Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s disease

Looking Into My Mother’s Eyes

momnW

I walk into the Alzheimer’s facility with a somewhat brave face. After being buzzed in, I force a smile, force small talk, to yet another new administrator, before making my way into the cafeteria. The small tan room with light tan round tables, is before me. Everything is neutral, as if bright colors might offend those with memory impairment. I behave like this is just another day, no big deal. I haven’t seen Mom in a year, but pretend I am prepared. Mom is hunched over her wheelchair. A nurse is trying to feed her. I sit down and introduce myself to a new nurse whose name I forget instantly. She says this is her first week on the job. Mom strains to turn her head and eyes me, but doesn’t smile. She turns away in slow motion, moving as if under water, as if I am not there. The nurse tells me that Mom loves music. I tell her that she used to play piano by ear, up until a few years ago. She promises to play more music for Mom tomorrow, classical instead of country.

The nurse places a small piece of salmon on a fork and touches Mom’s lower lip with it over and over again until she licks the spot, but closes her mouth reflexively. This goes on until Mom finally manages to open her mouth, even if just barely. The nurse then pushes the food inside. As I watch, I wonder when the day will come when Mom can’t chew, when she can’t swallow.

In between bites, Mom grinds her teeth like a delayed response, a late synapse connection telling her mouth to chew at the wrong time. How frustrating that it happens when nothing is in her mouth! How frustrating and terrifying this whole damn disease is. I try hard not to imagine Mom waking in the middle of the night confused, not knowing where she is, not knowing  who anyone else is around her.

But, that’s not likely to happen anymore. She no longer appears anxious or frightened. She’s in the late stage of the disease.

The nurse leaves and I begin chattering on, showing Mom pictures of the boys from my phone. Pictures of my life in California. Of course, she doesn’t look at the pictures, but at me. Mom sort of chuckles as I try to feed her. I bribe her with a small piece of a warm chocolate chip cookie. It takes three touches on her bottom lip before Mom can open her mouth. I gently push it in. Only half makes it inside. But she smiles. Mom still loves chocolate. She can’t move her hand, but her eyes look down at it briefly, so I place it up on the table and put mine on top. She smiles again briefly, then stops.

And then she begins to stare.

Mom stares deeply into my eyes. I lean forward, forcing myself not to look away. I continue to gaze back just as deeply into those eyes of hers that are a shade of blue I’ve never seen before in anyone else. They are as blue as western corn flowers or a Tiffany’s box. Who knew a color could break my heart.

As I am staring back, I fight tears and remind myself that she is in an infantile place now. She is in a beautiful state of purity, innocence, trust. Looking into Mom’s eyes, I can remember exactly how it felt to stare deeply into my sons’ eyes when they were both newborns. I’d lie with them and stare so deeply that I’d ache. I’d tremble with how remarkable the knowing is. How raw, how powerful it is to be so open, so pure, so trusting.

We are all born in this perfect state. And that’s why I believe in oneness. We divide, distrust, judge, criticize, separate, as we age.

But when we are born, we have this ability to love with abandon. We don’t judge. We love who we love and it has nothing to do with what they look like or wear or own. We aren’t ashamed of our feelings, we embrace them. We scream when hungry, cry when we need to be held—we know we deserve love and deserve to be taken care of. Somewhere along the line, maybe in elementary school, we start to lose that knowledge.

We lose touch with so much as we layer on fears, doubts, judgements, anxiety, hurts, grudges. And it’s hard to be happy, to be at peace, to be creative, to be playful, to give love, to receive love, with all those layers weighing us down.

I adore how toddlers and preschoolers live unabashedly too. They embrace who they are and what they want! A tutu with cowboy boots and a martian mask—hell yes! No toddler cares what another person thinks of them. They’ll grab a jar of paint and just stick their hands inside and relish in the gooey feeling and then paint their arms and legs because it just looks cool. They’ll dance, spin, rock it out, screaming to their favorite Barney tune.

