Saving My Mother With a Safety Pin

Guest Post by Jen Wang

Hey, folks! I'm on vacation, taking a much-needed blog break. Some batteries need recharging. But don't worry -- I've enlisted the generous help of some great guest bloggers to keep things fresh around here while I'm gone. Here's Jen Wang of Disgrasian on her mother, happiness and life-saving safety pins.

A recent study published by the London School of Economics found that happiness peaks at two times in your life: age 23, and again at age 69. My mother turned 69 this year. And she'll tell you she's happy, very happy, in fact, the exact words she used to describe herself just the other day.

This was in the same breath as her telling me that she has no energy or the desire to do anything any more, and she's worried sick about getting older. She's worried that, like her own father, she'll get struck down by a heart attack. (She's had two angioplasties in the last 20 years.) She's worried she'll have a stroke. She's afraid when she comes to visit me for long periods how far away she is from her doctors. She vows that her next move will be to a home closer to the hospital.

My mother's worried for my father's health too. She's consumed with his "deteriorating." In a kind of Gift of the Magi of worry, a few months ago my father confided in me that he was worried about my mother's "deteriorating" health. I don't think they ever discuss the other person's "deteriorating" with one another; they just silently "deteriorate" together, each one believing he/she has a greater half-life than the other.

And then there are her everyday worries. Like driving. She used to be afraid of driving only when visiting me in Los Angeles -- too many crazy drivers here -- but now she's afraid of driving in general. Often she declares, as though she's never learned how or is someone used to being chauffeured, "I don't drive." She does have a chauffeur, in fact, my father, who drives her everywhere, though she's worried about that, too. She's worried about my father's driving because she's worried he is, in her words, going senile; sometimes it's his eyes or his propensity for distraction, sometimes it's because he lays on the car horn when someone cuts him off, a habit which she's worried will get him/them killed. (In all fairness, I'm a little worried about that, too.) But she'll still take his senile/blind/distracted/road rage-provoking driving over her own driving any day.

Once she's out in the world, she experiences all kinds of terror around parking. Where is the parking, what kind of parking is there -- lot, garage, street? -- oh god, street parking, I cannot park on the street. (Never mind that she wouldn't be the one driving, much less parking, the car.) And will she have to pay for parking? How much is parking? Do they validate? Do you have to buy something for them to validate? How long do they give you before the validation expires? All things related to parking must be worked out before she ever leaves the house.

She thinks about parking all the time because she shops all the time. There's nothing more soothing to her than a shopping mall. (Or if there's no one to drive her to one, Amazon.) New people, new things, the smell and feel of unending possibilities. I took her to IKEA recently, after which she said, wistful and happy, "There are so many things to buy there." She has to buy something new almost every day. It's the family sickness--one of them, anyway--this needing to fill one's life with new stuff. All the time. Only my father is immune, having grown up with nothing and, somehow, never feeling the urge to replace the nothing with so many somethings. Do you really need more than one chair? he once asked me, when I moved into my first apartment. What does he think of all the accumulating of things that happens around him? I often wonder. Is it like Jane Goodall watching the gorillas, if their mountain habitat were littered with stacks of cardboard Amazon boxes?

Despite my mother's love of things, she's paralyzed by nice things. More specifically, she's paralyzed by the thought of ruining them. So she saves her nice things in boxes and closets and in boxes in closets for special occasions. She hides her jewelry, too, because she thinks it's too nice to wear, and because she's worried someone will burgle her house and steal all of it, though she hides it so well, she often forgets where it is.

I want to help her be less worried. I've tried casually saying, "You know there's a pill for that," but she doesn't hear me. I've tried over the years to less-casually talk to her about her fatigue, her anxiety, her chronic feelings of hopelessness and malaise, but she just laughs me off. She is very happy. She is just "a worrier." One time, when I mentioned how much therapy has helped me and wouldn't she like to try it, too, she said, I'm not crazy. Sometimes I fantasize about grinding Ativan into her tea or slipping her a pot cookie.

I encourage her to get exercise. Swim in the pool, for example. Even on a perfect summer day, she's reluctant. She maintains she can't swim the way she maintains she can't drive. She's worried she might drown inside that small oval of water. During her last visit, she claimed a current in the pool was pushing her from the shallow end where she was standing to the deep end. One time, I asked her to watch her 3 ½ year-old grandson for a minute in the pool, and she said she couldn't, because she was afraid of what might happen if he swam too deep. And I said, "Obviously, you'd pull him out of the pool." And she said, "I may have to be pulled out myself. If I try to save him, we might both drown."

Saving other people isn't her strong suit. Perhaps because she frequently pictures herself as the one needing to be saved. There's a safety pin on her keychain. The first time I noticed it, she called it her "life-saving safety pin." Sure, I thought, given my mother's inclination toward hyperbole, thinking of lost buttons and such. "If I ever have a stroke," she continued, "you have to poke a hole in each of my fingertips and draw blood." Something about releasing pressure from the brain. Something about Chinese medicine.

Later that day, while we're in the car -- my mother's car that I'm driving because she doesn't drive--she brings up the bloodletting again. "You really have to poke the finger hard," she reminds me. "My aunt did it to my uncle when he had a stroke, and it saved his life."

Then she says, "I'm not sure I could do that for somebody else though."

"You couldn't do that for someone else if they were having a stroke and dying?" I ask, incredulous.

"I don't know. I don't know if I could."

"You would have to," I insist. "If your only alternative is the person dies, you would have to do it."

"I guess so," she says.

We drive a little further when she notices my earrings. If this happened in the movie, you would think it was too on-the-nose. But that day I was wearing new earrings. They were just one of the many things I'd bought during a recent buying bender. The smell and feel of unending possibilities. And the earrings happened to be gold safety pins. I hadn't remembered I was wearing them until my mother pointed them out.

"Your earrings are safety pins?"

"Yeah. I mean, they're earrings," I say.

"So you don't need mine. You can just use those if you have to save me," she says.

And it's true. I could use the life-saving safety pins in my ears to save her, pricking each finger one by one until they bled, releasing the pressure building in my mother's brain, though I'm certain that's not really the help she needs.

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

If blogs were people, DISGRASIAN -- which Jen Wang co-founded -- would be Angry Asian Man's troublemaking little sister. You should follow her on Twitter and Facebook or she'll get her big brother to kick your ass.

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