The headline of the article caught my eye, “Do you lie to your elderly parent?” The choices were yes, or no. Does “sometimes” count? Is it really a lie if it’s for their own good?
Ok, not that I really want to admit to it publicly, but yes, I have lied to my mother.
Like right after she’d collapsed with heart failure, spent a week in CCU not expected to recover, another week on a regular hospital floor and then four weeks in a care facility getting physical therapy to get her back on her feet. They sent her home with pages of information on how she should eat and things she should do after heart failure, but the biggie was: No Salt.
I was determined to be there for Daddy and Mother. To do whatever they couldn’t do. And if that meant following the new diet restrictions closely, then that’s what we’d do. I would pick up the slack and somehow I’d make their lives normal again. I’d fight against Mother’s heart failure and against Daddy’s cancer. I’d set aside my life to be there for them; which wasn’t as hard or as selfless as it might seem because the bottom had dropped out of the Real Estate market and my business had just about dried up, and anyway, I suddenly had more important things to do. So, I flew in from Nashville with one suitcase, moved into the spare bedroom/storage room and cleaned house and ran errands and did the shopping and got them both back and forth to their doctors and made sure Mother had everything she needed. Except Salt.
I wasn’t sure of the routine with their food, so Daddy had taken over the cooking. He’d finished his six month round of Chemo and was doing well and as if nothing had happened, went on doing whatever was needed in the house, just like he’d always done. I’d get the food Daddy cooked on the table and call to Mother to tell her we were ready to eat.
She was still living in her pajamas and her pale purple brushed cotton robe, sitting sideways on the sofa in the living room, her feet up, her legs covered with a pale green and lavender lap blanket that one of her hospital roommates had given her. Her insulated cup filled with ice water and a box of Kleenex sat on the coffee table where she could reach them. The classical station on the radio played softly and she was more content than I’d ever seen her. She’d used a safety pin to hold back the window sheers right at her eye level and she sat for hours staring out the front window, her eyes taking it all in as if the grass and trees, the birds and flowers, the lizard that followed the sun around the porch, the cars passing and people walking on the sidewalk were brand new images to her.
The only times she left the sofa were to make her way slowly to the bathroom or the bedroom at night or to the dining room table.
When I called, she roused herself from the sofa and used her rolling walker to finally get to the dining room table and got herself settled in her regular spot on one side where her placemat sat next to a Kleenex box, the stack of crossword puzzles, pens and pencils in a coffee mug, cut out articles she was going to read one day, her bottles of prescription pills and the latest volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
“Where’s the salt. I need salt.”
“There’s no salt.” I lied.
“Yes, there is. I know there is.”
“This is your new salt, Lite Salt.”
She glared at me and fussed under her breath as she sprinkled the Lite Salt on her food.
“This is terrible. I can’t eat this.”
“Sure you can.” I sat on the other side of the table and passed the regular salt to Daddy. “Remember what the doctor said? No salt.”
Daddy salted his food and said nothing. Mother grumbled and tried more of the Lite Salt and took a few bites and grumbled some more. Daddy passed the regular salt back to me and I salted my food. This went on for months. Same routine. She used the Lite Salt but she wasn’t happy and she let me know it.
It was more than six months before she was back in the kitchen helping to get meals together. By that time, I’d hidden the Morton Salt carton in a bottom cabinet behind the pots and pans.
“Where’s the salt? I can’t cook without salt. You have to salt the soup while you’re making it.”
“Here you go.” I handed her the Lite Salt.
“Where is the salt?” Her voice rose, color flooded her cheeks, she glared at me, arms on her hips.
I moved around the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher, gathering dishes and silverware to put on the table. She’d finally give up and pour in some Lite Salt, grumbling under her breath as she stirred the soup, or mashed the potatoes, or browned the roast, whatever the meal. I acted as if her complaints went in one ear and out the other, saying nothing, appearing calm, staying strong, while I bit my tongue to keep from yelling back at her.
She was so stubborn! Her ankles and feet stayed swollen and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how she could not see the connection. How could she miss that connection, God? She hated the swelling and complained about the pain so how could she think taste was more important than being healthy? I just didn’t get it.
Besides, I ate the things she cooked with Lite Salt and they weren’t that bad; even if I Daddy and I did sometimes add regular salt, from the salt shaker on my side of the table, where she couldn’t reach it.
I look back on that time now and think about all those months of agony she put herself and us through and I’m just glad she finally adapted. It took somewhere around a year, but her taste adjusted and she quit fussing over the Lite Salt and she stopped asking for regular salt. Now when we eat out, she complains about how salty everything is. And, the regular salt shaker now sits on her side of the table with her Lite Salt and she passes it to me when we eat, never even tempted to use it herself. So, yes, I lied about salt with regularity and read labels and bought only reduced salt items and sometimes told her that was all the store carried and we made it through.
She learned to live without salt and I learned that I could not stop Daddy’s cancer or make their lives like they used to be. By the time she adjusted, Daddy was worse and I was in the middle of learning what it meant to give Daddy twenty-four hour care and then I learned to live through missing him so much my heart hurt.
And meanwhile, life with Mother continued. Her heart rebounded to 98% function, which the doctors didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. We called it a miracle and I’m sure it was because after all, Daddy prayed for it and his faith was huge, so it had to be a miracle. But it wasn’t the miracle I wanted. I wanted the miracle where Daddy no longer had cancer.
Instead, I had to learn to accept that I was left with the difficult parent and the strong, loving, supportive one was no longer here. I had to learn to be honest with Mother even though I know it means I’ll have to repeat what I tell her, because she won’t remember the details and I’ve had to learn to accept that for some reason, her ability to reason logically is gone. Possibly it’s because she’s eighty-five, but I think it has more to do with that time when she collapsed and the oxygen to her brain was diminished.
She’s grateful I’m here because it means she can stay in her home; and it does feel nice to be appreciated, but, I don’t need the appreciation as much as I need the miracle of your strength, God, because she may have lost some mental ability and her memories can often be spotty but she hasn’t lost her stubbornness and her strong will to do what she wants to do, regardless of the consequences to her well-being.
So, help me, God, to keep on learning to respect and love her, even when she makes me so crazy I want to scream. Remind me she is who she is and my job is not to change her, my job is to be here so that her last days are comfortable, so that she feels safe surrounded by the sameness of her home, the sameness of her routine. Help me God, to not just spend my time counting the days until there’s life after Mother. Help me to know, God, with your help I can do my job; I can love her.
Ah, there it is: that message that brings peace, that brings rest, that brings relaxation; that says, it’s ok, Victoria, I’ve got your back. Love, God.
Epilogue: I told Mother I had written about her trial with salt today. Her response?
“Oh, you weren’t here when I had to go through the torture of giving up salt were you?”
“Yes, Mother, I was. It was right after you came out of the hospital.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
And there you have it. I struggled over that time and had to hang on to my belief that she would be better off without salt even as I worried that it might cause lingering tension between us; but when all is said and done, in her memory, it was a difficult time, but a memory into which I didn’t figure. That gives me freedom to go ahead and do what needs to be done; it makes me glad it didn’t cause a rift between us, but most of all it makes me smile as it reminds me that the time of salt really wasn’t about me at all. It was all for her. I love you, Mother.