By Rudri Bhatt Patel
While she will always be my mother, I am the mother of the house now.
My mother tells me that she doesn’t know what home is anymore. I sigh, not wanting the words to land. She sits at my dining table, while I make her fresh roti, an Indian bread that I devoured as a little girl. Her hands lay in her lap and her half-smile reflects her ambivalence. I notice her veins, the bright blue lines laying roads on her arms.
“I don’t get it, Mom. What do you mean? When you are with family it isn’t enough. You also complain that your apartment feels lonely. Which one is it?” I flip the round roti on our stove, my elbows awkward and displaced as I try to save the bread from burning.
She tries to explain. “When you lose your companion,” she says, “there is no place that fulfills you. This is my new normal after Dad’s passing.”
I feel the weight of her words and my mouth opens, but the words are stuck. Instead I watch as a piece of the bread burns at the edges.
“It is too late. There is nothing to save.” My mom interrupts my thoughts as I toy with trying to save the roti.
For a minute, I am confused. I am unclear whether she is talking about her loneliness or the bread. The conversation about her displaced home occurs, almost on repeat, every time my mother and I intersect. She confesses her pendulum of discontent. I reply in silence.
I accept that this is her new voice. The voice of a widow mourning the loss of a life she keeps referring to in the present tense.
What I didn’t expect is how much I’ve started to mother my own mom. I am a forty something raising my eight-year-old daughter and taking care of my mother too. When my daughter comes home from school, I ask her those familiar words that resonate in cars all over the country, “How was your day?” Sometimes she replies with a boisterous response, other times I plead with her to confess at least one detail. When I ask my mom the same question, she will often respond with a single word answer and like a good “parent” I keep prodding her until she reveals that her stomach hurt at night and she didn’t get much sleep.
When she visits our home, I yearn for her to take an active role in nurturing me if I am feeling down or overwhelmed, but instead, I am the one who asks if she is taking her medications that control her blood pressure and diabetes. When she leaves the room and heads to the bathroom, I peruse her room, straighten her sheets, fluff her pillows and throw out any peripheral trash that might be strewn on her nightstand.
As she bathes, I lay out her tea cup, saucer, kettle and sugar. She ambles down our stairway; her increasing weight creates an immediate panic in my gut.
“Mom, after you finish drinking your tea, please take a walk around the neighborhood. You need to exercise.”
I identify the look in her eye. It is one that looks like a teenager who dismisses the plea of her parent.
“Yes, I will go. Maybe in the evening time when it is cooler.” The tone of her voice is indignant and I know that walk will never occur.
When lunchtime hits, I ask both my daughter and my mother what they want to eat for lunch. I dump veggies and fruits into a blender and make them smoothies, knowing that both will only eat nutritious foods if I sneak them into a drink. After they are finished, I hand them a napkin to wipe the faint lime green mustache around their mouths.
I pause and glance at my mother and daughter. I am in the center, the adult, between my mom, the senior citizen, and my daughter, just a few months shy of her ninth birthday. It’s a precarious place to be, watching my daughter at the entrance of anticipation, while my mother experiences the ache of widowhood. I swing between two extremes, trying to balance the needs of both.
Despite their age and stage in life, the thread that ties them together is the same. Both look to me for approval. My daughter asks if she can have a play date with a friend, while my mother inquires whether she can go on an unplanned trip to the garden. I manage my daughter’s homework, while I reconcile my mother’s checkbook. In the morning, I drop my mother at her doctor’s appointment, and in the afternoon I chauffeur my daughter to tennis practice.
I comfort my daughter when she cries, the loudness of her angst vibrates through the walls, the catalyst from simple frustrations like not being able to string her hand through her sleeve. My mom will also dissolve into tears, remembering some specific memory about my father, like how much he enjoyed butterscotch ice cream. On nights my husband and I decide to do a date night, I make certain both my mom and my daughter have dinner before we leave, ensuring their tummies are full so they can sleep well.
As I pass by Mom’s room in our house, there is a part of me that doesn’t want her to be here. I don’t want to open the bathroom cabinet and see the medicine she has to take to push through this life. I don’t want to hear her cry in the middle of the night with pain I cannot undo.
On a recent visit, I opened our front door and observed my mom trying to make roti again. Her attempt brought a tear to my eye. As she lifted the pan to puff the bread, her arms moved slower than I remembered as a little girl when I’d sit at the dining table waiting for this buttery goodness after school.
As my daughter trailed after me, I walk over to my mom and asked her to sit down.
“It’s ok, Mom. You relax.”
In that moment, I understood that while she will always be my mother, I am the mother of the house now.
Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former lawyer turned writer. She is the Online Editor for The First Day. Rudri posts frequently to her blog, Beingrudri.com, is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and other publications. She is currently at work on a memoir that focuses on grief and life’s ordinary graces. Rudri lives in Arizona with her husband and daughter.