It Could Happen to You (and Probably Will)
Learning to take aging and caregiving in stride, and even laugh a little.
Don’t be alarmed, but my mother pooped on the floor again. Correction: I shouldn’t say “she pooped,” really, because that sounds deliberate and I don’t think she did it on purpose. It’s more like she unknowingly dropped a turd. The turd escaped from her. I found it on the floor in front of the bathroom. I looked at it for a while, trying to divine how it happened, but no explanation came to me. I was still half-asleep and not ready for the detective work needed to explain a single little dollop of chocolate custard on a patch of sunlit carpet.
I might have thought it was really just chocolate custard (and I still almost hoped it was), but I’ve found such dollops of poop on the bathroom floor before, and I’m pretty sure I know how they got there. My mother has a habit I’ve heard is common among many aging parents: she uses the toilet with the door open. I’ve come upon her standing over the toilet, facing it with her pants still down, inspecting it. Because she’s going deaf, she doesn’t hear me coming, and because she’s concentrating so hard, she doesn’t know that she’s been seen. My protocol is to step back and retreat into the kitchen to wait for her to finish up, then go in to inspect it myself. I believe she gets up off the toilet, then turns around to make sure she hasn’t left any traces of poop on the toilet seat. It’s reassuring to know she is actually trying not to leave any poop where I can find it. Or sit on it.
It’s more like my mother unknowingly dropped a turd. The turd escaped from her. I found it on the floor in front of the bathroom. I looked at it for a while, trying to divine how it happened, but no explanation came to me.
Sadly, at 87, she is also going blind, so she often fails. It’s okay: I’m used to it.
Anyway, I think while she’s inspecting the toilet seat after a bowel movement, a little turd sometimes slips out behind her. She then pulls up her pants, satisfied there’s nothing on the toilet seat, and walks out. A couple times she’s left regularly placed smudges in the carpet after having stepped in it. This is how I know this scenario is the likely explanation: the footprints are made upon leaving the bathroom. They fade as they proceed outwards from it. But the poop just outside the door is much more intriguing.
Some might think this is a disgusting and embarrassing subject, but let’s face it: if you’re reading this—if you’ve even gotten this far past the first lines of it—you’re probably a woman, and women know from poop. If you’re a woman (or just a regular human with a sense of responsibility) over 50, you may very well be doing just as I am: cleaning up regularly after one or both of your parents. (But it’s more likely you’re a woman.) If you’re a mother you’ve dealt with infant poop and child poop incidents. Even if you’re just a young girlfriend, I’d be willing to bet you’ve had boyfriend poop situations to contend with—I know I have: I cite the boyfriend who cheerfully flossed between his legs with my clean white towel after a shower, leaving a long brown skid mark on it.
I further cite the guy, his son, actually, who told me about a cling-on stuck to his butt, which his girlfriend notified him of with screams of horror when he came back to bed, and sat naked on the edge of the mattress to kiss her good morning after his morning “BM.”
If you’ve had a senior dog, as I have, you won’t be surprised that humans have the same kind of accidents in old age as your old furry friend’s. Old sphincters: they will betray you, mark my words. I found little nuggets of poop around my apartment like tiny chocolate easter eggs months after my dog died; I even found one as I packed up to move a year later.
Some might think this is a disgusting and embarrassing subject, but let’s face it: if you’re reading this—if you’ve even gotten this far past the first lines of it—you’re probably a woman, and women know from poop.
It’s pretty much the same thing with humans, but on a larger scale. If you’ve picked up your dog’s poop (as you well should) three times a day, you can force yourself into thinking of your aging mother’s poop the same way: it’s your duty to pick up and dispose of it, so it doesn’t ruin anyone’s day.
I debated whether or not to show it to her because I didn’t want to humiliate her. But then, whatever she did this time, she probably should know not to do it again. She was as mystified as I was. She just could not remember what she could have done. We had an eye-watering, gasping giggle over it, as we tried to imagine scenarios in which this could have happened.
