Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Learning How to Lie to My Mother -- Again

As a teenager, I frequently lied to my parents, especially my mother.

"No, that wasn't a bag of pot you found in my jeans, Mom; that was oregano. My girlfriend and I were cooking spaghetti at her house."

"Yes, Mom, I have a girlfriend."

"No, Mom, I'm not gay!"

In my 20s, I decided not to lie anymore to my parents; it was too painful. This meant telling them I was gay. To be more precise, I told my mother but not my father. I was too chicken to tell him, too afraid of his disapproval. I figured she'd tell him anyway.

Being honest (within reason, of course) has many rewards. It deepens relationships, gives you a satisfying sense of integrity and authenticity. Over the past few years, however, I've had to forfeit those rewards. I've had to start lying to my mother again.

Ruth, my mother, has Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia (it's rarely easy to know unless you do an autopsy). She's forgotten I'm gay. And so, in almost every conversation, Ruth asks, "Do you have a girlfriend?"

I wrestled with this at first. I hate lying to her; but does it really make sense to 'come out' again to my mother, especially when she won't remember it the next time I call? So I've developed a pat answer: "Yes, Mom, I have lots of girlfriends," which is true.

"Good!," she always says.

Sometimes she'll ask if I'm ever going to get married. "I'm working on it," I lie. Truth is, Nick and I are married.

The day my sisters and I had to move Ruth into an Alzheimer's facility, she was fixated on my marital status. I decided to take it a step further that day and show her a photo of me with Natalie, one of my best 'girlfriends.' My mother was thrilled.

While I've developed some routine 'white lies' as answers, as have my sisters, Ruth still throws questions at me that I'm not prepared for. Too often, in the past, I've told her the truth, which only upset her.

My conversation with Ruth yesterday was a turning point.

I could tell at the beginning of our conversation that she was more confused than usual. "I haven't seen your father in a while, I wonder where he is?"

My father died in 1993, and in the past, I might have reminded her of that. "He's always working late," I responded, without missing a beat. "You know how hard he works."

"I think he wrote a book or something," Ruth replied.

"Yes, it's a book of his photographs, of downtown Greensboro over the years," I lied. "I'm so proud of him."

"Me too!," she answered. "I don't know where the children are either."

"I think they're upstairs, probably playing hide-and-seek," I lied.

"When are you comin' to see me?" she asked.

"I'll be there tomorrow," I lied.

And so, at long last, I was able to easily play along in this excruciatingly painful game. One thing sustained me throughout our conversation, however. With her husband still at work and her children upstairs playing, I hadn't heard my mother sound so happy in years.

Ruth and me, July 2010, Greensboro

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  1. Ah, this must be so difficult. Not to share something personal, and not always easy to deal with, with your mom....

    My son told me he was gay a week before his 18th birthday. I always knew but waited for him to reveal that part of him. We are closer because of it.....

    I will say, I think it's great you've figured out how to answer your mom's questions as best you could, under the circumstances.... It truly shows your concern for her, and her well being...... And I am sure lessens your anxiety.

  2. Heartbreaking. I'm so sorry you are having to go through this. She's a beautiful lady and lucky to have you as a son.

  3. I'm so sorry you have to go through this. Alzheimers is such a painful disease. I had a dear friend who was in a similar situation, his mother was still alive & had alzheimers & his dad had died. Every once in a while his mother would suddenly remember her beloved husband had died and it was just like the day it happened, the wound that painful and fresh, until she would forget again. It devastated my friend and his whole family.

    You were able to bring some joy to your mom by telling your little white lies, I would have done the same. You told her you were gay when she was lucid and able to decide it didn't matter to her, she loved you and you were her precious son, so lying to her now is just for her own peace, it's obvious she had no problem with it before.

  4. One Christmas we drove my Dad around the neighborhood looking at the lights. We would go down one street, he would ooh and ah, we would turn around and come back up the street again to the main road - and he would ooh and aah again as if he just saw the lights for the first time. He was like a kid in a candy store. But the long journey Alzheimer's forces patients and their families to endure affects everyone forever. You are doing a great job with your Mom.

  5. Jim,

    Thank you for sharing this most personal part of your life. I don't feel as if you're lying to your Mother. Not at all. I could never lie to my Mother. When I tried, she always knew. That is why I came out to her when I was 21 years old and she questioned why I had a married man hiding in my bathroom during one of her impromptu visits to my apartment. I too didn't tell my father directly, because I figured she would tell him. The last year or so of my Mom's life she too developed dementia (as did her two older sisters). My brothers and I had the same situation as you did. She would get our names mixed up and we would correct her. We stopped because she always felt so bad about getting our names mixed up. So when she called my brother John "Isaac" or me "John" or Isaac "Ronald", we would just say "Yes Mom." Seeing her smile and the obvious comfort it brought to her knowing that one of her sons was with her was worth the "lie." No Jim, you're not lying to your Mom. You're loving her.

  6. What a lovely story; thank you for sharing it. This is blogging at its best: personal, heartfelt, honest, and it contains an underlying message as well.

