December 8, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
I stare at my eighty-seven-year-old mother, who stands in the hallway, sweaty and flushed, breathing hard and telling me how she’d tried to walk around the block, then fell and crawled into the bushes, hoping no one would see her.
Really? Mom’s knee is so bad, she can barely hobble from the living room to the kitchen…never mind walking around the block. Still, her pale, sweaty face and deer-in-the-headlights stare tell me something happened. What? I’ll never know, because Mom is too confused.
My mother, queen of Sudoku, master of crossword puzzles, reader of just about everything, no longer knows which button to push to turn on the television. She forgets her pills, forgets to brush her teeth, forgets to eat, forgets where her purse is hidden (thieves looking for spare change might find it stuffed in the cushions).
Mom forgets that she forgets, and if I tell her that she’s forgotten, she’s snaps back, You just don’t know! Where are you getting your facts?
Laura Davis’ mother, Temme, in The Burning Lights of Two Stars, reminds me of my mother—stubborn, independent, and feisty. Both, in their later years, live in an alternate reality.
“Why did you make me move out here anyway?” Temme asks her daughter, after she moves her entire household into a trailer park, in California, just to be near Davis and her children.
Of course, Temme has forgotten this was her idea…and one, in fact, that concerns Davis. As a young adult, she saw her mother as “a poisonous spider,” who would wrap her in her web.
When Davis came out to her mother as a lesbian, “she carted out every stereotype about being a dyke.” When Davis was writing her now classic The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, she told Temme that her grandfather (Temme’s father) had sexually abused her. Not only did Temme refuse to accept this, but accused Davis of having false memories.
Years later, they’d arrive at a “shaky peace,” but Davis knew “3,000 miles still separated us for a reason. Our reconciliation went only so far.” Even as Temme saw her life drawing to a close, she would not accept that her daughter had been abused by her father. Maybe there was a reason. Maybe Temme had been abused too, Davis speculates, but “she was never going to look me in the eye and tell me the truth about her father.”
After Temme moves to California, her health declines. She forgets (or ignores) her doctor’s orders (particularly the one about not driving). Davis writes,
After the dishwasher accident, and her close call with kidney failure at the ICU, Mom recovered, but after that, her life was never the same. She’d entered the endless cycle of medical interventions that plague the lives of the elderly. She’d become a cog in a wheel, a number on a chart, a birthdate on a computer screen. She’d gone from being a healthy elder, physically strong with a poor memory, to an elderly patient with a different doctor for each part of her body.
Davis shuttles Temme to appointments, dispenses medications, checks in, and buys groceries. Whatever time is left, she works, manages two teenagers, and hopes to spend time with her partner.
Everything changes when Temme is found “passed out in a parking lot, sitting in her car with the engine running. Her horn [is] blaring, and she [is] nonresponsive….” Davis realizes her mother can no longer live alone.
Embedded in this fast-paced memoir is a story all too familiar to boomers with aging parents. We’re grateful for medical advances in cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases, because it enables us to enjoy our parents longer. Yet, treatment and prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has not caught up.
What do we do when our elderly loved ones cannot live on their own? Take them in? Hire in-home health aides? Move them into independent, assisted, or full-care facilities that will eat up every bit of their life savings? Each decision comes with a cost.
“I wanted Mom to have help, so she could stay in the little home she loved, doing the things she loved for as long as possible,” writes Davis. But Temme resists in-home health care and finds fault with the care worker.
Davis’ story flows back and forth over time, old stories deepening the main narrative. To keep readers on track, Davis uses a numeric countdown, marking the days until her mother’s death, posted under each chapter heading.
While The Burning Light of Two Stars gives readers a first-hand look at some of the elderly health care dilemmas today, it’s also a painful story about an emotional break between mother and daughter caused by lack of trust, honesty, and empathy. As the countdown numbers grow smaller, Davis and her mother keep reaching toward each another, hoping to reclaim what they’ve lost.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.