Watching: An Open Letter to My Mom
by Katie McCune
I’ve been watching you literally forever. After your ridiculous 46 hours of labor, yours were the first eyes I looked into, and whether or not you’ve been conscious of it, I’ve been watching you since. As a young child, I watched you every day as you drove me to and from daycare, so you could go to work. In transit, we sang songs about the color of the rainbow, God, and making friends. You were the primary parent, but that was just for me. Then Mollie came along. I watched as you opted out of the workforce to take care of her saying, “I’ll go back when she goes to school.” I still don’t know if this was a lie you told yourself or a hopeful ambition, but I saw the years pass and you never went back. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I know that what you were doing is one of the hardest, most thankless jobs out there. By staying at home, you choose “mom” as your primary identity.
I watched as you wore your mom badge proudly and saw how many ways it fulfilled you, but I also saw all the ways it didn’t. As my and Mollie’s lives became busier, as Dad took on more leadership roles, all of our expectations of what “mom” meant became more demanding. What was for dinner tonight? Can you bring the forgotten homework? This house is getting dirty…and so on. I know you got satisfaction out of always being there for us, but I also know you don’t really like to cook, cleaning isn’t your thing, and being at home for whenever we needed you was actually pretty lonely.
I watched as you slowly evolved into a less goofy version of yourself; napping became the most logical way to fill your days, and your excitement for things you previously enjoyed was gone. Even then, I appreciated your act of openness as you delicately tried to explain to my thirteen-year old self that you had to take medicine to help you be happier. It didn’t really matter to me, though, you were still my mom and life was going on as normal. But I suppose normal is always relative. Understandably, it seems that somewhere along the way you just got tired of being “mom.” Even though you chose mother as your primary role, somehow all the others faded away and unintentionally it became your sole identity. I know how much you love us, but I also know that there’s no way just being a mom could ever be enough.
I watched as you started doing things that were very out of character. You had always been the one to drag me to church, but on the rare occasion that I wanted to go, I was met with indifference, because you just “don’t like church anymore.” I watched as the size of your meals decreased and the negative body talk increased: “I’m saggy…I need to lose more weight…I want to be skinny like her.” You suddenly had a need to buy sexy clothes, complete with short skirts and low cut tops. I was mortified and worried. Not because I didn’t want you to feel like a sexual human being, but because this was not like you, and I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know how wrong until I got a phone call saying that you had been admitted to the hospital for suicide watch.
Though I didn’t think it was possible, things got even worse. I listened as you told me that Dad had been seeing somebody else, and as Mollie told me of the constant back and forth yelling, something that you didn’t believe in. I watched as Dad moved out and you hit your low point. It was as if your mind couldn’t handle it and shut down. Things became difficult for you to remember, problem solving was harder, and even getting the right words out was a struggle. But despite the fact that your life was in shambles, you remained optimistic and never lost that feeling inside that one day everything was going to be okay. And slowly, things did get better. You began to forgive Dad and move on. I heard your positive affirmations: “I’m strong and I’m figuring out how to be me.” You became happier and more active, and I saw the woman that I used to know begin to reappear.
But even as things got better, speaking was still a challenge and I remember your frequent frustrations with your brain just “not working right.” You had come so far, though, and so much had changed so fast that I was hopeful that this, too, would just take time. But time wasn’t enough. If watching the past few years unfold was hard, it was still the hardest thing I’ve ever done to watch as the neuropsychologist explained to you that you had dementia, most likely frontotemporal dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s.
Wow. Even two years later as I write this, it still feels so heavy.
I watched as you sat there and the doctor asked how you were feeling, and the first thing you said was that you were worried about “your girls.” And that’s when the tears began. Immediately, I began to reconsider my plan to move 2,000 miles away in a few short months for grad school. Yet even before I had a couple seconds for these thoughts, as if you were inside my head and despite the fact that you hadn’t ordered me to do anything since I was in middle school, you looked at me and sternly said, “Don’t you dare not go.” Thank you, mom. This is the greatest gift you’ve ever given me.
So, even though I’m living halfway across the country, I’m still watching you and never before have I been so proud. I’m watching you thrive at age 54 as you’re living alone for the first time in your life. I see how happy your new church is making you and how you’ve actively sought out friendships. Every time I talk to you, you can’t wait to tell me about the sweet lady who needed your help in the volunteer kitchen, how you’re loving your exercise class, or the latest movie your girlfriend took you to. With no shame, you recount to me how matter of fact you are in disclosing your diagnosis to your new friends. “It is what it is.” It would be so easy for you to hide in the house, afraid that people won’t accept you because you struggle to communicate, or remember information. But not you. You are confident and courageous and are not going to let this disease get in your way.
I can’t remember the last time you were this happy, and I’m not sure if it’s in spite of or because of this horrific disease, but I’m watching you remember what it’s like to be you. Not mom, but just you: a person who deserves all the happiness in the world and isn’t going to wait around for it. As I watch you every day, never before have I hoped so much that I can be more like you. Thank you for showing me there’s never a wrong time to be yourself.
“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, and as long as I’m living my mommy you’ll be.”