  7. You're doing the right thing! Keep it up. Trying to explain will only upset your Mother and tear out your heart.

    My mother died ten years ago after a long tussle with Alzheimer's. The last year or so we had lots of long conversations about me and what I was doing, only I was always a stranger named Gerry. She always told me about her son who was also named Gerry.

    The hardest part was figuring out the memories she was accessing. At the end she only knew my six year old daughter, her only grandchild.

  8. Your continued loving presence is what matters most. I wouldn't call what you are doing lying. You are entering your mother's world as she is and where she is. You are sharing her anxieties and helping carry the burdens. As her child, you are probably one of the few people on this earth who can do this. What you have seen is that, despite what disease takes away, what is bubbling up from your mother's core is love and concern for those near and dear to her - her children and her husband. Learn a bit from her at this point - the actual facts matter don't matter quite so much as we think they do. When are you coming to see me again? Soon. Where is your brother/sister/etc? I think they may be...

    You are doing the right thing.

  9. Will J stole the words out of my mouth. He made them sound prettier than anything I would have written. Thanks Will J.

    And James, you are a blessing.

  10. I agree with JuJu; Will J's comments are right on. Thank you all so much for your kind, wise words. They are greatly appreciated. -- Jim

  11. Alzheimer's can be a funny thing, at times. My Grandmother would always come up with stories about how she played golf the day before and won a trophy for shooting a hole in one or walked across the street to the capital of Mexico which she could see outside her window (though she was in a hospice in Orange County, CA). But you know what? Those were the days when she seemed happiest, chattering away, and the rest of us just listening and smiling, or asking more questions.

    Just being there for her and listening are helping more than you know.

  12. Jim,
    What a beautiful and touching story. What caring and insightful comments. You have me thinking about my Mom (who we lost to cancer 15 years ago) and my grandparents. Nana and Poppa had been married well over 60 years when she passed. Poppa looked and cried for her everyday that remained of his life. He died within a few months of Nana.

    Know that you everything you are doing, you are doing with love.


  13. I read this a few days ago, and it has not been far from my mind as I figured out what I wanted to say about it.

    It's a weird thing dealing with dementia. There were times when my grandfather would ask for his favorite candy--peppermint--which is something I never saw him eat until he was in the care facility but which was apparently something that he enjoyed quite a bit as a young man.

    There's this time-space continuum you enter when you open the doors to visit a family member with dementia, akin to "The Twilight Zone," and you never really know what to expect.

    With the lens of hindsight, the "episode" from that movie that is set in the nursing home called "Kick the Can" is what I like to think was happening in my grandfather's mind on "good" days: a return to a previous time (e.g., peppermints), which made him happy and he enjoyed being there. We got to the point that we brought the peppermints with us, just in case he was "there" in that place.

    What you do with your mother, Jim, is no different than the peppermints for my grandfather. You find the ways--and some are small--that you can help bring peace to your mother when you can. And in the end, that's all someone really needs or wants.

  14. There are two things that struck me about this post. 1) The absolute love you have for your mother and 2) How injust it is that we live in a world where it is painful for a parent to hear that their child is gay. You are doing the right thing for your mother. Hopefully the world will do the right thing by us.

  15. It takes a whole new meaning on family when a member is diagnosed. My mother as well has some sort of memory erasing disease. At first she was horrible and then they put her on a patch, which really helped, but as I sat down I realized.. we're going to have to go through this again. Slowly she moves away from us, right now she repeats stories within minutes. She forgets who some of us are by name but knows are faces.

    I to have gone to just allowing her to believe what she wants. I try to be honest but she will continue to ask until she gets her desired answer. I just answer her as to how she keeps asking for the answer.

    Where does your boyfriend work? I explain, she says ooo at the Police Dept, no, again I repeat where he works.. she again says at the PD, I then says, yes, yes mom he works with me at the PD. She is then satisfied.

    I'm not sure what else to do except make sure she is comfortable in mind body and spirit. She'll figure it all out in the end and prayerfully she'll believe I did it for the best.

    Best to you Jim and your journey with your mom!

  16. my mother had alzheimers, and the last two years of her life she never was able to say my name. but i could tell that she knew who i was. i remember that i took her a hairbrush and lipstick once shortly after she had gone into a home, and i watched her, an 84 year old woman with an old woman's face, brush her hair and apply lipstick as if she were a 20 year old debutante. she pursed her lips and looked at herself at different angles, and i thought to myself that i didn't know what she was seeing, but it seems to be beautiful. i was glad that she was not able to see what she really looked like.

    it is my experience that alzheimers is not as bad for the sufferer as it is for the loved ones. except, of course, for the period of time when one is descending into it. after the descention, though, there is, as many people have commented, a kind of youthful glory that occurs where one is young and vibrant again. that is not the only way it can go, but i have to admit that as side effects go, it is not a bad one. your mother was happy to "know" where her family was. that was the greatest gift you could give her. the feeling that she is still a mother and a wife--clearly the roles that have meant the most to her. you did what any good son would do. you did what i would have done. -tony