a vintage phone on a hallway table

Today is my mother’s yahrzeit—the anniversary of her death on the Jewish calendar. I was a long distance caregiver to her for the three years she lived after my dad passed away. I’m living proof that you can dislike someone intensely and yet truly care for them. It’s all a matter of mindset.

Granted, I live in New York and she in Florida, but there was her routine, medical forms to be dealt with, private aides to counsel and console, and of course her constant complaints about everything and everyone in our daily phone calls. There was also the weight of knowing that the call could come at any minute for me to fly down because she was in the hospital—yet again. She loved the hospital. There she felt like the center of attention.

She was not an easy person to care for—even from a distance. An extremely vain, supreme narcissist with a chronic lung condition that required four separate hour-long treatments every single day is a handful. She was disciplined. In her late sixties, she was given two years to live and showed them all, dying fifteen years after her diagnosis—which I credit to her diligently followed drug regimen (and the superlative care my dad provided). He was literally dying of cancer and she was the sick one.

I didn’t just go down when she was hospitalized, I would visit for a week every month and I did so out of duty and great love for my father, who as so many caregivers, pre-deceased her. On his deathbed, I promised him I would be there for her and gave him permission to let go. Our visits basically consisted of my driving her to her various doctors’ appointments, the hairdresser, a lunch or dinner out and maybe a movie. She tired easily, mostly because she lived a totally passive existence, living only to spend hours getting ready to go out and show a good face to the world. There were times I’d watch her putting on her make-up and see the exhaustion set in. She was never moved to try and get stronger. I was at my wit’s end trying to motivate her to do something pro-active.

To say we had a contentious relationship is putting it mildly. On my 50th birthday we actually came to blows. She took the first swing. I knew if I took a swat at her, she’d break. I may have detested her, but I didn’t want to hurt her. After all, she was my mother. So, how did I do it? How could I possibly have been kind to this woman with no redeeming qualities?

I credit my sister-in-law with giving me the key to surviving a situation I could not escape. “Just agree with everything she says. Treat her like she’s a crazy woman and appease her. Don’t take the bait.” It was that simple.

For example, my mother loved harping on the poor character of my father’s family. Before I changed my mindset, I would have argued otherwise—knowing my opinion would fall on deaf ears or lead to an argument, I learned to utter “Uh-huh.”

This tactic worked face-to-face or over the phone. When my father was alive, I would avoid calling because I hated the way I felt before, during and after we’d speak. The guilt for not calling would build up and I knew what would be waiting for me on the other end of the line when I’d finally phone. Once my dad died, I called very frequently, but the daily barrage of complaints became unbearable. I asked her “What can I do to make your life easier?” My mother said “Call me every day.” Despite the way I felt about her, I knew that a two or three minute call to say hi, fill her in on my day and let her live a little vicariously was far easier than hearing her bitch for a half-hour.

It’s twelve years since she died. “Ding dong the witch is dead.” Horrible to know that’s how I felt when she passed. But I took good care of her. I was her advocate. I was her counselor. I may have been the only friend she had left in the world—she’d pretty much alienated everyone else.

Funny though, every now and then I’ll get a pang in my gut at 8:00 p.m. and gasp “I’ve got to call my mother.” We do what we gotta do.

Written by Adrienne Gruberg
Adrienne Gruberg is a former family caregiver and founder of The Caregiver Space. After six years of caring for her late husband and mother-in-law she conceived of an online support space all caregivers could come to. Adrienne holds a BFA from Boston University. She founded AYA Creative in 1982, an award winning graphic design, marketing and advertising company. Her design training has helped shape the website and her personal and professional experience continues to inform and influence the caregiver centric support experience she has created at The Caregiver Space.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you very, very much for sharing this article! I’m going through almost the exact same thing with my dad.

    Reply
  2. I have always had this love hate relationship with my mother, my mother is very controlling when things don’t go her way she will lie to get what she wants. But I have always been the one there for her. I think I do a good job of letting things go and moving on as hard as it is.

    Reply
  3. I’m jealous of those that get to care give from a distance. Try getting woken in the middle of the night being accused of abuse and lying.

    Reply
  4. We need to speak more about this so people (specifically in the medical community) understand what we are dealing with. My mom pretends to be “half dead” when the nurse makes her visit. I have to tell them that the symptoms she is listing never existed until this visit. I always knew something was wrong with my mother and now that Ive become her 24/7 caregiver…I know exactly what’s wrong with her. I know I am not alone(nor crazy).

    Reply
  5. I can understand how the authors advice might work for a parent or other similar “long distance” patient, but what about when it’s your partner whom resides with you? How do you not lose your identity and sanity when you’re constantly agreeable and submissive to their reality? You can only mutter “uh-huh” so much.

    Reply
  6. thank you so much for speaking it out so freely and honestly. I believe that many of us are in such situation and find it difficult to speak out. My husband once helped by saying: it’s family, you love them, you don’t have to like them. Seems irreconciliable but it’s not. We gotta do what we gotta do. Being kind and compassionate is in your nature, so you do it. How the other chose to deal with that is part of their nature. We can’t change that either.

    Reply
  7. Adrienne, your story went straight to my heart. Thank you for sharing it. I lived this as well, with my father. Caring for a parent who is toxic adds a whole other dimension to what is already a very difficult time. My dad’s yahrzeit is October 20th and when I light that candle, I wish him the peace he was sorely missing during the last year of his life. My own sense of peace after his passing came from knowing I was there when he needed me.

    Reply
  8. I struggle with the piles of baggage and care for my difficult 97 year old mother. I do because I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror (the way you do) and be satisfied that I was a loving human being. It’s hard to keep that in mind. Thank you for writing this. Honest and beautiful.

    Reply
  9. This is a wonderful, honest piece Adrienne, and I thank you for writing it. I’m doing “what I gotta do.” Some days I feel successful, and other days I feel I miss the mark. Today is a grouchy day.

    Reply

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