This is not what I daydreamed parenthood to be. I pack snacks, spend hours a day making meals, do dishes and laundry, help her get dressed, make sure she remembers to feed the dog she committed to, clean the house, organize her room, make house repairs, pay bills, take her to appointments, bring her with me to work so she’s not unsupervised for too long, make sure she exercises several times a week, buy presents on her behalf for the holidays, and everything else in between.
In a sense these responsibilities were not a surprise. I have always been independent, hardworking, and have made a living working with kids for over twenty years. I had an early start, with my first gig being a sitter for the neighbor across the street. I was eleven. Looking back it seems slightly terrifying to entrust someone so young to such a high burden of safety, but at least my parents were always across the street and would periodically check in with a phone call periodically.
Like many others, I pictured my adult self with a partner, sharing the load and doting over a child that was perfect to no one but us.
I’m not ignorant. I knew that becoming a single parent is a reality. The thing is, no where in my highly active imagination was there a world in which I shouldered all that a single parent does, but without a kid.
You see, my child is sixty-nine years old. I am the parent of my mother.
Our role reversal began in early 2017. I had returned home from a solo, six-and-a-half-month road trip around the United States and quickly realized that she needed some help.
After a few tests it was determined that she has early onset Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know this until her diagnosis, but apparently someone is labeled as having this disease when there is no other explanation for their dementia. Like most other kinds of symptoms, (similarly to how a cough or an itch are symptoms, not diseases), dementia can be a response to varying health issues. Some examples are traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, nutritional deficiencies, brain tumors, old age, or any number of other concerning health problems. A few instances of dementia are reversible, depending on the root cause. Alzheimer’s is not.
Knowing what I know now it’s incredibly easy to see specific moments and changes for what they were: smoke signals. Hindsight is a perspective with no value in the past, but worth its weight in introspection.
The earliest incident of any change I can recall is from autumn of 2012. I was dating my roommate at the time, who was tall and always sported some version of a short, dark beard. Mom is very outgoing, the kind of extrovert who can flirt in a casual way without it meaning anything. So when, after meeting him several times, she would stretch out her tiny frame and put a curious hand on his beard, I was annoyed.
“What’s this?” she’d chortle, briefly fondling the facial hair like it was a page in one of those children’s texture discovery books.
“Mom. Leave his beard alone,” I’d say, trying to balance between playing it cool and being overtly embarrassed.
“When did you grow a beard?” she questioned him.
My boyfriend would eye me with a perplexed smile as he explained, yet again, that he always had a beard.
“Really?” she laughed, thinking we were joking.
“Really Mom,” I would sigh, not amused by her extrovert shenanigans.
There were other moments too that stand out. I have memories of her coming behind the front desk of my work to help herself to something in a cupboard, or walking into my office to sit on my lap like I was Santa Claus, thinking nothing of my coworkers around us.
In October of 2014 I had a first real inkling that something serious might be going on. I had purchased tickets to the “Jimi Hendrix Experience” at our local event center as a birthday gift for Mom. At the time I was housesitting one town over from her. I requested that she meet me so that I could drive us to dinner and then the show. Despite having the address and me walking through the instructions over the phone, she couldn’t find me. I ended up hopping in the car and locating her so she could follow me back to the house.
It was close to midnight by the time the show was over and we made it back to her car. As she was about to head home she asked for directions. I reiterated the instructions, but she didn’t seem to understand. I climbed back into my car and told her to follow me to the nearest freeway entrance. By chance, the on ramp was being worked on. Construction equipment and flood lights blocked our entrance. I turned us around and took her to the old highway backroad that connects the two towns, pulling over to say goodbye.
She still didn’t understand how to get back, even though now we were five miles from her front door.
We repeated this strange game of follow the leader once or twice more until I veered the car to the shoulder a last time. I was becoming distraught, confused and irritated that she was acting so out of sorts. At this point we were just about a mile away from her house. I motioned toward the quiet, dark freeway ramp and told her to get on it.
“Get on it?” she questioned, unsure of where it might lead.
“YES Mom. Get on the on-ramp. You’re almost home,” I strained.
“And then what?”
“GO HOME. Mom, seriously, how do you not know where to go? Just go home. I can’t do this anymore,” I pleaded, trying to keep back the tears that were forming.
Finally she crossed the road onto the ramp, painfully slowly driving up until she disappeared out of sight. She couldn’t hear me as I yelled, “Goooo! Speed up! What the hell are you doing?”
I lost it.
On the short car ride back to my housesitting gig I called my sister. As siblings invariably do, she could tell right away something was wrong.
“Lauren, what happened? Tell me. Is everything okay?”
I didn’t know it fully yet, but it was the start of something that is very not okay. Mom didn’t drive at night again and things seemed mostly alright for a while. Though, she was developing slowly into someone a bit more childlike and needy. The tone of her voice de-evolved. She began thinking it was cute to call me “Mommy” and use a whiny voice sometimes when speaking, especially if I was out of town for any reason. I hated it.
When I left for the forty-eight state road trip in mid-2016 part of me knew it might be my last hurrah for a long time. I soaked up every second of time on the road, calling home every few days or during unbearably monotone stretches of empty highways, but I knew. Life might be much different when I returned to California.
The instinct was right. Shortly after I jumped back into “normal” life I noticed that Mom was having trouble driving. She’s generally a careful driver, but parking in particular started to give her away. Keeping the vehicle parallel between lines, parking in her steep driveway, or backing up out of a spot was an increasingly erratic drama to witness. Finally, after a small fender bender in the parking lot of my work, and noticing a couple dents in her garage door and inside the garage, I held my breath and took charge.
“Mom, while we wait to have your car fixed, why don’t I give you a ride to and from your house?”
I work at a health club where she’s been a member for longer than I’ve been an employee. It made sense for us to carpool anyway, but to be honest, at first I wasn’t thrilled about the added daily errand.
She surprised me by agreeing right away. I had anticipated the opposite reaction, her fretting for days and insisting on her perfectly fine driving capabilities, thank you very much.
She hasn’t driven a day since.
It’s been three years since I switched from the title of daughter to mother. Every aspect of my life has been affected by being a caregiver. I am thirty-two and nowhere close to having a family of my own. I don’t really date, often going months or a year without romantic companionship of any sort. My work schedule has been reduced, mostly so that I avoid overburdening myself with responsibilities. I have anxiety, most recently panic attacks from time to time that mimic the chest pains of a heart attack. I don’t hike every Sunday like I used to. Road trips and plans abroad have slowed to a trickle. My freedom to live my life at will is in a vice.
This is infinitely the hardest thing I have experienced in my life. And there’s no telling where the finish line is. It often feels like someone moves the line closer, then back, taunting me. I waver between wanting it to be over and digging my heels in.
I do it for her. I do it for all of the years she tried her best to guide me through life, even when she didn’t know the answers or chose a hurtful approach. I do it for the handful of teenage years she wouldn’t give up on me when I struggled with depression. I was so locked inside myself, unable to share my thoughts or fears or pain, but she kept trying to reach into the dark and pull me out. I do it for the innumerable hours she spent feeding and bathing me as a kid, helping me with homework, arranging check ups and sport team sign ups and play dates. I do it because I would hope someone would do the same for me. I do it because I love her.