They also trust that the Universe has their back. Have you ever seen a toddler just fall backwards on purpose and giggle as adults scramble and run across the room to literally have their back, break their fall? Those little munchkins know that the Universe will care for them, that the Universe has their back.

We are all born knowing these truths, until sadly, some adult doesn’t show up or doesn’t care for us, or other people hurt us and then we build walls. As I said, we pile on judgement, hurts, guilt, anxiety, fears, grudges, criticism, doubt until there is no room for joy, for trust. It’s like wearing 10 coats on a summer day and wondering why we can’t run freely in the surf.

These thoughts, or some version of them, race through my mind as I am looking into my mother’s robin’s egg blue eyes. So I allow myself to try to channel my inner preschooler. I allow myself to enter into a staring contest like the ones I used to have with my sisters or my childhood bff when I was little. I lean in and tell myself to just go there. Who’s going to blink first? I think, so I won’t cry.

After we stare for what feels like five minutes, although I’m sure it is only two, she smiles. I can see kindness, inquisitiveness behind her blue blue eyes. She doesn’t know who I am, but she still feels, she still tries to connect. Someday I will just get a blank stare in return. So today, I am grateful and I am heartbroken at the same time. But mainly, I am grateful. The same eyes that used to be filled with so much fear, so much anxiety, so much stress, that they would dart around a room, are now at peace. They calmly stare deeply into mine. She is smiling. She is trusting. She is peaceful.

Last year when we did this, our foreheads touched and she said I love you. This year, she can hardly speak. She doesn’t know who I am, but wants to. I ache with the purity, the openness, the trust I see in her eyes that won’t look away.

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Flash Flood

SAMSUNG

2013 will be the year my mother stops talking completely. Tonight I googled ‘grief’ and found this post. It’s comforting, in a strange way, to step back and look at how much happens in a period of time, such as 500 days. Destruction and death and sorrow are inevitably (and hopefully) entwined with new beginnings and soul awakening growth and grateful moments. It’s hard to describe how that works.

Tonight I miss mom.  I rarely talk about her to anyone. I don’t know why. It wasn’t that long ago that we spoke every week. But that’s life, isn’t it?

Tonight I found myself crying. An old song mom loved to play on the piano came on a TV show. And before I knew it, tears were trickling down my face. Grief is like that. People say it comes in waves. That may be. But mine comes like a flash flood. Or a tsunami. One minute I’m moving along, as usual. I may be having an ordinary, yet, nice day. Then I’ll hear a song.

Oh how I’d love to call her to tell her my divorce is final. That I’m writing fiction again (baby steps.) That my boys are rambunctious as ever. That I’m actually doing this parenting gig on my own somehow.

A year ago, I wrote several posts honoring my mom for mother’s day. It empowered me. As silly as that sounds. I felt like I was preserving her. I was honoring who she was. When you lose a person to Alzheimer’s, it’s a confusing death. With mom, she began the steady decline last year. She can now barely talk.  My last visit, 7 months ago, she eeked out “love” and leaned her head to mine. That was a goodbye that I will always be grateful for. Nevermind, that a few minutes later, she looked at me like I was a stranger. The day before, when I popped a small piece of dark chocolate and raspberry bar into her mouth, (her favorite) her eyes widened and she grabbed my hand saying, “I think I like you!”

Tonight, I long to talk to her so much it aches.

Tomorrow, I’ll get up, in this city of sun and eternal youth, and begin again.

Thank God it’s Monday

legoscreamface

I think I must have said twice today “I’m turning into my mother.”

The first time I said it was when talking with a friend when I asked her for the names of two neighbors. I knew their children’s names, but for some reason, the mom’s names just escaped me. I felt horrible. I called my friend whose been on the block for almost 20 years for help. As I was apologizing for asking her, I said flippantly, “I must have early-onset. I’m turning into my mother.” (My mom has Alzheimer’s and fear creeps in at times I can’t recall names!)

