Aging in America: Cherríe Moraga on Her Mother’s Struggles
Growing Up in a Mexican-American Family and Revering One's Elders
There were times in which I did not know whether my mother was truly demented or just Mexican in a white world. I knew she was ill, that she suffered enormously; but I often doubted if the medicine for that illness (psychotropic drugs and the culture of care for elders in this country) was adequately designed for the woman whose emotional memory defied the limits and logic of occidental plotlines. Was it designed for an 86-year-old woman who, even in her so-called dementia, could not forget the past, who believed in the dead and knew they came to visit with messages truer than the dreary sound bites of consumer culture?
What I remember is the fall from the curb in the shopping mall. Nothing major, only a slip of the foot. My mother had been looking elsewhere, her eyes scanning the parking lot through the hazy Valley smog for my father’s navy-blue sedan. The doctors concurred: “a slight concussion, nothing major.” Yes, there was the scarring in the brain and some shrinkage had begun. “Perfectly normal for her age.” But something in my mother began to shift that day, something so subtle, so certain.
On that day my mother began to leave us.
Everything about our upbringing as Mexican American children revered our elders. With elders, we learned to offer a glass of water, a cup of coffee, the last empty chair in a room. We extended our arm for them to hold as they crossed a street, got out of a car, stepped into a bathtub. With elders, we learned to refrain from comment when we disagreed, endured long hours of visita without asking to eat, and never refused what was offered to us, no matter how stale the saltines. With elders, we also learned that if we made ourselves invisible enough, they might forget we were there and reveal all: stories with the power to conjure a past as stained and gray with intrigue as the aging photographs that held them.
As the century turned and my mother entered her mid-eighties, my sister and I began to warily approach the subject of my mother’s failing memory—to each other, to our father, and to her surviving younger sister and brother. “It’s normal,” everyone kept telling us. For a year or so prior, this had been my refrain as well, against my sister’s entreaties for “getting our mom some real help.” For it was JoAnn who lived within a half hour’s drive of our childhood home in San Gabriel. It was also my sister who endured my mother’s virulent denial about missed appointments, burned pots, forgotten phone conversations, lost keys and twenty-dollar bills, and seemingly delusional suspicions about our family’s treatment of her.
“Your sister hasn’t called me in weeks,” she’d complain to me over the phone in Oakland. “I don’t think I’ve even seen her in a month or more.”
I would call JoAnn to urge her to visit.
“I just saw her on Monday, brought them hamburgers. She’s forgotten.” What wrenched my heart the most was the futility of my sister’s actions. My mother suffered from “not-seeing” her because she could not remember. What she did remember was the nameless feeling of missing someone or something. Was it her unremembered self?
She was waning. Her world was becoming more insular. True, up to the last days of her life, Elvira would continue to exhibit great shows of affection when inspired, but slowly she began to pull away from us and into the world of her own preoccupations. This is not uncommon for elders where the physical requirements of aging often mandate their full attention. But in my mother’s case, that seemingly benign fall in the Montebello Mall initiated an entrenched self-absorption, thrusting her and her family into years of increasing agitation and disease.It is sometimes no more complicated than this: there are culturally stupid and lazy doctors who see elders as useless annoyances to be pacified with antidepressants.
My mother had never been an easygoing person, but gradually as her attention to what had been the normal routines of her life began to fade—cooking, cleaning, conducting familial relations—Elvira fell into great bouts of depression and fury.
Elders were to be honored at all costs; but when was the cost too high? We had given wide berth to the pure will and visceral knowing that defined my mother for most of our lives; this is, after all, what saved us. So how could we suddenly require her to surrender her will to us?
My mother’s 86th birthday marked a turning point for me when I began to loosen the hold on my conviction that my mother’s fuerza was enduring. On the night of her celebration at a nearby old-style Bavarian restaurant, which catered to elders of all kinds, my mother had opened a full table of gifts and responded to each present with perhaps a bit too much exuberance; this, no doubt, the result of the amount of wine she had drunk that evening.
But the following morning, suspecting Elvira hadn’t been all there the previous night, I asked her if she would like to see her presents. What? She didn’t remember getting presents. I brought out the pile of opened boxes, the tongues of white tissue hanging out from their mouths. She was elated at the sight of so many gifts. And so Elvira celebrated her birthday all over again for the first time. That was a good day, a day I could pretend not remembering was really due to the wine and normal for an 86-year-old and it isn’t called Alzheimer’s and it won’t get worse, because that day of not remembering made Elvira happy. In my heart, I knew differently.
Three months later, I arrive back home again in San Gabriel for a visit. It is not yet spring, but still a warming midafternoon. I expect to find my mother in her daily routine: scrubbing a pot here, folding a sweater there; walking from room to room, opening and shutting drawers and cupboards; transporting handfuls of clothing from one spot to another and back again. My father would have already spent a good part of the day in his office, a kind of makeshift construction of swelling fake wood panels, pressed against the crumbling stucco walls of the garage.
I enter the TV room (my childhood bedroom) and spy my mother, her head dropped back against the couch, her mouth open. She is so drugged that she isn’t even snoring. This is not the first time I have found her this way. I rush out to my dad’s office.
Since his retirement from the railroad freight yards, he had cultivated a steady stream of clients doing tax returns. Even during the off-season, he would manage to find much to do. Away from my mother’s purview, he submitted quarterly reports, worked on occasional audits, and ordered sports books and big-band music videos.
