching, I had long, no-holds-barred talks with both my brothers. I didn’t want any more money deals cut behind my back, I said. Each one of us had a reason for feeling we’d gotten a raw family deal somewhere along the line. As far as I was concerned, they all averaged out and we were even. Then I talked to my mother decisively and without anger and wrote her a short letter. We needed ground rules, I said. I was to have a vote and a veto over her major money decisions. Substantial financial gifts were to go equally to all three siblings from now on. If that wasn’t okay with her, my letter implied, I’d stop managing the family assets and she could find someone else.

At the same time, my brother Jon began lobbying me to get my mother to pay me for the hundreds of hours of family work I’d done. My subterranean grievances, he said, were poisoning the well and compromising my ability to be the family fiduciary. The idea tempted me and filled me with uneasiness. Shouldn’t I be pitching in out of the goodness of my own heart? Wouldn’t I risk having my mother once again accuse me of being selfish?

I took heart from a few pages of Terry Hargrave’s book Loving Your Parents When They Can No Longer Love You. Advancing the radical notion that family caregivers should be paid if possible, he writes, quoting St. Paul, “the worker deserves his wages.” He continues, “Let me be clear. The primary caregiver is entitled to more of the resources . . . because he or she is bearing the heaviest load.”

Hargrave’s book showed ways to rebalance inequalities in the distribution of burden and power that often occur with aging parents, and gave me permission to speak them out loud to myself. Of the few simple principles he laid out to cope with a long-term caregiving situation, one especially caught my eye: decisionmaking should rest with those doing the work; everyone else constitutes the support group. In our family, my mother and I were the caregivers and the primary decisionmakers. My brothers were her future financial beneficiaries and our current support group. And I deserved to be paid in an above-board manner, as Hargrave said, for the work I’d done that had reduced my earning capacity.

“Taking on the caregiving burden alone is unfair, and compensation helps with the sense of injustice,” Hargrave told me in an interview, adding that caregivers often resist being paid. “It’s about fairness. People can be dishonest about this all they want, but when they have an extra $200 a month to go out to dinner, they feel better.”

Tentatively and full of guilt, I raised the notion with my mother. At first, she said I was ridiculous. Two months later, she came around. I still feel uneasy being paid by my family. But now I can pay for bookkeeping and housecleaning, and I can help my parents without working through every weekend.

The way we deal with money is the most obvious change in our family configuration, but not the only one. I try to wear my parents’ problems like a loose garment and to offer more help than advice. My mother is more tender with me and forthright when I kibitz too much. I listen more to my brothers, and ask them for more help. Two weeks ago, my brother Jon our family’s unofficial director of human resources had a diplomatic and necessary business talk with his old friend Toni, my father’s caregiver. It was a conversation I wouldn’t have handled well, and the end result filled my mother with relief. We are now, and will always be, an imperfect family, but like the characters in the film Little Miss Sunshine, we’re doing our odd family dance with a lot more grace. I handle the money, letters to my Dad, and logistics; Michael gives my mother empathy and unconditional love; Jon helped her buy her last car and keeps me honest when I start worrying too much and abandoning myself.

Speaking of cars, my mother didn’t, in the end, fund Jon’s Jaguar at my insistence. Instead she gave all three of us the same substantial chunk of cash. Jon went back to work as a truck driver and saved his paychecks. Last month, he got the first car loan of his life and bought himself a used burgundy Jaguar with a tan leather interior. I hired a bookkeeper.

I’ve learned, meanwhile, that I have to keep speaking my mind. Let me tell you about my mother’s recent visit to my home in California, the first she’s ever made without my father. At my request, Michael picked her up at the airport. She got out of his car full of energy, even at 82, dressed in her trademark black jeans and black-and-white scarf, as chic as ever.

But I noticed she didn’t insist on her usual hour of yoga the next morning. I was shocked to see how bent she’d become from osteoporosis. When we sat down for dinner, she put a pillow on her seat. I fed her expensive California cheeses and put flowers in her room. I found her, as ever, entrancing and nerve-racking. I was delighted to see her.

She didn’t try to make my disorderly household run as smoothly as hers. But without criticizing me, she brought little touches of order to our controlled chaos, lining up the salt and pepper shakers, and clearing off kitchen counters. I took her for short walks and showed her my office. Michael spent hours with her: they grew closer than they’d been in years.

The final stage of my parents’ lives is bringing about reconfigurations and reconciliations that I never would have predicted. Not long before my mother flew back to her exhausting and lonely life with my dad, she and my brother and I went walking down a long California beach. After the sun set, we dropped in at a terrific restaurant, and there we were, sitting in front of a gas fire, in a beautiful yellow room, enjoying a feast of mussels and scallops and salads sparkling with dark red beets and white goat cheese. Apropos of God knows what, my mother said, in a hauntingly familiar combination of envy and disapproval, “The life you and Brian live is luxe.” I could feel something coming. “There’s a lot of waste in your house,” she added.

I felt the little bomb detonate, as if underwater, but it was Michael who called attention to it. “That’s rude,” he said. There was a small silence. “It’s insulting and critical,” I added. There was another small silence. But this time, my mother didn’t come back with her stock line, “You’re so oversensitive.” Instead she apologized, several times. It warmed my heart, and I forgave her.

It was a small moment, but it showed us at our best my mother humbling herself, my brother supporting me, and me being my mortal self and not an invulnerable daughter-saint. I still marvel at my mother, not only because she’s elegant in a way I’ll never be, but also because, at the age of 82 she’s still growing. And I marvel that, at 57, I’m capable of changing, too.


Katy Butler

Katy Butler, a former features editor and staff writer for Psychotherapy Networker, is the author of two award-winning books about aging and living meaningfully in life’s final quarter, especially in relation to modern medicine. Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2013) was a New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book of the Year. The Art of Dying Well (2019) is a road map —practical, medical, and spiritual —through the significant passages of life after 55. Katy’s groundbreaking work for the Networker was nominated for one National Magazine Award and contributed to several other NMA awards and nominations. Her writing has also  appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Tricycle: the Buddhist Quarterly, Scientific American, Best American Essays, and Best American Science Writing. Other honors include first-place awards from the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists; a “Best First Book” award; and a finalist nomination for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in northern California and loves to dance in the kitchen to Alexa with her husband Brian.