My sister calls Michael’s phone around 12:15 p.m. “Hi, Susan,” he says in the tone he uses whenever she calls. I try to gauge whether she’s making any attempt to be pleasant, or if she’s in full-on bitch mode. “Uh-huh,” he says. “Do you want to talk to Wendy?” He hands me the phone.
This is the game we play. She calls Michael, who always ends up handing the phone to me, even though neither one of us want to speak to the other.
“It’s Susan,” she says, as if I don’t already know that. “I’m calling about Mom. I know you have her birthday all planned for today, and I’ll get her up and ready, but she’s still sleeping. She had a really busy day yesterday, and she’s very tired.”
A busy day. Of course. I stay silent.
“Jim and Grace and Jay were here. We went out to dinner, and we didn’t get back until around nine. So, she was tired getting to bed. You know how tired she gets when she goes out.”
I’m still silent. Because of course they went out. And of course they didn’t call me to invite us to join. Even though that’s all my mother wanted for her birthday – her three children, together, in one place. Also, there’s about a 97% chance my Mom’s credit card paid for the meal.
“So, anyway, I can get her up and showered and ready, if you want, but she’s gonna be tired.” Her voice is defiant, a challenge, like, what kind of a daughter would I be to force her to wake up my poor, tired old mother, on her BIRTHDAY, no less? Even though we have shopped specially for her dinner, made a cake, and have all the kids coming over to celebrate. There are gifts, flowers, and the table is already set.
But I can already see where this is going. When Mom is overtired, she doesn’t do well. Her dementia is worse, she gets more agitated, and she starts asking about when she’s going home, even though she doesn’t even know where home is. She starts asking for her keys, which she no longer has, because she doesn’t drive, then wants to know where her car is, then mistakes my car, or Hanna’s or Kyle’s, for her own, and demands to know who took her keys. If I drive to Susan’s, which is half an hour away, collect Mom and bring her home, back to my house, and try to have a party, there’s a good chance that the busy-ness of eight adukts, two large dogs and a toddler are going to overstimulate her, and they she’s going to get even more upset, and right about the time Michael’s putting a beautiful seafood dinner curated just for her on the table, she’s going to tell me she needs to go home NOW.
I sigh. “Nope, that’s okay,” I say. “I ‘ll come over there and bring lunch. We can celebrate with her in her room. I’ll bring those cookies she likes. Let her sleep.” Michael looks at me with wide eyes. I shake my head. “I’ll be over in about an hour,” I say.
“You can have her if you want,” says Susan, as though I am somehow being unreasonable, but I can hear her inwardly crowing. She has won this battle. She is the one who is going to get the credit for Giving Mom the Best Birthday, and who knows? This might be her last. She’s the one who took Mom out to dinner, with two of her three children. She’s the one who made sure there was a cake, and presents, and flowers – all things I planned for, too, along with grandchildren and a made by Michael, who’s a really good cook.
But it’s not worth it to fight with Susan over this kind of nonsense, because insisting on exercising my visitation today (every Sunday from 12 – 5) isn’t worth it; in fact, it will probably back-fire, and anyway, since it’s Mom’s birthday, I should be doing what will make her happiest. She’s tired, and still sleeping, and probably wants to spend the day in bed. It is, after all, rainy and cold outside. So, I’ll pick up lunch, and bring “The Sound of Music” DVD, plus her birthday gift, a linen dress I’ve sewn for her, plus some I’ll pick up her favorite cookies. Of course, this means I’m going to miss the afternoon with my kids, but that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. I start to gather my things together as Allie grumbles about Susan and how she really needs a visit from the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come, and I agree with her, as I always do, and after I’ve packed a bag, I climb into the car, drive to the store to pick up cookies, salads, and other treats, and then drive to Susan’s.
She meets me at the kitchen door, pretending to be apologetic; she offers to bring Mom downstairs, but I shake her off. I head upstairs with my various bags, go into Mom’s room, wake her up with a kiss, and wish her a happy birthday. She is surprised to see me, and we sit and talk, eat lunch, and talk about her birthday. “How old am I?” she asks me. I tell her she is 88. “Piano keys,” she says. “It’s my piano keys birthday.” She unwraps my gift, and says, “Oh, Benny,” and oohs and aahs at the workmanship of the dress, and I tell her it’s a pattern I made from a dress I bought in Paris that I love. It’s roomy and has deep pockets, and accommodating of not-so-flat stomachs and middle-aged thighs. She says she can’t wait to wear it.