I interrogate him: How many pills is she taking? Let me see the prescription bottles. Hurried and nervous, he mumbles shamed inaudible responses as he hobbles with his walker back into the house. We rummage through the kitchen cupboards; the pills are everywhere, half-filled, refilled, there is no rhyme or reason to the amounts.
“She gets up in the middle of the night.” He stammers, “I . . . I don’t know what she’s taking.”
Right away, I am on the phone to my sister. She tracks down my mother’s doctor, who, unbeknownst to JoAnn, has given our mother drugs for depression. JoAnn and I soon dump the doctor when, during the quickly scheduled visit, he tries to assess my mother’s memory loss by having her remember the line “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” a sentence that means nothing to my unlettered Mexican mother. “Pendejo,” JoAnn and I agree about the doctor.
It is sometimes no more complicated than this: there are culturally stupid and lazy doctors who see elders as useless annoyances to be pacified with antidepressants. All the while our elders’ actions tell us the opposite; that they are not stupid, but suffering a deep inarticulate loss, about which they do not have the confidence to share, even with their most beloved. These old ones are holding their cards very close to their chest. They’ve been dealt a bad hand. They are bluffing and everyone knows it.
JoAnn finds my mother a gerontologist, a psychiatrist, and a social worker within a week. Her 30-plus years of working in the public school system, first as an elementary school teacher and then as a principal, where children are often last on the political agenda, taught my sister how to be an advocate and work that system for those who cannot. It may be what my sister is best at: the battle field of social welfare and justice—its black-and-white clarity, while the front lines of personal relationships are so much more difficult to negotiate.
Getting my mother to a doctor’s visit was seldom challenging. Elvira loved to be doted on by male doctors, especially handsome forty-something Asian American ones, which aptly described her new personal physician, who commented on how her fierceness and fine features reminded him of his own mother. In fact, Elvira flirted with doctors who catered to her. Although at times encouraging my mother’s flirtations served as an effective strategy for getting her to open up to her physicians, the game thinly cloaked her desperate attempt at control. Her disabling vulnerability teetered dangerously on the other edge of that coquettish smile, and the best of doctors could spot it. Her daughters feared and begged for her face to fall. Elvira needed help.
A week later, my sister, mother, and father sit in the psychiatrist’s office. The doctor, a white man, wears a suit and sits behind a desk. My sister is grateful for this, hoping that without the telltale signs of a doctor, my mother might be tricked into answering questions she would otherwise reject. But the underlying tension is palpable: my mother fully suspects betrayal by her eldest daughter and husband at every turn. In my mother’s mind, the two are co-conspirators, plotting her submission to a culturally alien healthcare system intent on her demise. These are not her words, but it is her conviction.
The meeting with the psychiatrist goes smoothly enough until he asks my mother directly, “Your husband and daughter are concerned about your loss of memory. Have you noticed that you have been forgetting things?” And that’s all it takes.
After several years of the most blatant examples of my mother’s slipping hold on her own daily story—the inability to even eat a plate of food not buried under a hill of salt because she’d forgotten she had salted it only moments before—the doctor’s question throws Elvira into a frenzy of fury. He, too, is in collusion with these traitors, trying to ridicule and humiliate her. She bolts out of his office and into the reception area in a tirade of curses. In a way this was the best move my mother could have made since she had grown so expert at “keeping face” with the experts.
Stunned, the psychiatrist asks, “Does she often explode like this?”
“Yes,” JoAnn replies.
“She’s clearly bipolar. How long has this been going on?” And JoAnn had to laugh to herself at the psychiatrist’s on-the-spot diagnosis. “We’ve lived with this all of our lives,” JoAnn answers. “It’s only more aggravated now.”
I, too, laugh when my sister recounts this conversation and the entire episode on the phone to me later that evening. My mother’s intractability was as connected to her as sinew to muscle. It was, in fact, the very muscle of control that she had always held over her family. Her anger, and our fear of it, kept us in line as best a single mother (for Elvira felt herself alone in the rearing of her children) could.
Shaking hands with the psychiatrist, my father and sister exit his office only to discover my mother is not waiting for them outside the door. They fully believed that once inside the waiting room she would’ve recovered herself to save face.
“Does she wander?” the receptionist asks.
“No,” JoAnn answers, and does not add the truer statement, but she bolts to save her life.
My father and JoAnn hurry out of the medical building in search of my mother. My sister eventually finds her crouched behind a bush across the parking lot. From there, she was able to see her daughter and husband come out of the building. She could watch them search for her, never losing sight of them. My mother never once put herself in danger. That much control she still had.
The senior-care social worker turned out to be “una americana, a nice lady” who came to visit her. Vera seemed agreeable enough even when she had to do tests about which JoAnn and I had alerted the “nice lady” in advance. We wanted our mother’s memory assessed, not her education level, averting any situation that might shame our mother about her lack of schooling. There was no surprise when the social worker concluded, “Your mother needs care. She shouldn’t be left alone too much.” At this, my father drops his eyes, knowing he had endured my mother’s outbursts by sequestering himself in his garage office for long hours of the day.
So we agreed (at least in theory) to bring in an attendant to help with the cooking, the shopping, and some light housecleaning. She would monitor my mother’s meds and, no doubt, provide her with a little extra much-needed company. We had not consulted with my mother about this in advance, fearing that if she knew too soon, she would wear us down with resistance.
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