The second time I said “I’m turning into my mother” was to myself as I tried to listen to my four-year-old talk during bath-time. I was listening to him—sort of—but my mind kept mulling over the events of the day, and how poorly I dealt with them. My little guy has been fighting yet another nasty cold and potential pink eye all weekend. We had gone to urgent care to get those pink eye drops just in case and I shouldn’t have expected that he’d be a perfectly behaved boy. But Friday night he woke up a lot and crawled into my bed coughing on my face so much I didn’t rest well with fitful dreams of catching something. I was already a bit of a zombie on Saturday, so I had no right to go to a friend’s house and to stay up late watching a movie. Boys were asleep, but I stayed up till after midnight watching a Clint Eastwood flick. (I’ve become a fan recently, go figure!) So when my youngest woke up at 6 a.m. Sunday, coughing and making a lot of noise, stomping on the stairs, jumping on me and then later fighting with his brother, I was instantly anxious and grouchy and started rounded up all items for a quick exit. I even talked to myself snappily (something about hating my life and bad decisions) as I stomped around and tried to get the boys sorted. I over-reacted and was in panic mode about kids waking up the household. But of course, I behaved badly by not staying calm and said things I didn’t mean.

It’s just silly. I mean, what was I thinking? Of course he’d get up at 6. Duh.

My day got a little nutty, which is to be expected with a sick kiddo. James had a temper tantrum in the Vet’s office where I was picking up meds for our cat. He sat on the floor between the halfway open front door, where he had jammed his rear-end, and screamed, “I’m SO tired. I just want to go back to the CAAAARRRRR!” Followed by a hick-up.

So,  I picked up my 40 pounder and carried him to car, now kicking and screaming that he now doesn’t want to go to the car. You know, the typical insane rant of a tired, not-feeling-well, four-year-old. I snap him in, without a word, straighten my back and blow out air. Thank God his older brother was on a play-date. I naively thought he’d go to sleep right away.

We go on a long drive out to Palos Verdes to rise above the clouds, get a vista, and let him sleep. He screamed for 10 minutes, which felt like an eternity. I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. My heart started racing. Seriously?! This again? I begin to feel sorry for myself a bit, and handed him a sandwich. (My kid has an amazing relationship with food, so snacks are key.) A few bites and he falls asleep with the ham sandwich still in his tight, little grip. It would be comical if I didn’t have cortisol surging through my veins. With silence enveloping the car like angel’s breath, I thought: How the Hell do moms of three or four kids do this?!

As James was relaxing and chatting NONSTOP in the tub tonight (now onto the topic of just how Lion King’s dad kept talking to him since he was dead), I zoned out and thought about that moment in Palos Verdes in the car when I wondered how other moms keep their sanity. And then it hit me: I’ve turned into my mother.

My mom was such a wonderful, stressed-out, loving, mess. Seriously, she’d gasp sharply whenever the phone rang and jump with fear of an impending emergency. (She was a child-protective services social worker who gave out her home number to clients, so we often had interesting calls.) Occasionally when all four of her children were driving her crazy, she’d snap, “Someday, I’m just going to run away!”

I used to laugh then, but I now know exactly what she meant! I’m sure she was just thinking out loud, not even aware that she said it, as her heart raced madly while four kids were either yelling, hitting, punching, torturing one of our many pets, or up to some other mischief. I’m frankly amazed that she wasn’t a drinker.

Kids are tough. No wonder my brain is mush by Sunday night. It’s a wonder that I can even write this column. I apologize if it’s under par. Maybe I should just quit writing on Sunday evenings due to kiddo brain drain.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love, love, LOVE my little guys. I’m the luckiest mom on Earth to have them.

But thank GOD tomorrow is Monday.

Loving Counts

My prophetic little four-year-old said to me tonight: “Loving counts mommy.”

We had been hanging pictures up. I turned and looked at him. I actually blinked as I took in the simple notion, then replied: “Yes, it certainly does.”

What an incredible little man.

Sometimes it’s as simple as that. What counts in your life? Think about it.

