Checking for Comprehension

If one is looking for those odd relationships that one finds in literature, then look no further.

It feels like I’m married and raising a daughter. Except, I’m married to my mother, and the daughter we’re raising is my grandma (her mother), who has dementia and is regressing.

Today marks the 6th day my mother has given me the cold shoulder and done grandma’s routines in complete silence.

My mother’s method of reminding grandma to do something is like this: “You can’t lie down like that. Look, just letting your muscles go. You’re going to hit your head on the bars and bleed everywhere. Do it again.”

“You can’t get up like that! If you get up like that you’ll lose your balance and fall and split your head open and die.”

“Don’t eat too fast, see you’re already choking, I’ve told you countless times you can’t drink water when you’re choking.” As mother’s patting her back, she’ll say, “When you choke the food will get into your lungs and you’ll get an infection and you’ll die. That’s how Michael’s father died.”

The thing is, my mother’s heart is in the right place. And I know she’s doing it out of love. I know this is how grandma raised her, and how she raised me. And I know how I reacted, which was to tune her out and do the bare minimum to comply.

6 days ago:

Mother was washing dishes in the sink. “Are you done eating?” she asked grandma. Grandma sat at the table in her wheelchair, cleaning miniscule crumbs off the placemat. After a few moments had passed in silence, my mother said to me, “Grandma’s getting worse. She doesn’t respond to my questions anymore.”

I walked up and asked grandma the same question. “Grandma, are you finished with dinner?” Grandma stopped fidgeting with her plate to find the source of sound. Her eyes fixed on me and she said, “I’m done eating.”

“OK, I’ll clean up.” I grabbed the plates and washed them in the sink while my mother went to wipe down the table.

“I think,” I said in English to mother, “grandma’s withdrawing and shutting down because of your constant criticisms.”

I regret how blunt I was. That’s on me. I’m sorry it came out like that. My fear is that I’m projecting onto grandma and that I’m wrong. Yet, grandma initiated conversation with mother yesterday, about Naomi Osaka defeating Serena Williams at the 2021 Australian open, so at least that happened.

“How do you know?” Mother asked. She was on the defensive already.

“I know because she’s reacting the same way I did when you constantly criticized me.”

And we’re off.

I don’t know why I didn’t phrase it nicely. I should’ve led into it with a compliment. If I gain access to therapy again this is something I can bring up. I do recall saying to mother, “You do a lot, and no one is questioning your hard work or dedication.” And since my memory of it isn’t perfect anymore, I’ll sum it up with what I can recall.

Mother agreed, saying, “I get tired of hearing myself say these things over and over again.”

“Then why do you keep saying it?” I asked.

“I’d rather have her safe than injured,” she said. “If I don’t keep reminding her, she’ll move incorrectly, fall into bad habits, and hurt herself. And she never learns, always wants to do her own thing.”

What my mother says is true. Grandma walks correctly when mother is there to guide her. She instructs her in the proper way to move to prevent injury. It’s useful for her. But grandma has trouble retaining new information. And I feel mother may be getting frustrated that grandma isn’t improving despite the work she’s putting in. So, I know, mom; I understand.

“I know,” I said. “I don’t want her to get hurt either. But your constant nagging and catastrophizing is causing her to withdraw.” My conclusion was eventually, “Think about how you want your relationship with your mother to be at the end of her life. You can keep saying these things, but the only thing she can do now is ignore you, and she’s doing it.” I remember having a cold 2-liter of Coke Zero in hand and leaving the conversation there.

Maybe I’m more accepting of it because it’s grandma. Grandmas age and forget things. That’s what grandmas do. But not something moms do.

The hardest part was watching grandma, sitting at the table in her wheelchair, and having her see all that. I spoke in a mix of English and Mandarin; English to avoid words that would possibly alarm grandma, Mandarin to ensure my mother understood what I was saying. But, I think if I had a kid, I’d be feeling what I felt then. I wouldn’t want them to see me fighting with my mother/spouse. I wouldn’t want this to be an impression I left on the child. This is the closest I’ve come to parenting and I hate it.