I’m glad I can still make her laugh. I was good at this in my early childhood, before she began to hate me, around the time I made my first friends and began to question her authority, perhaps a little too soon to suit her, I guess? Hopefully she won’t be alive long enough to learn to hate me again. I’d like her to like me in her final years on Earth.
I cleaned the stain up as she watched. She apologized repeatedly, and I repeatedly said it was okay—and it was, really—that it was just like having a dog again, that I was even using the same bottle of enzymatic cleaning fluid called “Nature’s Miracle” that I used to use on my old dog’s mishaps, and brought with me when I moved in with her, thinking we might adopt a dog together. Between the poops and her habit of chasing squirrels away from the bird feeder, I said, we don’t need to get a dog now. We laughed and sighed as I walked her back to her armchair in the living room to return to her TV show.
After this, I went into the kitchen to make my first cup of coffee. Brought it upstairs, as I always do, set it on the night table, turned the radio on, slipped back into bed to sit supported against my two plumped up pillows, and grabbed the mug. I downed my warm coffee, then slid gratefully back down under the covers for a half-hour nap till the 9 o’clock news came on. This is a ritual I acquired in the old days, when I did have a (real) dog. After getting up early to walk him (and picking up his poop), we’d come back in and I would swaddle him in a towel (to catch any further, wayward poop nuggets), and carry him back into bed with me for our moment of peace and cuddling before the day started. He would heave a little sigh of contentment as he fell back asleep with me. We did that for ten years, though for the first five years we did this on the couch while my late husband slept in the bed with the “white noise” turned up loud. I hated that white noise machine.
If you’ve had a senior dog, as I have, you won’t be surprised that humans have the same kind of accidents in old age as your old furry friend’s. Old sphincters: they will betray you, mark my words.
When the vet came to put my old dog to sleep, he was swaddled in a towel just like he was every morning, and every afternoon, for our naps. I was almost sorry I did this, because for months afterward I felt like the bed was haunted. I would cry, remembering his final sigh. But I was glad to pay the price of grief if it meant he could die the way he napped. The whole thing also somehow felt like an apology for my husband’s and my father’s long, painful deaths: to be able to do this for the one being whose death I could actually orchestrate.
I wonder if I could ever snuggle like that with my mother? I’ve read accounts of people snuggling into the deathbed with their dying loved ones. I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it, not with my husband, and not with my father. I barely dared to touch my husband for fear I would hurt or anger him—everything hurt and irritated him by then. He could only suppress his rage for his son and daughter. With me, he was himself. His angry, frustrated, lost in agony, self.
And my father? We never practiced that kind of physical affection with each other. My mother isn’t a snuggler and never was. Maybe it’s because in South America, and even in New York, she used to sleep with her mother and sister in the same bed when they were poor. Maybe she just relished not having to touch people when that was finally all over. One of my cousins swears she also slept with them for a while, the four of them to a bed. Maybe not touching other people is a form of freedom for her, which she’s turned, through example, into a sort of family tradition. Of course there could be other reasons. I can think of some moments when intimacy was talked about as if it were a looming menace, and not the comfort it is for other people.
We’re not a touchy-feely family.
My mother isn’t a snuggler and never was. Maybe it’s because in South America, and even in New York, she used to sleep with her mother and sister in the same bed when they were poor. Maybe she just relished not having to touch people when that was finally all over.
After my half hour post-coffee nap, I say to myself, “Good morning, good morning. It’s time to get out of bed.” I get dressed and go downstairs to make my breakfast. I always note that the sound of my descent is the same as it was when I was a teenager. At the bottom of the stairs to my right I find my mother, sitting in her armchair, asleep with the TV on, slumped over to one side, one hand tucked under the elastic of her pajama bottom. I check to see if she’s breathing. Some mornings, when I see she’s not in the armchair, and the three TVs aren’t on and blasting their lagging echoes to each other yet, I’ll find her still in bed, which is when I wonder if this is the day I will find that she hasn’t made it through the night.
On such days I will stand in her doorway, watching her carefully until I can discern the movement of her diaphragm. Once I see she’s breathing, the next thought that goes through my mind is of how she told me that if I ever find her dying, I should just let her die, and whatever I do, never bring her to the hospital. “Open the window to let my soul out, that’s all I ask,” she always says.
