My Mom Was Too Old
She had me at 42. She got frail before I was ready.
“What will I do in Florida?” she asked me. At least in New York, she had some friends (though many had relocated in recent years). She also taught one history class a week at a small college, something she had been doing in the 15-plus years since she retired from the New York City public school system. It was a life, if not quite a full one. Still, she would visit her sister in West Palm Beach, Fla., a few times a year, which is where she was for Passover. I was headed to New Haven, Conn., to spend the holiday with friends.
As I rode the Metro North train, my phone rang. It was my aunt, my mother’s older sister. I panicked. My aunt and I weren’t close, so I figured that something awful must’ve happened for her to reach out to me directly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You have to move in with your mother and take care of her,” my aunt informed me.
“She takes too many medications and walks around like a zombie,” my aunt exclaimed. “I don’t know what to do,” she cried out, exasperated.
“I don’t know what to do either,” I said, trying to remain hushed on the packed holiday express. I had spent the previous months consulting with her doctors, including her psychiatrist. I had a spreadsheet of her medications on my computer and have even spoken with the local pharmacist about my mother’s intake.
“You have to move in with her,” she repeated as though I hadn’t heard her the first time.
“Why me? What about Lisa?” I asked my aunt, referring to my sister.
“She’s married and has kids. “You have to do it,” she said firmly. For her, it was non-negotiable.
“But I’m still in my 20s,” I choked out.
As my anger at my aunt’s demand grew, I was reminded of my mother’s own bitterness at taking care of her ailing mother. She was around the same age as I am now and hadn’t shown the same good sense her older sister had demonstrated by getting married young and having kids. It was the ‘60s, and a single Orthodox Jewish woman did not move out of the house. My grandparents forbade her from doing so. So when my grandmother had the first in a series of strokes, it fell to my mother, still living at home, to provide most of the care until her mother’s health declined to the point that she had to be placed in a nursing home.
“I’ll never do that to you,” she often promised me. And she hadn’t. I moved out of the house after I graduated from high school, first for college and then again to Los Angeles. She even acted as the guarantor on the lease for my Brooklyn studio, my first foray into truly solo living.
For the first time in two years of trying to manage my mother’s health, I was furious—at my aunt for her demands, at my sister for not helping out enough. And at my mother for having me at an advanced age, which is about as reasonable as wishing you hadn’t been born.
But how do you avoid this fate? As I near my 30th birthday, still single and working as a freelance writer, I feel guilty for my personal and professional choices. I haven’t exactly created a life that is conducive to caretaking. Maybe I should’ve sat for the LSATs I registered for after college instead of moving cross-country on a whim. Perhaps I should’ve followed through on one of the thousand times I asserted that I would get a real job. Maybe I should’ve kept dating that guy who worked in finance.
I’ve passed up hundreds of opportunities to settle down in some capacity. Which maybe puts me on the same path my mother followed, having a child in my 40s, hoping to make it, God willing, to their college graduation, with or without walker.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She has written about religion, arts, and culture for the New York Times, Tablet, Salon, and several other publications. She is also the author of the gymnastics-themed essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.