Caregiving, Issues
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Come Sleep with Me: Caretaking Mom

When I turned 50, I rediscovered the splendid stretch of my own bed. Marriage-free after 25 years, children grown and gone, no pets with their whiny demands, I could haunt the night without fear of rousing man, child, or beast.  

There are those who long for the late-night solace of someone else’s arms. But solitude cracked the night open for me, and my bed became my sanctuary, my spa, my office, my library, my snack bar. On my nightstand, Alexa played Esperanza Spalding when I was writing, or read me Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed as a bedtime story. Next to Alexa was a lavender-scented candle, and usually a glass of red wine or a cup of strong, black coffee. The marriage bed, the birthing bed, the family bed, was finally the ark of my own joy.

 Then in the summer of 2016, I abandoned my Detroit home of thirty years, put my belongings in storage and moved to coastal Virginia to live with my parents. They were in their 80s, their minds fading much faster than their bodies. If they were going to stay in their home, somebody had to be there with them. I arrived on the front porch of their ‘70s ranch to find that they didn’t understand why I was there, nor that I was staying for good. Not exactly welcome, I tried to stay small, disrupting their lives as little as possible, insinuating myself into the role of caregiver. 

When I tell people that I moved home to take care of my parents, they often say something infuriating like, “They took care of you, now it’s your turn to take care of them.” The statement ignores the giant deposit I’ve already made to my own karma: I took care of my children the way my mother took care of me. By these people’s logic, I am locked into endless selflessness, always owing my existence to the benefit of someone else, never living for myself. It’s as if my spirit has been sharecropped, and I am doomed to tirelessly, patiently sow the seeds that others will reap.

Struggling with anger, loss, and lack of control, I squeezed into the guest bedroom crammed with my parents’ dusty belongings and bulky, antique furniture. Each night, I curled sadly on the sagging twin bed. Without my nighttime nest, I was lost.

 *  *  *

One Christmas night, Mom came into the kitchen and beckoned me to follow her. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of sentences, so she pulled me to her bedroom door, then threw her arm out like a model unveiling a game show prize. Peering into her room, I beheld her peach-colored comforter nicely turned down, her pillows fluffed.  

“You want me to sleep with you?” I asked, resentment windmilling in my chest.

As long as she’s quiet, I pretend she doesn’t need me. It reminds me of the definition of a “good baby’: one that sleeps and stays out of your way.

When I was a kid, my Air Force father was assigned temporary duty for months — even a year —to places like the Philippines, Germany, and Thailand. He’d barely be out of the door before my mother would sweetly ask me that same question: “Are you going to sleep with me?” It was special to be in her pretty room with the big bed. As we snuggled together, I never felt more loved. But even then, her neediness made it feel more like a favor to her, than a treat for me. I was both her teddy bear and her protector.  

  As I stood there in her bedroom doorway decades later, it felt cruel to pick Christmas to claim my existentialist ground. I think we both were astonished when I said, “No, Mom. I don’t sleep well at night. I need to be in my own bed.” There was a heartbeat of awkwardness, as if she had proposed marriage and I had refused the diamond ring.

She nodded and said, “OK.”

Bravely disguising her disappointment, she lay down fully dressed, and pulled up the covers. I kissed her gently and fled into the night.

*  *  * 

This morning has been slow. Outside, there’s a haze of warm, spring drizzle. My mother is sleeping in, and I’ve been making the most of the quiet time. I brew my father’s coffee and settle him in front of the television with a piece of broiled cheese toast. Then I turn to my laptop to face the emailed forms, the insurance questions, the Medicaid follow-up, and maybe the writing that I supposedly have so much time for these days during the pandemic.

Soon, it’s a little after 10. I feel guilty for leaving mom in the bed so late despite her pressing bladder, her growling stomach. As long as she’s quiet, I pretend she doesn’t need me. It reminds me of the definition of a “good baby’: one that sleeps and stays out of your way.

Finally, I relent and creep past her door. She is awake, looking up at the ceiling, playing with her hands. But when she catches my movement, her face becomes a sunrise.

“Hey!” she calls out to me, scooting happily toward the middle of her queen-sized bed and throwing open the covers. She wants me to spend the rainy morning in the bed with her.

   I have resisted her bed for three years now. But the months-long stretch of isolation has rounded my sharp edges, ground me down. Drawing boundaries and building walls to defend my space is a useless exercise. My parents need what they need, and I give what I must. All I can. So, this morning when my mother asks, I creep into her arms. As the rain thrums, she holds me and babbles lowly in a dialect that is no longer speech. I melt against her softness.

 She pats me rhythmically and time disappears. We are old and young at once. She is my mother and my baby; I am her baby and her mother. We hold on to each other in the cloud of sheets, she humming a tuneless lullaby, me crying a memory. 

Filed under: Caregiving, Issues


Desiree Cooper

Desiree Cooper is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, former attorney and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. Her debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, is a 2017 Michigan Notable Book that has won numerous awards, including the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award. Cooper’s flash fiction and essays have appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, Electric Literature, River Teeth, The Rumpus, and in the seminal anthology, Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. Her essay, “We Have Lost Too Many Wigs,” was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2019.

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