So, when I find her in bed like this, I wonder if this is the day I face that moral dilemma. Usually I go up to my room and go back to sleep as usual, and when I go downstairs again to make my second coffee, I find her up. Then I know that this is not the day I will open her bedroom window and call my brothers.
We’re a strange family. If you tell one of us you want to be left to die in peace, we will respect your wish to the letter. I think it’s the military blood on my father’s side of the family, plus the freakishly stubborn bent on my mother’s side. So be careful. If what you’re really doing is uttering a cry for help, address it to someone else: we will take you very literally, because each one of us truly means it when we say it.
When we were little, there was a woman in a coma, Karen Ann Quinlan, and every day for ages the evening news anchor would discuss the public debate over the morality of leaving her “vegetating,” or taking her off life support. As I remember it, one half of her family wanted to pull the plug, the other half didn’t.
My mother drilled us again and again: “What do you do if I’m in a coma without hope?”
We’d reply: “Pull the plug!”
We’re a strange family. If you tell one of us you want to be left to die in peace, we will respect your wish to the letter…So be careful. If what you’re really doing is uttering a cry for help, address it to someone else: we will take you very literally, because each one of us truly means it when we say it.
Seriously. We were little kids, and that’s how we were indoctrinated in end of life issues. Pull the plug, pull the plug, pull the plug. It’s even in my living will. “Despatch me quickly and painlessly, if legally possible,” I wrote. I sent it to two friends, who said it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen, and I said funny, yes, but serious.
By the way, while I’m typing this description of my morning, it’s already night. My mother is in bed. Every night at eight o’clock, she says goodnight to me and as she closes the door to her bedroom, then chants, in a singsong voice: “Remember, I wuv you wuv you!” And I reply by mimicking her, because I can’t say it sincerely and because she can only hear me if I say it in that high-pitched voice. She can’t hear lower registers.
I know this will sound sad to you, but it is also just a dance, a ritual. I know that if I ever said it —much less felt it—like I meant it, it would put me in such a position of vulnerability that I would regret it: my mother may be old and senile, but she is alert as ever to vulnerability. It is never a good idea to allow her to see it. It’s beyond her power to resist the urge to stick her finger in your heart if you expose it to her. That’s just the way she is. It’s the only proof she will accept that she has any power left over anyone.
If I were still a baby, she would simply crack my knuckles to make me cry: when I was little, she told me several times, in a voice troubled by a giddy tremor, and with a mischievous glimmer in her eye, how she did this “to babies.” The initial shock in their faces would be followed by a crumpled face and a howl of bewildered crying. (She didn’t use these words in her description, but this is how I envisioned it.) Recently, when she asked me why I hadn’t gotten another dog yet, I reminded her of this sadistic streak in her, and she chuckled, saying, “Yes, I used to do this to your brother!”
My mother may be old and senile, but she is alert as ever to vulnerability. It is never a good idea to allow her to see it. It’s beyond her power to resist the urge to stick her finger in your heart if you expose it to her. That’s just the way she is. It’s the only proof she will accept that she has any power left over anyone.
I’m pretty sure that means she did it to all of us. Her power over us must have intoxicated her. Once my brothers and I were capable of understanding what was happening, she’d have to find ways of cracking the knuckles of our hearts. By depriving her of power now, I’m extending her a mercy.
My friends all want us to have a Hollywood ending, where we end up hugging each other and forgiving each other (“O, mama! [sob of joy]” “O, my daughter! [reciprocal sob of joy”]), but this will never happen. My mother only values transactions: I am here, taking care of her. That means she is getting something she has somehow earned, and that satisfies her. That’s what makes her happy enough to say she “wuvs” me. (The minute she doesn’t get what she wants, she says I’m mean, or claims that I’m adopted.) No, as far as I’m concerned, the Hollywood ending is already happening every day that I’m here, knowing that the horrible way she treated me as I grew up was nothing personal.
It’s such a relief. Worth cleaning up poop every morning? Does it matter?