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Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Moving On

The Cohen Women: Me, My Daughter, My Mother (no image of my sister!)

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים לַמִּקְרָא, בֶּן עֶשֶׂר לַמִּשְׁנָה, בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת, בֶּן חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַתַּלְמוּד, בֶּן שְׁמֹנֶה עֶשְׂרֵה לַחֻפָּה, בֶּן עֶשְׂרִים לִרְדֹּף, בֶּן שְׁלשִׁים לַכֹּחַ, בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים לַבִּינָה, בֶּן חֲמִשִּׁים לָעֵצָה, בֶּן שִׁשִּׁים לַזִּקְנָה, בֶּן שִׁבְעִים לַשֵּׂיבָה, בֶּן שְׁמֹנִים לַגְּבוּרָה, בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים לָשׁוּחַ, בֶּן מֵאָה כְּאִלּוּ מֵת וְעָבַר וּבָטֵל מִן הָעוֹלָם:

“He (Yehuda ben Temah) used to say: At five years of age the study of Scripture; At ten the study of Mishnah; At thirteen subject to the commandments; At fifteen the study of Talmud; At eighteen the bridal canopy; At twenty for pursuit [of livelihood]; At thirty the peak of strength; At forty wisdom; At fifty able to give counsel; At sixty old age; At seventy fullness of years; At eighty the age of “strength”; At ninety a bent body; At one hundred, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world.”

My mother, aged 81 years, is moving into a retirement community, independent housing in a place where she can move slowly to assisted living, getting the help she needs.  This was not her idea; my husband, Ben, my sister, Lynn, and I all sort of ganged up on her, telling her that moving now was the time.  She is young enough, healthy enough, to settle into a new place and take advantage of their offerings; she is old enough that help with changing the sheets on her bed and giving her dinner several times a week would be helpful, and, we hope, not overly intrusive.

We sat down, my mom, Ben, and I, with a social worker who specializes in helping move older people into various kinds of “independent living” and “assisted living.”  We had frank conversations about her finances:  how long they might last and then what will happen (my sister and I will support her!).  We toured facilities, some of which were amazing and others which were more depressing.  And we, I tried to listen:  to my mom’s fears, to her needs, to her live.  “I am afraid you are putting me a nursing home to die,” she tells me.  “I hear that you are scared,” I reply.  “I don’t know how to make new friends, to sit with people I don’t know,” she returns.  “You have many friends,” I said, “and they will continue to be with you.  In addition, the facility we chose together, will help welcome you and introduce you to new people.”  “I feel like this is the end,” she sighs.  And finally, I say, “I am not sure how to respond to that.  What do you want me to say?”  “I am just,” she counters, “ telling you how I feel.”

And what do I say to that?

It’s scary, these life changes.  Whether or not she agreed to move –and she did agree, mostly because we urged her to move; we told her it would make us less worried about her.  Her moving is our request, and she has been really quite gracious about it – but in any case, her body is aging, and doing so suddenly, more rapidly in the past couple of years than in the last decade.  Looking mortality in the eye and not blinking:  that is a challenge for anyone.  She has every right to her hesitancy, her uncertainty of what this move will mean for her.

Meanwhile, I am busy drawing lines, creating both physical and, especially, emotional boundaries between us.

It feels as though I have been a container for my mother’s feelings for as long as I can remember.

When I was small, my mom likes to tell the story, I was “so cute” that she kept me home from preschool for a year, because she could not bear to send me. 52 years later, I wonder: whose need was being addressed here?

When I was older, and she was sad and angry at my dad for traveling so much for work, I remember encouraging her to eat; she had gotten so thin with her depression.

When I was getting up at the crack of dawn to go to junior high and high school, I was so lonely and scared in the morning that my mom, a night owl, agreed to get up with me to keep me company.  This was especially true once my older sister had left for college.  So, my mom would creep into my bedroom as I showered, and she would climb into my bed.  There she would be to mumble in response to my chatter (I am a lark!), in state of half-asleep and half-awake, until I insisted she get up – so I could make my bed.  Then she would grumbly give a kiss and tell me to have a nice day.  I think she went back to sleep afterwards.

None of these anecdotes take away from her loving care as a mother.  They are just to say that parenting is complicated, imperfect.  My mom did her best and I am grateful for it.  But still . . .

A colleague once told me that, as a parent ages, unresolved issues from childhood arise again – for the child, to be sure, but perhaps as a parent as well.  It can’t be fun, growing older and gradually – and then all at once – to need your child to care for you.  No one wants to rely on a child to change lightbulbs and drive places.  Who would want to admit to forgetfulness and fear?  What happens to the dignity that comes with self-determination?

My mother needed me all those years ago, and she needs me now.  I want to treat her with the respect she deserves but also preserve my own, hard-won boundaries.  I want to hear her fear and respond with compassion, not irritation.

We are both learning, my mother and I, how her aging changes our relationship.  She is, according to Rabbi Yehuda ben Temah, at the age of strength; I, the same passage in Pirkei Avot teaches, at the age of giving counsel.  How do I best respect her vigor, her experience, her strong points?  When do I step forward with advice?

We have spent the last 2-3 weeks helping my mom sort and pack.  It is understandably traumatic to give away books and knick-knacks; it is hard to admit she no longer needs serving dishes that have sat, gathering dust, in her kitchen for 20 years.  This is not just about stuff; it is admitting that she is entering a new stage of life (which is how she keeps phrasing it).

And I am pulled back in, by guilt, to taking care of my mother.  Not just physically, but emotionally as well.  She is in pain; she is struggling.  And I believe deep down that it is my job to fix that pain, to listen to the words underneath her words and validate them for her.  To  hold her suffering for her, feeding it back to her in gentle doses that she can handle.  To sit with her and support all her needs – even those she does not know she has.

It a bit of hubris, really, to think I can “fix” anyone at all, much less my mother. And it hurts me, drains me, makes me feel as though I do not exist as a separate person.

The little girl in me wants to find my way back to our original, if unspoken, bargain:  I will care for her, listen to her, validate her and she, well, she will love me.

Yes, I know she loves me. And I love her.  But I also feel, deep down, that her survival depends on my ability to hold her feeling, to provide a non-anxious presence for her.  And I do not wish to do that anymore.

I am hoping to change the way I relate to her: to have boundaries, to care for myself.  To not delve into her deepest feelings, just because I think I can make her feel better.  At midlife, it is finally time for me to separate.

More is changing than just her address.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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