Once in awhile you read a book that touches you so deeply it changes your perspective. Bettyville by George Hodgman is one of those books.
George and I are Facebook friends. I can’t remember if he found me or I found him. This past Wednesday I spent the better part of the afternoon on the back porch reading his touching story which is both heartbreakingly personal yet universal in its portrayal of the challenges of growing old and the role reversal relationship between aging parents and their adult children. It is also about a lot more than this; about growing up gay in a time and place that didn’t accept anyone who was “different”. But for me, it was the relationship between mother and son that opened my eyes.
As the sun began to set, the towels and sheets piled up in the laundry room. The dishwasher was full of clean dishes and the dirty coffee cups were stacked high in the sink. I was still on the back porch lost in Bettyville.
The next day Bettyville came to visit my Inn in rural Connecticut in the form of my parents who stopped by for lunch. After serving our guests breakfast, I managed to keep myself from returning to the book to make a tossed salad with chicken, a large bowl of fruit salad, and a ham sandwich for my mother because that is one of the only things she will eat nowadays. She claims she is never hungry. She makes scenes in restaurants, complaining there is nothing on the menu she likes.
There was a time, about a year ago, when she wasn’t quite so lost and confused but would ask, “What do I like here?”
“You like their hot dogs,” I told her.
She shook her head. She didn’t believe me. As George writes of Betty, “Her will remains at blast force.”
“Do you have that red meat?” No longer trusting me she asked the waitress, who thought she was requesting a rare roast beef sandwich, but I explained it was ham she wanted.
“And make sure you give me the yellow stuff. I don’t like the other kind.”
She was asking for yellow mustard. Her words and memories are disappearing, lost to Alzheimer’s, the thief who stole her yesterdays.
Today she shows up all smiles. “I remember you,” she says. She doesn’t really remember me. She doesn’t know I am her oldest daughter but she lets me hug her and says again, “Yeah, I know you.”
“I can only imagine how scary it is to know that the person one is losing is oneself.” ~ Bettyville
She walks like Russian nesting dolls with rounded bottoms, her arthritic left knee bent at a right angle, her gait rolling and rocking as my Dad and my daughter help her up the stairs to the front door.
“My friends are helping me,” she tells me.
“He is a very good man,” she tells my daughter, nodding towards my Dad. “He takes good care of me.” She turns to my Dad and says, “Did you hear what I said about you?”
He laughs. “Yeah, you were telling her how bad I am.” She smiles mischievously.
“By the time she goes to bed, when things get bad, she will have fewer pieces left in place.” ~ Bettyville
It is my mother who is bad, late in the evenings, bad in the way of a small rebellious child who can’t get her pajamas on, doesn’t want to take a bath, and refuses to eat dinner. Mornings are difficult too. She wears the same clothes day after day, insisting they are clean and nothing else is comfortable. She is always cold and wears sweaters on hot summer days, sitting by the pool while my father swims a few laps.
“She is wearing the jeans she will take off and a blouse with wrinkles she cannot see. For many days this pairing has been her choice. I have given up trying to control her clothes. God grant me the serenity to accept the clothes I cannot change.” ~ Bettyville
It saddens and frightens me to think of my father dealing with the craziness that now rules his days and nights but Hodgman’s sense of humor could make the most weary of caregivers smile.
A battle of wills is taking place between the generations in my family. My siblings and I insist my Dad needs help. At the very least a home caregiver a few days a week to help with bathing my mother, washing her hair, routine personal hygiene she rebels against, preparing meals, and giving my Dad some much needed time off. As my mother’s condition continues to decline, he continues to dig in his heels and insists no one knows how to take care of her like he does.
“‘Too damn long’: That is what my mother thinks about her life. She seems to believe she is taking someone else’s time.” ~ Bettyville
Hiding behind my Dad’s protests is a fear they will take her away when they hear the things she says. “I just want to die,” she shouts when sundowning. Or the swearing, which she never did until now. The cursing embarrasses him. He doesn’t understand where it comes from or where she learned these words.
Sitting on the glassed-in sun porch, my mother tells me, “I’m ninety, you know. Ninety years old.”
My father playfully nudges her. “You’re eighty one.”
She smiles at him indulgently, as if he is the one who is forgetful. “He thinks I’m eighty one, but I’m really ninety.”
She tells my daughter, her granddaughter as my father keeps reminding her, a long story about a man who doesn’t have a home and no food so he comes to their house once a week and “we feed him” she says. “We help him out.” I think this may be my brother she is talking about, her son who visits every Sunday.
She invites me to her house numerous times. ”It’s a nice place. Nothing to be ashamed of.” My mother has always been house proud. Money and appearances have always been important to her. I realize she doesn’t understand that I work here, that I am the innkeeper and this is not my mansion.
Betty goes through old postcards from a cruise she took through Europe. “She wants us to have fun, to share the experience, but she can’t remember it,” George says.
My mother tells me she has been all over the world. I ask her what is her favorite place.
My father answers for her. “She loved Morocco.”
I have never heard this before. “Morocco?” I didn’t even know they had been there. “I remember you liked Provence,” I remind her.
“I like everywhere,” she says.
My father tells us the doctor asks her questions, checking her memory loss. On her last visit he asked her what time of year it was, helping her along, naming the seasons in case she’s forgotten. “Winter? “Summer? Spring? Fall?”
“They’re all good.”
“But what season is it now?” he asks again.
“All of them are good.”
My father smiles as he tells this story. He likes her answer. He thinks it is an optimistic answer. When my mother was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s my Dad, the former history teacher, would prepare her for the doctor’s questions as if she were studying for final exams and if he tutored her she would pass the test.
“People mean well. They just aren’t here enough to get what we are dealing with or what it means to my mother. Everyone thinks they know what should be done.” ~ Bettyville
Everyone in our case is me and my sisters and brother. We worry when my Dad takes my mother on vacations. We imagine him losing her at a rest stop or in an airport. We are concerned about his health. He has two stents, a pacemaker, and another stent in his carotid artery. He is tired, exhausted at times, requiring two naps a day. We imagine the struggles in the bathroom getting my mother ready for bed. The wet, slippery surfaces, the tile floor, the porcelain tub. Someone could fall and crack their head.
“I get what makes sense, I just can’t bear to do it. I cannot imagine the sorrow of dragging her out of the house.” ~ Bettyville
Like George, this is my Dad. He understands what home means to my mother. Some of the last memories she hangs on to are the houses she has lived in and the real estate deals she made. My father has vowed to keep my mother at home. He prays that he will outlive her so he can keep his promise to her, the promise to not put her in a nursing home.
As my day with my parents unfolds, George Hodgman’s memoir provides comfort. There is so much wisdom in this beautiful story.
Things are not going to get better with my mother, and my father grows old by her side. There will come a time when he will have to bring in help, or a time when he needs to move my mother to a place where people can provide her with the advanced care she will need.
But for now he remains steadfast and refuses to listen to his grown children who think they know what is best. We fear something terrible will happen. My mother will wander off one day when he is napping. Or the inevitable accident will happen on these road trips he insists on not giving up.
There are no easy answers, but for now he says he is fine. He believes he can do this.
“On Betty’s journey, I have learned something I had not known….., at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home.” ~ Bettyville
Thank you, George Hodgman, for sharing your story of love and loyalty, and reminding us that we are all only human and kindness matters most.