What irks me most is my mother’s reaction to it. From that conversation forward, all of her interactions with grandma have been completely silent. Instead of repeatedly telling her to grab the stair railing, now she taps it multiple times, letting the wood and metal resonate until grandma grabs it. Not a word. I don’t know if mother’s like this only when I’m around or in earshot, or if this is permanent. But I feel every unuttered criticism is now being hurled at me.

She’s been giving me the cold shoulder. We talk enough to do transactional daily things but no more. She’s terse. Doesn’t look me in the eye. Defiantly silent, but to whom or what, and to what end to get back at me, I do not know.

The problem is, I’ve seen this response. I know this response. Growing up, whenever she and father got into a fight, this is how she acted afterwards. My father didn’t always get it, but the gay son speaks her language. But I don’t want to speak it. This is not an effective means of communicating. I want to tell her, “You are not being a sensible adult! This is not effective adulting!” And if I’m digging into my childhood, “Withholding love and attention as punishment is not an effective way to raise children!”

Yet I can’t because this is her response to criticism. During the talk, I tried to keep my tone as even as possible. My voice was raised, but there was no yelling. Only a sternness. But her response creates what I like to call an absolute defense. She avoids criticism because when I broach the subject, this is her response. And her response shuts down the chance of a constructive discussion about these recurrent behaviors.

Because I’m tired and I don’t want to do this with you anymore. Because I’m your son for christ’s sake.

She stopped eating the food I made. She was relying completely on a stir-fry she made herself (and these shao-bing my father sent over; a longer story). Whenever I ask her what she’d like to eat she’s full. I’d like her to eat my food because, well, there’s a reason I’ve been doing all the cooking. At least today I saw her boil a few extra fish wontons for herself during dinner, so that’s good.

And I know how this is going to resolve. My mother will be fine in a few days. It would be sooner, if I fell into my old habits of trying to make her happy, but we are past that age. We’ll never talk about it; it’ll be like it never happened. But since the issue remains unresolved, it’ll just be used as ammo the next time the same fight inevitably erupts. The last one was in April a couple years ago, right before the Taylor Swift concert. I remember since I didn’t know if we were still going to go together. And as much as I’d like to break free from this cycle, I fear it’s one we’re going to repeat until the end.

Update 2/23/21: Grandma was watching TV, while mother and I were both in the kitchen preparing dinner. Mother had her own pot of food, vegetables and meat boiling in a broth, while I took stock of the kitchen and decided to make a panini, before the bread and deli meats went bad.

For grandma, my mother was steaming shumai, ones that I had made from scratch earlier and froze. When she opened the steamer, I saw that the plate she used was too big, blocking the steam from reaching the food, turning the steamer into a boiler. I told her such and she said, “I was concerned about that too.” With chopsticks she grabbed a shumai and bit into it cautiously. “It’s done,” she said.

After a short, difficult time getting the plate out (since it was too big and fit the rice cooker too well), she split a shumai in half and asked, “Do you think this is done?” showing me the meat, its precious juices leaking across the plate.

In an even, controlled voice, I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know how long you steamed it for.”

She turned away and said, “it should be done,” half to herself, and brought it to the table.

My exasperation was etched on my face as I stared blankly to the left. Grandma was sitting on her spot on the sofa, but instead of watching tennis, she was watching me. I caught her smiling and I pantomimed How the hell am I supposed to know? combined with I know right? to her. Palms up, a shrug of the shoulders, slight shake of the head at the end. Grandma’s smile grew even wider. I smiled back and laughed silently.

Tags: Snapshot, Family, Mother, To My Future Husband, TMFH, Sorry These Are Your In-Laws

This story is a part of To My Future Husband, a collection of essays and stories to inform/warn him beforehand.

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Jon Lang

Jon Lang

A steak pun is a rare medium well-done