Monday, February 8, 2010

Adventures in Mothering Mother: A Book Review

The winter Meg Federico’s 81-year-old mother, Addie, fell and hit her head on the sidewalk, while vacationing in Florida, they suddenly found themselves cast in a geriatric version of the movie Freaky Friday. Seemingly overnight, they swap roles in the parent/child dynamic and every day, for the next three years, is a series of unexpected and unbelievable adventures.

Federico’s bittersweet and humorous memoir, Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother, is in many ways an instructive step-by-step narrative on the Herculean task of taking care of an aging parent, while trying to live your own life.

If the natural cycle of life plays itself out as intended we will outlive our parents; and in doing so we might also be placed in the position of caring for them in their final years. Federico bravely writes about her imperfect attempt to do just that and the lessons learned along the way.

The story is told in a series of compelling flashbacks, starting with the author’s father dying on her wedding day. If there was ever an example of foreshadowing you couldn’t get a better one than that. It is also clear early on that Meg and Addie have a strained relationship, a fact that will become critical as Meg becomes one of the central people in charge of her mother’s care.

Once Federico and her siblings make the decision not to place their frail mother in a nursing home (prompted by Addie’s earlier escape, aided and abetted by her Alzheimer's-addled, 83-year-old second husband) they realize how ill-equipped they are to take care of their strong-willed and sometimes alcoholic mother. But determined to give her the best care possible they call in a team of in-home “experts” that range from tremendously caring to outright crooks.

As Addie and her sex-crazed husband, Walter, become more like petulant teenagers, the author the frazzled parent, and the incidents stack up at an outlandish (sometimes outright life threatening) rate the reader can’t help but wonder why they continue at this impossible circus, with all its loony characters. No one would judge them if they called it quits.

In the midst of the chaos of bedpans, missing jewelry, and sex-toys, Federico must also come to terms with the uneven and sometimes-distant relationship she has had with her diva mother. As the youngest of five children, Federico always felt that her mother saw her as an inconvenience that never met her expectations. Faced with these long held resentments, now butted up against her new power and responsibility, she somehow resists the temptation to “pay her mother back.” In fact, as Addie decompensates, and her own family life starts to show the strain of her routine absence, Federico renews her commitment to maintaining her mother’s dignity and making room for her to have a say so in her care, even when it was inconvenient or impractical to do so.

Just as the author deftly uses humor as a way to soften some of the more difficult issues caretakers face (i.e. changing diapers, dementia, and slowly losing the person who once took care of you), she is also straightforward in the reality that ultimately, unlike parents taking care of children, there is no future or bettering to the situation and what frees you from this obligation is death.

Their last days together are both tender and a celebration of her mother’s long and determined life. And although Federico knows that death is how this obligation will end, it doesn’t make it any easier when her mother takes her final breath while sleeping in her arms.

Welcome to the Departure Lounge is a poignant testament to how human we all are, including our parents.

Michelle Sewell, founder of GirlChild Press, has recently been hired to write a memoir involving death, teen pregnancy, and raising kids in the Valley. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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