What do you love most?

Your family? Your God? Your Work?

Does it show?

For me, love is essential. It is essential in every aspect of my life. My boys are everything to me. But I wonder if they always feel that from me. Saying that I love them is one thing. Showing them is quite another.

For a child, I wonder what defines love? It certainly has to be about more than saying ‘I Love You’ or buying cool toys. Kids always seem to cut right to the chase. They know who they can depend upon. They know who is kind. They respond to those who play with them, acknowledge them, listen to them, encourage them, take care of them, accept them.

I know that my two boys are the most appreciative when I’m present with them. They know when it’s time to turn off the computer or cell phone and just be with them.

Being present, however, is much harder than it sounds. The other day I had an insane tax deadline. I was up until 2 a.m. working, slept for three hours, and was back at it. At 7 a.m., as I was finishing my expense spreadsheet, my little guy comes into my room and starts to climb into bed. He ruffles my sheets and starts to crumple some papers and receipts. I yelled upstairs to my older son to take him up and put on Sesame Street. As he padded out of my room, I instantly felt remorse. If I had finished this project earlier, I wouldn’t have sent him away and just enjoyed some cuddle time.

Clearly, ‘loving’ requires a bit of organization and balance so that work doesn’t intrude on important quality time at home.

‘Being present’, according to mindfulness experts, also requires that you let go of anxieties and fears that distract you and pull you out of the moment. If you have deadlines looming, projects that need to be carried out, are going through a divorce or are facing health or personal challenges—it’s incredibly hard to clear worries from your mind and just listen to or play with your children, isn’t it? (For a great article about mindfulness, check out What Really Helps Make Mindfulness Work by Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.)

I’m still finding my way and started meditating on a regular basis just this past year. I’ve done yoga for years and find that it helps me clear my mind. The physical exertion and mental focus on intentions and goals allows me to let go of issues and anxieties that may whirl in my mind. I find that afterwards my mental slate is clear and I’m much more focused and calm that evening with the boys. I’m still a work in progress, clearly.

While I’m still honing mindfulness techniques, I have learned that it’s incredibly hard NOT to live in the moment when spending time with a loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease. I flew to North Carolina last week to visit my mother who is struggling in what seems to be the final phase of the disease. She didn’t know who I was. She can barely talk or walk. I think she just thought of me as a friendly face. I had to force myself to always smile, relax, and think about what she needed or what would reassure her when visiting. I knew after each visit that she wouldn’t remember I had been there the next day. But I reminded myself that in the moments that I held her hand, or showed her pictures, or just talked with her about various things, that it mattered. It counted. Those moments were hard for me, but they brought her a bit of happiness—even if fleeting. And she deserves that.

On the last day I spent with her—on the day that I likely said my goodbye—my mom was ‘playing’ bingo with other residents. The woman who ran the game would call out the letter and number combinations. My mother, who doesn’t recognize her numbers or letters anymore, would put a marker on any letter/number combination. She apparently still recognized that four in a row allowed her to win—so she just kept putting four in a row. B-6 might be called, but she’d put her acorn on C-12, right beside another marker. I knew not to correct her.

“Wow, mom, you won again!” I’d say with a laugh.

She’d just smile. One time she looked at me inquisitively and said slowly, “I. Like. You.”

That was a big accomplishment as she typically speaks with just one word.

I replied “Well, I Love you.”

She looked at me like I was a bit crazy, giving me a one-over glance.

Later in the day, I went through her sweaters and found one that still fit. As I was putting it on her, she quickly smiled. It was as if she had been shaken and her eyes got wide with acknowledgment. She leaned into me and said, “Love.” I put my forehead to hers and a moment later she said “You.”

As I settled into my seat on my first plane during my trek back to California, I thought that it may be a long time before I got the chance to see mom again. It’s hard to fly back with the two boys due to expense. I know if I was closer I could do more, visit more. It was such a gift to hear her say those words. And in that moment, I know she meant it. In that flash of recognition, she knew who I was. It might have only lasted a second for her—but for me, it counted.

