I'm Just Not Mary...

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Somedays, I wish I was Mary.

Mary is one of my oldest and dearest friends. She rolls with life’s (never ending) punches with a smile on her face. She’s never uttered a caustic word about anyone or anything, and her patience and tolerance of intolerable people and situations is off the charts. Mary’s social behavior is exemplary (no swear words or scowls), and she uses her melodic “inside voice” at all times – even when an outside voice would be perfectly acceptable. She guides students at school, and teaches CCD on weekends. Mary is... an angel.

Although I’m sure I must have some of Mary’s intrinsic qualities, “gentle,” “sweet,” “kind,” or “angelic” are not words often heard to describe me. When my husband calls me “Kitten,” I’m usually exhibiting Hillary Clinton-esque behavior, and his implied sarcasm is well deserved. No, I am not Mary.

One thing Mary and I do share however, is that we’ve both become the defacto caretakers of our aging mothers. Although I sense she lives many of the same stresses and frustrations as myself, the manner in which she handles them differs vastly from my own (“vastly” being an understatement).

So, I use Mary as my (unattainable) beacon...my guiding light... my inner query being “what would Mary do?” I don’t mean what would she do physically, but how would Mary handle a particular situation emotionally? Especially as those situations relate to mothers, daughters and caretaking. Sadly, this thought usually comes to mind after the fact.... when the horse has already left the barn.

It always starts with a fantasy in my head, and a lack of attention to the detail of reality. The fantasy is that I will enter my mother’s apartment (Right.Next.Door.) channeling Mary, and Mom and I will share an endearing hour of remember-whens and catch up on our personal current affairs - all the while sipping freshly brewed coffee and eating scones. Mom would be equally interested in my news, as I would be in hers.

Err... not quite ...

More likely and typical, is that I walk in with my fantasy expectations and neglect to take the temperature of the room. I want my mother to welcome me with a (Mary-style) smile and take a solid interest in whatever important news I’ve brought for her attention. I want her to welcome me as a young mother might welcome her 10 year old daughter home from her first day of school. I want her to have a keen interest in all that’s transpired in my life since our last meeting... to ask follow-up questions on yesterday’s events...to look me in the eye and ask questions with “you,” instead of proffering statements with “I.”

But, my 91 year old mother has been sitting at her table with her “paperwork” for several hours, and has uncovered a plethora of pictures that she can’t wait to share. The truth is, she wants me to welcome her as that same 10 year old child coming home from school... she wants me to ask her about all those pictures and papers, and then be keenly interested in her answers.... answers that might meander all the way back to when she “was a little girl.”

This is where my fantasy clashes with our reality.,. where my unreasonable expectations collide with Mom’s understandably predictable behavior. This is where, before I say another word to Mom, I should ask myself, “WHAT WOULD MARY DO?”

But I don’t. I barrel ahead with my instinctive actions and step in it... Every single time. I’m just not Mary.

Of course, Mary probably wouldn’t have an excessive need to revert to her 10 year old self like me (or Mom...), but if she did, she would likely be able to shelf it and put her mother first, like a #1 caregiver should do. Mary would smile at Mom, get her that cup of coffee, slice the scone, sit down, take in the conversation and enjoy it.

But, I’m not Mary.                 

I forget that Mom’s world is shrinking and that much of her social interaction and feedback these days comes from me... that all her reading, news-watching, and paperwork keeps her mind sharp, and renders her ready for conversation...that she is a tete-a-tete waiting, willing and wanting to happen.  

I forget that Mom’s got 91 years of memories stored, and a limited audience to unleash them on. I forget that after 91 years, any baggage Mom brought to parenthood from her own childhood, has been pretty well ingrained and is now part of her DNA... that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks... that a leopards’ spots never change.

I forget that my fantasy is not our reality, and that Mom and I are both humans, having a human experience...that both of us just want to be heard and understood...that although her baggage is vintage, it carries the same weight as mine. I forget that the smaller her world gets, the more important I am as a part of it, and that ultimately, the Mary-thing to do would be to get the coffee, slice the scone, sit down, shut up, and enjoy my waning time with Mom.

I’ll try harder next time to be patient, kind, and gentle, and to lend an interested, long-listening, sympathetic ear... but the reality is - I’m just not Mary.  


Emily GaffneyComment