The Humbling Moment My Five-Year-Old Taught Me About Patience

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A severe stroke left my mother paranoid, confused and needy. Just when I was at my wit’s end, my child taught me the joys of patience.

Lesson from a five-year-old

It’s eight o’clock on a cold spring night. Our apartment has been hit by a cyclone—the handiwork of an energetic five-year-old. Every bit of furniture is draped with paper chains, scissors and Scotch tape, modelling clay, piles of acorns and party favours.

I’m so tired tonight. I’ve been on crutches for seven weeks, recovering from hip surgery, and I’m trying fruitlessly to clean up.

The phone rings—for the sixth time in less than an hour. I know who it is. When my mother was 68, a hemorrhagic stroke claimed her brain but not her life. She awoke from a coma severely damaged; the bleeding instantly razed the landscape of her mind. Dementia soon built a Gothic fun house of distortions where coherent architecture had once stood.

She has been manacled inside that mind now for a decade, experiencing psychic distress.

My mother is dogged by paranoia: she thinks she has been kicked out of her assisted-living facility (not true); she thinks her daughters have not visited in months (it has been a few days); she thinks that her friend Jimmy never wants to see her again (he calls and visits weekly).

Each time she calls, I play a game with myself called “How Good of a Person Can I Be?” I’ve won five rounds of the game tonight; I am due for a fall.

She has no idea that she has repeated the things she is about to say a million times today and a million times yesterday. She has no idea that I had surgery, nor can she recall her own granddaughter’s name. She is unaware of most of the past, and she drifts in the present. Also, she is lonely.

I hurl my anger at the easiest target: my mother, the very victim of this chance horror.

“Mom!” I yell. “You are not being removed from your home! And we visited two days ago!” (Maybe it was four days, but she won’t remember anyway.) “Mom, you have to believe me, and even if you don’t, I cannot talk anymore! Everything is fine!”

Silence. Then: “I was only calling to say hi.”

I feel the dagger of passive aggression, which is the only working weapon in her mental arsenal. My mother continues, having already forgotten that I yelled. (Sometimes she does remember; tonight I luck out.)

“But I’m also frantic about something,” she continues. “Do you have a minute?”

“No, Mom, I don’t. I can’t again with this!”

“Why are you yelling?”

I’m yelling because you aren’t my mother; you are a poorly rendered stand-in who cannot help me care for my child, or be a grandmother, or even remember to ask me about my day. I’m yelling because I have talked you off this ledge five times tonight, and I’m yelling because you remind me of everything I fear: aging, sickness, fragility, bad luck, loss, impermanence. You name it—if it’s scary, you remind me of it!

I flop on the couch, aware of all that my daughter is witnessing. She hears me reprimand my mother, lose my patience, announce that someone I love is an imposition. I have not only failed tonight at being a Good Person; I have failed at being a Good Example to My Daughter.

I stew on the couch, defeated.