It’s been six weeks since Mom came to live with me. It has been hard. I wrote this piece last week while sitting in my car at lunch. It’s raw, so be warned. I almost didn’t publish it, but then I thought, “I feel constantly alone. I hate feeling like I’m drowning in an uncharted sea, but I doubt I’m the only one. Maybe sharing this will assure someone else they’re not the only one.”
My mother was the most self-sufficient person I know; stubborn, intelligent, painfully self-controlled, independent, and blunt. While she was never a talker, she was always clear and direct about her opinions. She was often judgmental towards her children and family members, yet deeply accepting of strangers and new friends. She had a rich sense of humor, a love of books, and a vast sense of playfulness. She was adventurous and, in many ways, fearless… as long as you didn’t expect her to talk about her feelings or sex.
You, whoever you are, are not my mother. You do not understand the world around you. You cry when you are tired, hungry, or confused. You’re easily frightened and often anxious. You cling to familiar people and don’t venture off on your own. You wear my mother’s face and move around in her body, but you are not my mother. You are a body snatching monster out of the most craven nightmares. You’ve stolen her voice, her thoughts, and her sense of self and left me with an empty shell that still breathes, and eats, and sometimes sleeps, but is most definitely not my mother.
Early on Saturday mornings my mother would crawl into bed with me when she heard me stirring, even long after I was an adult. We would snuggle and talk about our plans for the day and laugh together. Many times we squished into the same big chair to watch a movie, or she simply plopped onto my lap for the fun of it. Now, when I hug the body that you are living in, you often laugh uncomfortably and pull away. When you reach out, it’s awkwardly, as though you’re not sure how to be affectionate. You are not my mother.
When Daddy died, my mother turned off the phone, tiptoed around the house, locked the door, and sent away all visitors, protecting me in my grief. She knew me and knew what I needed; 36 hours of peace to sleep and process, to grieve without questions or people demanding attention. Then I could put on my big girl pants and make funeral plans, write an obituary, sort through photos, say goodbye, clean his house, find the money to pay for it all, and do it sanely. She respected me and my need for sanctuary. Now, when I leave the room or close a door or curl up on the floor crying you, body snatching beast, follow me, stare, hover. You, in my mother’s body, crawl out of the bed time and time again each night, turning on lights, shuffling and muttering incomprehensibly, taking things apart, waking me up, stealing my sleep. You, with your lack of thoughtfulness, are not my mother.
My mother taught me to read, letting me cut my literary teeth on Tolkien, Herbert, Asimov, and Lewis when other kids were working on Seuss and Pooh. She pushed me to achieve perfection; to get A’s, not B’s; to get 100’s if I got A’s. In her 50’s, my mother went college. She taught herself to use a computer, conduct research on the internet, write essays, and graduated Suma Cum Laude. We spent hours talking about books, sharing articles on interesting topics, and discussing educational philosophies. She paid her bills on line and lived well in the modern world. You are a stranger. You pick up the books she loved and read the same paragraphs over and over, with no comprehension. You look at a cell phone and laugh when it rings, because you don’t understand what it is. You get lost trying to change TV channels. You are not my mother.
My mother was painfully thin and constantly denied herself foods she actually loved. She only ever ate half of anything (unless it was a box of crackers) and she refused to give in to her sweet tooth most of the time. She starved herself in a strange belief that she needed to be thinner. You will eat anything put in front of you. If it’s a food you really like- or desert- you’ll gorge yourself until you’re nearly sick. You are not my mother.
My mother was competent, spry, and often preternaturally good at managing life on her own, one handed. She could drive a stick shift, sew beautifully, and do just about anything else. She was agile, deft, and a perfectionist. Her life-lesson to me was, “Do it right or don’t bother;” many a time she made me rewash whole loads of dishes because just one wasn’t clean enough or told me, “Good thing we didn’t name you Grace,” when I was clumsy. Not you. You are awkward and incompetent. You do everything ineptly, from eating food to cleaning up after yourself (if you even think of it). You struggle with the simplest of tasks and get frustrated at puzzles and Legos that don’t fit together because you can’t turn them the right way. You are not my mother.
You wear my mother’s beautiful hair, her hands that look so much like my own, her knobby knees and bony feet, but when I look for her eyes, she isn’t there. I don’t see her mind behind the brown irises. All that exists is confusion and you; you who stole her thoughts and devoured her personality. YOU are not my mother, even if the few words you say emerge with her voice. You are an alien living in a body that doesn’t belong to you. You’ve stolen it, and taken my mother away from me. She was my biggest fan, my closest ally, my best friend. It was always my mom I wanted to call first when there was news, and I always wanted her to be happy with me. No longer can I call and tell her about what brings joy to my life or share my worries with her. No longer can I ask her for an opinion or use her as a sounding board for the dreams a girl only shares with the one who loves her best. You are a thief, and I hate you for what you took from my world.
More than one well-meaning person has said, “At least you still have your mom;” “Enjoy her while you can;” “She’s lucky to have you.” I want to scream at them. That’s not my mom. That’s an interloper wearing my mother’s skin. And neither of us is lucky. I have a stranger whose well-being is my responsibility, but how can I take care of a stranger? I don’t know the language you speak. I don’t know how you feel, what you think, what you want, or if my mother is trapped inside the head that you have hijacked. Is she’s simply gone all together? I don’t know how to reach her if she’s in there, and it breaks my heart each time I wonder if she’s cognizant of what is happening. Can she see me trying and failing? Is she as sad as I am?
There is grief but no healing when the door is still open, when I can still see her face and reach out for her hand, only to be met with the lost-rabbit gaze of an impostor. My mother has gone missing, but there’s no report I can file and no one to whom I can turn. I miss her.