Even when brief and fleeting, loving counts most of all.

A Mother’s Legacy: Music and Memories

A rare event: mom playing piano for an audience in 1999.

My mother escaped in her music. I imagine that it held magical qualities for her. It lifted her up out of her life. It gave her a voice when she didn’t allow herself to speak. It gave her eloquence. And it was private. She played at home, preferably alone.

If you’ve ever seen someone play piano by ear, you might have an idea of what I am describing. It’s amazing to hear and watch a person completely transformed while they play. But again, with mom, it was immensely personal and I always knew it was how she communicated best, or worked out her feelings. My mother rarely said she loved you without crying, for instance, so it wasn’t an every-day thing to hear. As her child, you knew she loved you, but she just couldn’t speak it easily. She also rarely talked about intensely personal things. She did so through her songs—most from the Big Band Era. Not only could she play by ear, but she would get into a trance-like state and would free-associate by playing one song with a meaning that led perfectly into another that carried that meaning a bit further until she seemed to come to closure or have had a complete conversation. I so wish I had recorded some of her “sessions.”

When she was going through her divorce and I had taken a bit of time off college to stay with her, I felt privileged to listen to her play. Some evenings after work I would tiptoe into the house if I heard the piano so she wouldn’t stop. She might play for 30 minutes and had no idea I was there. She played dramatically with an emotion that you’d never see her display anywhere else. I could even hear her nails clicking the keys she was moving so fast. I’d sit in my old room upstairs and listen as she played old musicals that might lead into a Tommy Dorsey tune and then surprisingly to a pop melody of Lionel Richie‘s, as long as they held a key element of a similar message. Anything she heard on the radio, she could play perfectly, as she only needed to hold the melody in her head to translate it to the keys. She didn’t like to “perform” and rarely played for others. I was therefore, really shocked when she played piano at my wedding. Every song had “baby” in the title (as I’m the youngest of her four children). I don’t recall all of them, but “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” and Dorsey’s “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” were some of them. I don’t think anyone, outside of family, knew how emotional it was for her to play these songs in front of a crowd and the photographer caught her shy feelings of love perfectly. I was touched beyond words.

As Alzheimer’s grips your loved one, you sit by helplessly as they slip away. When living in London, I flew back each summer between 2005 and 2008 for a few weeks or longer each visit. I’d notice that she had a harder time with the piano by 2007, but would continue to play. Although sometimes, she’d have a harder time with verbal conversation and would still play perfectly. Alzheimer’s is funny that way. By the time I was really going through the ringer with my husband, my mom was in the moderately severe stages. She got easily upset and I hid the fact that I was going through Hell from her. Even though she might not remember specifics the next day, I knew she was a sponge and would absorb my sadness and would worry about me every time my name was mentioned. Somehow that worry would carry over. She might not know why she was worried, or couldn’t remember my soon-to-be ex-husband‘s name, but I only wanted to bring her happiness when I visited. I swore my siblings to go along with me and not talk about my separation with her. Well, in July 2010, I was far from happy. It was incredibly hard to visit and pretend everything was ok. I had my then one and a half year old with me, who was sick a lot and had a hard time sleeping. I was barely 100 lbs from grief. My soon-to-be ex had left me for another woman in September of 2009, less than a year after we had moved back to the States when I was pregnant. He was back and forth with his emotions and his behavior was erratic when he was back from Europe. But at this point, I’d been a single mom for almost a year. I had just dropped the older son with relatives in Tennessee for a camp before coming home. I don’t want to use this blog to post sorted details, but suffice it to say, I’d been through a year with broken promises and many attempts to reconcile, and I was now trying my hardest not to show any of this mess to my fading mother. Southerners can be excellent actresses—and I’m the queen of being able to ‘fake it till you make it’ for the most part—but this was going to take an amazing feat. I pulled it off, remarkably, for most of the week spent on walks with the dog or visits with the neighbors or in her garden. One evening, however, Jamesy just would NOT sleep. He cried most of the night and I was at breaking point. My mom came down the stairs at 3 a.m. to the room where we were. She was having a remarkably lucid moment. The kind of moment that loved ones pray for. For a year I knew I had angels helping me survive and I guess one came on this trip too. As mentioned, I didn’t tell mom anything about what was going on in my personal life. She adored my ex and I didn’t want to give her one more heartbreak. But she saw I had been crying and she calmly took Jamesy’s hand. They walked into the living room and she played this song. It’s not the best performance of hers, but out of her entire repertoire, she chose: “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”  (For those of you who aren’t well-versed in 1930’s Broadway tunes, it was also performed by Judy Garland, Benny Goodman (one of Mom’s favorites) and Louis Armstrong.

