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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

How Do We Set Boundaries in a Crisis?

Today is my mother’s 72nd St. Patrick’s Day birthday. I spent the morning cutting fat off the corned beef I’m making her (why do the butchers hide it?) and rubbing down with Clorox wipes every surface we touch frequently on our ground floor: refrigerator and oven door handles, door knobs, cabinet and drawer pulls, toilet handle, light switches.

My mother was a little disappointed when we all agreed a week ago we wouldn’t go out, as she loves to be in a noisy bar full of revelers for her birthday, but each day since then the news has gotten more forbidding, and by now the idea of going out to a restaurant is off the table altogether. At this point, we’re not even certain we ought to be getting together to celebrate in one of our homes.

I texted her today, “I hoped you would come here, just for a change of scenery, if nothing else.” She’s been homebound for more than a week. “ It’s no good for you to be inside 24-7,” I said.

“But that’s what they keep saying I should do,” my mom responded--so I guess we will be going to her place. And I hope even that isn’t harmful as my wife and daughter have been forced to continue showing up at their places of employment and exposing themselves to who knows what germs. The more news I read about how people without symptoms are infecting the largest numbers, the more terrifying a calculus this seems--but we are going, because leaving my mother isolated on her birthday doesn't seem like a good solution, either.

My mom has been mostly wheelchair bound since her second failed back surgery more than a decade ago, but she’s maintained her independence with a series of accessible vans and motorized scooters. She moved here three years ago from Las Vegas, where she had lived for the previous 35 years, and now she lives just a mile from me and Renee in South Hadley.  Having her close is a comfort and a pleasure; I am learning to play bridge with her, love going to movies with her, appreciate her sympathetic ear and compassion, and just generally enjoy her company and fun-loving spirit.

In Vegas, she had lots more of a community around her and went out all the time, playing bridge and mahjong, visiting with friends she made through her decades of living and working in Nevada. Since moving here, which she did in part because my son died and she wanted to be near me to be supportive but more because her own health was declining and she needed to be nearer to me so I could help her with daily living, she goes out much less frequently.  She increasingly asks that I drive her to appointments, as she is less and less willing to drive long distances … or in the dark …or in bad weather … or if she’s feeling anxious about driving alone or about being alone in her scooter as she goes from her car to her apartment, which is most of the time. This has been frustrating for us, as I want her to stay active and independent--and she feels she is only asking for what she really needs from me.

Perhaps in a leftover trigger reaction developed as I tried not to enable my drug-addicted son, I often struggle with figuring out how much of what I do for my mother is too much: which of my actions is enabling my mother to become less self-sufficient and more dependent, and which are simply necessary for me to do as a helpful, loving daughter?

Now, on top of all this, there is a national quarantine for Corona virus.  I am my mother’s only child (I had a younger sister, institutionalized most of her life for severe disabilities, who died in childhood), so if my mom needs help, it falls to me to find or provide it (and to my wife, who is also an only child with her own ailing mother who moved here from out of state a few years ago; her mom now lives in a nearby nursing home).

So I’ll throw this question out to all of you, dear readers: how do we know what is appropriate to give of ourselves and our time and energy during this crazy-making time? Should I give up hoping my mother can even try to be independent for now, recognizing that we are all going to be relying much more heavily on one another than we ever did before? Or should I keep trying to push her to manage her life (and her pain and her depression) by herself? Should I insist she shop for herself? Get herself to her own doctor’s appointments? Find her own therapist? Bring her van in for repairs on her own? Just asking these questions makes me sound heartless—yet a lifetime of my mother being overly reliant on me, treating me like the grown-up rather than the child, sometimes not getting things done unless I am pushing to make them happen, has made me unable to know where to draw my lines in the sand.

My boundaries were already getting blurrier as my mother aged, and now I fear that coronavirus is going to make them disappear altogether.  I’m scared the kind of caretaking my mother could require (and will want me to provide whether she requires it or not) will make me feel that I am disappearing.

For today, I am happy that my mother having a birthday makes these choices easy: to make her favorite meal and buy her favorite cake, to enjoy her company this evening, to sing to her and celebrate her while dressed in our greenest finery—we will all enjoy this, my daughter, my wife and I.  Together we will miss my son's daughter, shown here between me and her mom celebrating my mother's birthday when she was still allowed to speak to us. And we will be grateful we have one another and have helped one another through the heartache of losing first Kyle, who died in 2016, and now Maggie, who hasn't been permitted to see or speak to any of us since early 2019.

What happens in the weeks to come is my larger worry.  How are all of you dealing with being an adult child in the midst of the corona virus; how do you know where to draw your own lines? It is easy for me to fall into crisis mode even when there isn't an emergency, to start feeling it is my job to keep everyone calm while herding them to safety. Now that we are facing an actual emergency, I need to figure out how to keep myself calm--and, especially, how to know that my mother being disappointed in me doesn't mean I failed, as often, no matter what I do, she may feel disappointed in me for not doing more. But then again, maybe sometimes I do fail.  I welcome your thoughts.

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