“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a pink and white striped blouse pulled from my mother’s closet. It has seen better days. The collar is frayed, there is a light stain near a buttonhole and it is at least one size too small for her.
My mother is sitting on her bed watching me like a hawk as I rifle through her closet. She shakes her head and says firmly, “No. I might wear it again someday.” Discouraged but determined not to show it, I put the blouse back in the closet. It’s bulging with trousers, sweaters, blouses and skirts, many of which haven’t seen the light of day in years. Some can go to Goodwill and others should be thrown out, but she refuses to part with anything. I have to tread carefully, though. I am still learning to navigate this chapter in our lives where I have become the parent and she the child.
While pretending to pick some lint off my sweater, I watch her from beneath my eyelids. The last few years have not been kind to her. (To be fair, she is 93 and did not look her age until recently.) Her face is heavily lined and dotted with age spots. Last year my brother and I insisted she get new dentures because a few of her teeth were broken and wire was poking at her gums. The elderly can be fiercely stubborn, though, when it comes to change. In the end, she caved only because we stayed strong.
She used to faithfully curl and set her hair every day; now it gets a perfunctory brushing in the morning. And the new clothing I buy her stays on hangers while she wears the old favourites I am now trying to weed out. “They’re too nice to wear just around the house,” she says. They’re not. They’re just new.
My brother, who is also active in her care, recently said to her, “What happened to my mother, the one who took pride in her appearance?”
“Ouch,” I said when he told me.
“I know, I shouldn’t have said it and I won’t do it again,” he quickly added.
It’s funny how her pride suddenly re-surfaces when other people are around. She is sitting on her bed now because her legs will no longer support her for very long. Yet when I coax her to leave the apartment to go to the common area of her residence, she refuses to take her walker. The first time, I accepted her decision. But it is a long walk to the area and it was soon clear it would be tough going without the walker. She clung to me and we took slow, small steps; yet to her, this was somehow better than being seen using a walker. I considered putting my foot down and going back for it, but I didn’t want to make her feel diminished.
I was ready for her the next time, though. When she again stated that she didn’t need her walker, I said, “Why don’t you use it? We can both put our purses on it and we won’t have to carry them.” Because this was no reflection on her physical limitations, she agreed docilely. I learned it pays to be creative instead of insistent.
Now, I make one last attempt. I hold up a gray jacket that has decorative rhinestones and used to be part of a pantsuit. It’s not in terrible shape, but it too has seen better days. “This?” I ask hopefully. There’s a flash of uncertainty in my mother’s eyes. I hold my breath and then she says, “I still like it but if you want it for work, take it.” I say that I would very much like to have it as I quickly fold it and put it in a bag destined for Goodwill. I get her to agree to part with a few more items in the same way, and we are both happy with the day’s work.