I’m convinced that she was trying to help me with Jamesy and send me a message of comfort at the same time. Somehow, she was able to break free from the entangled plaques crippling her mind and play once again. It was a miracle that I caught it on tape as I never seem to have the camera at the right time. I’m so thankful for this moment as I haven’t seen her this lucid again. Happy Mother’s Day, Annie. And yes, I’m finally finding my way to the sunny side of the street. I wish you were here with me, but I know that you are, somehow, in spirit.

A Mother’s Legacy: Beauty and Brains

Photo By: THE Herb Ritts (Exhibit currently @ The Getty)

The photo is stunning. Its elegance, drama, lines, curves, shadows are absolutely breathtaking. A good friend is visiting from London this week and I took her, with my boys, to The Getty museum yesterday. Kate has always adored old Hollywood glamour, and since this is her first trip to America, what better way to get an infusion of that glamour than at the Herb Ritts’ exhibition at The Getty—which has the best views of Los Angeles as well. We took turns in the delicious exhibition that featured many celebrities and sculptured bodies against dramatic backdrops. Kate played with the boys in the kiddie room and allowed me the time to wander, meander and soak all the beauty in. What I noticed, (besides the intensely chiseled men) is that the women Ritts tended to photograph had a raw and natural beauty. Not much makeup. Large eyes. Voluptuous lips. Intense presence that smacked of intelligence or wisdom beyond their years. As I walked around the exhibit, I began to think about what my next blog post within A Mother’s Legacy should be. I’ve been a bit distracted with my friend in town and have gotten a bit behind, my apologies.

As I was looking at a photograph of an anonymous woman with gob-stocker -sized eyes, plump lips and strength in her features, it hit me. My post will be of my mother’s raw beauty. Mom never thought of herself as beautiful. She didn’t shop much. She didn’t exercise beyond walking and gardening, but was skinny as a rail for most of her life. In her photographs from college, which I found and saved after helping to settle her estate, you can see her timeless beauty.

MaryAnn Roe

Growing up, I rarely saw my mother, who was a child-protective services social worker, put on make up. She had her signature lipstick, but beyond that, she was a bit helpless in the makeup department. As you can see in her graduation picture, she had a natural beauty. What I love even more, is that she also had incredible smarts. She was accepted into both Brown University and Duke University and decided upon Duke, where she met my father and lived her entire adult life. I don’t think my mother ever made less than an A in her entire educational career. She could have done just about anything (or nothing, as she didn’t have to work) but  was driven to help the down-trodden and less fortunate. In the early 50s, when most women were concentrating on finding Mr. Right, mom seemed to concentrate on finding Mr. Right AND helping women to achieve their dreams and equality. I love the photo taken in college as it shows a bit of her chutzpah. She is gorgeous, even with a man’s haircut, and has a rebellious cigarette in her hand. I can see her drive that likely inspired her to later help found Women In Action, and volunteer relentlessly, even with most Democratic elections. She dedicated herself passionately to her job as a social worker, requiring her to often visit others in slums and sometimes put herself in dangerous situations.

