by Thomas Whitfield, M.A.
My mother has good days and bad. Over 20 years ago, when I was 10, she underwent brain surgery for treatment of artery vein malformation. Following the procedure, she was an entirely different person, an entirely different mother. As she’s gotten older, her ability to remember new things has greatly decreased. When I call her, or her name comes up on my phone, it’s impossible to know what to expect. She remembers all the big things, but I often have the same conversations over and over with her. She asks me a ton of questions about school and work, my friends, and boyfriend. But, she often asks the same thing every conversation, and with no recollection of ever having known any of the information previously. It’s difficult for my sisters and myself not to get frustrated. Part of it “feels” like she isn’t paying attention, but the truth is she just doesn’t know.
A couple weeks ago, I grew increasingly frustrated during a phone call with her. I was answering the same questions for the millionth time and she could hear in my voice that I was annoyed. I don’t just get off the phone when I am annoyed with her, I feel guilty and force myself to struggle through the call. I almost always eventually snap. This call was no exception and I did just that. After hanging up the phone, I started listening to my thoughts about the situation. All I heard were “should” thoughts. “She should be able to remember,” “I shouldn’t have to go over all these things again,” and “things should be different.” I want to have a good relationship with my mom, she’s getting older, has had more than her fair share of health problems, and I want to enjoy the time I have left with her. Her memory is not going to get better, she’s going to have both good and bad days, there is no amount of “should” thoughts that are going to change any of that. If I want to have a relationship with her, I have to accept her and the situation. My frustration subsided and I came up with a plan. I called her back, apologized for getting angry, and she apologized for not remembering things (which is so sweet considering it’s not ever her fault). I told her that there are times where I will get annoyed in the future, but I think it would be great if we came up with a plan. We decided that if she brings up a topic that we’ve discussed in the past and I don’t want to go over it again, I can just say, “I don’t really want to talk about that right now” and we will move on. If I had allowed myself to continue with “should” thoughts, I likely would not have called her back, come up with a plan, and started to accept the situation.
Fast forward a week, I called her again, fulling expecting a “bad day”. I was armed with the rational thought, “I’d prefer she’s having a good day, but she doesn’t have to be having a good day for me to enjoy talking to her.” During this call, I didn’t have to use my new rational thought at all, she was having a great day. We talked for almost two hours and it was one of the best conversations we’ve had in years. But, there will be bad days, and when they come up, I’ll be able to handle them without having to disconnect.