We snuggle in bed and begin to watch “The Sound of Music” – our favorite movie ever – but before Maria has even had time to teach the children how to sing, Mom is asleep. I watch all the way to “The Lonely Goatherd,” and when it’s clear that Mom is going to be napping all afternoon, I turn off the TV, tidy up, gather my things, kiss her goodbye, and tiptoe out.
Before I go, I knock lightly on Susan’s bedroom door. She’s inside napping, but I want to let her know that I’m leaving since Mom is asleep. She’s got some catch a predator show blaring on her television, but jerks awake when I knock a second time.
“I’m leaving,” I say. “Mom’s asleep.”
“Oh, okay,” she says, wiping sleep from her eyes. “Thank you for coming over.”
“Well, what else was I going to do?” I ask, which is probably a little confrontational, but I am still annoyed.
“Jim and Grace wanted to celebrate with her, too, what was I supposed to say?” she says.
“They could have come for lunch,” I say. “Or you could have invited Michael and me to join you.”
“They don’t want to see you,” she says.
“I don’t want to see them either, but it’s not about them,” I say. “It’s about Mom, and it would have made her happy. It says a lot about two people that they can’t make pleasant conversation for two hours. My god. What, are they eight years old? After all Mom has done for them?”
Susan tells me they went to a local steakhouse.
“Why there?” I ask. My mother is not a big steak fan. She loves seafood or Italian food.
“Because that’s what Jim and Grace wanted.”
“But it was Mom’s birthday.”
“I know, but Grace kept insisting on steak.”
“I guess I would have told her that when it was her birthday, she could have steak.”
“Well, you weren’t there.”
“Uh, yeah, Susan…we’ve been over that.” I am never like this with anyone but Susan.
I turn to go, but then I say, “You know, this stupid case needs to be settled now. You have no case. This is such a huge waste of money.”
She sits up and says, “I’ve been trying to settle this since September.” I find this hard to believe. I, too, have been pushing for a settlement since this whole thing began, and she’s the one who won’t even consider a reasonable resolution.
“Well, then tell your asshole attorney that,” I say. “It’s not rocket science. You know, he’s probably the shittiest attorney I think I’ve ever met.”
“Well, you’re attorney is a total bitch.”
“At least she know what she’s doing,” I retort. “You attorney is a fucking idiot.” Again, I never talk to anyone else like this. Ever.
She doesn’t say anything. I try a different approach.
“Susan, this thing is killing me,” I say. “I’ve almost killed myself twice.” This is a little dramatic, and only partially true. It feels true, though.
She actually gasps. “What?” she says. “Oh, no! Wendy!” She actually sounds concerned. This is surprising.
“Yeah. Well. Consider your behavior. Do the math.”
She immediately switches to victim mode. “You’re not the only one. I have no money. I’m gonna have to sell the Audi. Sometimes I think I should drown myself in the canal.”
“Well, don’t do that,” I say, although what I really mean is, “Yes, do that. Please.”
“It’s so hard, taking care of her,” she says.
“You think I don’t know that?” I say.
“She falls all the time,” Susan tells me. “She fell down the stairs last month. She tripped over the dog. It’s just all the time.”
I think about the year I took care of Mom with no help at all. Susan has an in-home aide 8 hours a day, and my Mom sleeps late and takes a nap every afternoon. No shit, I want to say.
“Well, then just be reasonable and settle the case!” I am so exasperated.
“You stole her money!” she hurls at me.
“No, I didn’t,” I shoot back. “I stole nothing. And you know it. I stole nothing.”
“Well, I’ll talk to my attorney,” she says.
“You do that,” I reply, picking up my bags. “You do that.”
She gets up and hugs me. I stand there, still as a statue, but I say, “I love you, And I miss you. But I stole nothing. I did what Mom wanted, and the only money I spent while I was her POA was for her taxes and for Jay’s tuition and for her expenses. I took nothing for myself. I stole nothing.”
“Whatever,” she says, dropping her arms and getting back into bed. I turn around and walk out.