She had a way about her, through the life that she led, that taught her three daughters that they could do anything they set their minds to. She didn’t preach to us and rarely said a negative word about anyone. She showed that beauty, grace and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. I will never understand how someone who woke every morning at 4 a.m. to read the newspaper back to back and do the Times crossword puzzle, could have her brain so horrifically attacked by Alzheimer’s at such a young age. Life isn’t fair. My sincere hope, by writing these blog posts, is that the women and men who take care of my sweet mother will read my words, see the pictures, and treat her with dignity. Because the person who is ravaged by Alzheimer’s does not represent the beautiful soul still somewhere within. The hardest thing about leaving your mother in the care of other people who are not family and who have never known her in her prime, is that you have to take a leap of faith that they will care for her in a gentle manner with patience and respect. It’s hard to know. She can’t talk to me. But hopefully they’ll get a sense of her kindness. I know from the director of the facility that mom is still trying to help others, even in her condition. It’s just a part of who she is. I think we are born with innate gifts and hers (besides playing piano by ear, which I will write about later) is definitely a sincere kindness and need to help others. And that is a rare beauty that isn’t found often in my world of LaLa land—or anywhere else  for that matter.

A Mother’s Legacy: Staying On The Brink

Mom and William, one week old, November 2001

“I want PIE!” Jamesy yells at me this morning. He has already climbed onto the second shelf of the pantry, which he knows he isn’t allowed to do.

“Well, I didn’t make the pie, and besides, that’s not a breakfast food, is it? Lets get down from there,” I reply calmly, trying to mask the tension that is rising like bile in my throat. I look at my angelic, chubby three-year-old with star-lit, midnight blue eyes and tousled blond hair. I know what is coming next—what has been happening in our house for months now.

‘NOOOO!!!!” he wails like a super sonic boom and then hurls a kitchen timer against the wall.

I take a deep breath and  pick up his squirming body. “Ok, time out buddy.”

His legs kick my calf. Hard. A zinger of pain flashes up to my kneecap and down to my swollen achilles’ heel. Why did I forget to put that damn boot back on? I think as I grimace with pain. Almost three weeks ago I tore a tendon in my left calf, so chasing after my three-year-old has now become an Olympic endeavor. I manage to strap him into his time-out chair—which is my second car seat. As I walk to pick up the now broken kitchen timer, he kicks his seat over, landing with a thud. His head is now on the floor, his feet raised above him in a sitting position. The crazy guy laughs, looks at me victoriously, and then starts screaming again.

“I HATE TIME OUT!!!” he screams.

William and I just shrug and sit down to eat our breakfast. We have gone through this scenario many times since we took the advice of Jamesy’s teacher who recommended that I place a car seat in my kitchen and strap him into it for a time out each time he throws things, yells, hits, climbs the pantry walls, bites, etc. Ignoring him, threatening with a consequence, taking away toys, and dare I admit, even a spanking, all don’t work on my little guy. Putting him in time out didn’t work before because he just refused to stay seated. Strapping him into time out is helping, believe it or not. It’s just taking an extraordinarily long time. I have a very stubborn three-year-old who hates to hear the word No or not be able to do what he wants to do. Like most I guess, but his older brother was never this ballsy or stubborn. Eventually, he stopped these shenanigans.  Plus, I didn’t have William and Jamesy close together in age. William is 10, James 3. I can’t imagine surviving life as a single mom with an insanely stubborn James and a brother only one or two years older. Seriously, with an ex in Europe and no family help, I might have ended up in Betty Ford or some mental facility.

Today, when I was taking James to school, I thought about my mom. You may be wondering what my son’s behavior, and how the scene I just described to you, has anything to do with a Mother’s Legacy. Well, a lot actually. My mother had four children and a husband who would work three-day shifts at the hospital. Back then, three-day-shifts were not frowned upon like they are today. She was virtually a single mom in Boston with my brother 3 and two sisters ages 2 and 1. They were all still in diapers!!

