Some moments are easier than others. Those are the moments when I’m on top of everything. A loving daughter, a compassionate family member, the most responsible human being on earth. A superhero with organizational prowess and limitless patience. 

The other moments, the hard ones, pull me down like a two-ton anchor. I fall into a tailspin of inadequacy, and I am exhausted. Paying the bills, picking up the prescriptions, cleaning the litterbox of her two aging kitties, scheduling the doctor’s appointments, doing her laundry on a Friday night, taking her shopping on a Sunday afternoon, and helping her cull the faded family photos we’ve looked at a dozen times before. There are multiple black-and-white images of Dad and her in the early days of their courtship. Snapshots of my older brother as an infant. A picture of me being pushed in a stroller on the street where my parents had their first apartment before getting the house. My younger sister’s first recital.

These images both pause and speed up time. For a gentle, fleeting moment, I can recall when my siblings and I were young, and Mom and Dad, the vital, strong adults in our lives. We were loved, and we felt safe. Now when I glance over at my mother, seated next to me on the couch that’s been with her for two decades, I note the stark contrast between who she is in the photos and who she has become.

After my father died in 2007, the woman I knew disappeared for a while. And then she slowly reemerged, but as a subdued, less confident version of herself. My own marriage having lasted just five years, I didn’t know how to relate to a widow grieving the death of her partner of half a century. I missed the stern matriarch with whom I used to do battle. The parent who nagged me to clean my room, turn off the TV, and practice the piano. Showdowns over music lessons and church had been much easier to navigate than conversations with a woman whose happiness seemed to have died with her husband. Reluctantly, I was learning an uncomfortable new dance, and I was doing it on my own.

My sister lives out of town and rarely visits. My brother is geographically close but a workaholic. One day Mom’s body (or her mind) will succumb to the inevitable pull of mortality. Will they wonder if they could have done more? 

Fifty may be the new 30, but 89 is still just that—especially in a culture that hates inconvenient subjects like loneliness, thinning hair, age spots, walkers, incontinence, and DNR orders. Today I am no longer just my mother’s daughter. I am Power of Attorney, Rep Payee, Health Care Proxy. My love and determination are unshakable, but the fatigue of caregiving is real; the burden and privilege are bound together. Helping the woman who fed me during the first hours of my life navigate the bittersweet homestretch of hers—it’s the most complex path I’ve ever known.

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