“Well, I just didn’t know any better,” my mom said to me 10 years ago when she visited me after I gave birth to William. “I mean, back then, you didn’t expect your husband to help you. You didn’t complain either. And I just thought it was fun,” she laughed. I clearly didn’t believe her last statement.

When she said this to me, I was in the throws of repeated sitz baths for a class 4 tear, (men reading this, DON’T ASK), sore nipples, engorged breasts verging on infection since I couldn’t get the milk to come in properly, and hormones raging to the point where at certain moments I literally wanted to die. Exhaustion, hormones, whatever it was, I realized that what I was feeling was akin to what clinical depression must feel like. Having three kids one right after another, and than four years later her oops child, (which I am), my mom must have always been on the brink of despair. But I don’t remember seeing her succumb to it, not over raising children anyway. Maybe she was just too busy.

Mom and William, three months.

Over the next two years after William’s birth, she graced me with her stories. But her stories about raising three babies were what inspired me most. She didn’t know why I was in shock, but clearly, she loves babies and has a higher threshold for stress, than I do. Her stories gave me strength, however. Luckily for me, once my breast milk came in with earnest and I could breast feed around the clock, my cloud of depression lifted. I listened to her stories and began to think I can do this.

“Every Sunday I called my mom and we’d talk about politics. I loved our Sunday calls,” my mom told me 10 years ago.  “Well, this one Sunday, I’ll never forget it. Your father was at the hospital and I looked around as I spoke with NiNi (her mother) and I saw your sister (and with her next description, I knew exactly which sister it was) climbing up the curtain rod! I started to go for her, but then I heard something and looked out back and your other sister was pushing down your brother from his bicycle. Well, I’m still on the phone, but as I go to your brother, I turn around and look back and I see your sister now putting a screw in her mouth!” Amazingly, the whole time she’s telling me this story, she is smiling. What lesson did she learn? Not to decorate, or put up curtains partially, and then take a phone call when you have three children. I, on the other hand, was completely horrified. I had my one and only baby suckling at my breast and began to think I will never, ever, have another child.

“Well, I laughed and laughed about that. Of course, I had to get the screw out of her mouth first!” my mom said. Over the years as her Alzheimer’s began to take hold, she repeated that story to me over and over again.

Mom and William, 2 years.

It was as if she knew that I’d need to remember it too. That I would need to pull it out of a file in the back of my mind to remind myself that this craziness is what it’s all about. We’re all pushed to the brink when raising children. But it’s how we handle it and carry through that matters.

Three years ago I was visiting my mother. She was still at home then, although we had assistants to help her. It was evening, and she had fallen asleep with her TV on. I went in to shut it off. She raised up and pointed to the hall light.

“I finally put a cover on it. Like it?” she asked me. I turned to look at the hall light and noticed a new sconce. “Oh. Wow. Yes, we finally have one.”

“I know, I never replaced the old one because I was so ashamed,” she said to me, clear as day.

When I asked her what she was talking about, she replied, “Well, one day, when you four were up to something. I can’t recall really, but one of your sisters was yelling and your brother was doing something, I don’t remember what, but I got so mad, I actually threw my shoe up the stairs and it hit the hall light. I never did replace it (the sconce) because I wanted to look at that ugly bulb to remember how stupid I was. I didn’t want to lose my temper like that ever again.”

I swallowed hard and held her hand. “It’s ok mom.”

“Oh, it’s silly. I should have known better. Don’t do that kind of thing, ok?”

The next morning, when I told her I enjoyed our talk she replied, “Oh? What talk? Didn’t you just get here?”

Well, call it Divine intervention, but I know we did have a talk and I’m so grateful—that even though she didn’t remember it—I always will. And I thought about her advice today after Jamesy threw his smoothie across the car and it landed with a SPLAT across the entire backseat. Sigh. I’m clearly on the brink too. But I’m going to be brave and stand on the edge and take a deep breath. I may have to dig in my heels and brace myself or a long stay. But my little guy will grow up eventually, right? And if I make it through with my sanity in check, just think about the stories I’ll be able to embarrass him with!