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Luskin: An Uncertain Future

01/09/12 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) As the new year gets underway, commentator and child of aging parents, Deborah Luskin, feels like she’s suddenly standing on a fault line between a familiar past and an uncertain future.

(Luskin) Twenty years ago, my friends and I commiserated about the effort of raising our kids. Now we talk about caring for our aging parents. Just last year, I sat mute and even a little smug as I listened to two colleagues describe the difficulties of caring long-distance for surviving parents – one a widow, one a widower – both in their nineties.

At that time, my parents were eighty-five and still seemed well enough to drive us kids crazy. They insisted on flying to California for a staged reading of my younger brother’s play; they witnessed their great-granddaughter’s baby-naming; and they nodded off during the commencement address of a granddaughter’s college graduation.

My parents were not aware of all the behind-the-scenes planning that made these outings possible. And while my brothers and I executed the plans in our continuing efforts to be good children, we also complained to each other about things we couldn’t say to our folks, like pointing out how much of their weekend in California they spent sleeping, including during the performance, or how badly they were both dressed.

For my father to dress poorly was hardly remarkable, but even he was setting the bar at a new low. For my mother to dress badly was not just new but alarming. She still had a closet of designer labels – all bought at a discount, she’d always brag. Now she was wearing mismatched outfits that were invariably stained. Only with hindsight do I realize she must have stopped telling my father what to wear. Only with hindsight do I realize how well my parents were hiding my mother’s mental decline – and how willing we kids were to let them.

My Mom’s the one who kept in touch by phone, and when she forgot how to dial my dad placed the calls for her. He covered for her, so we were slow to catch on that Mom could no longer work the answering machine or reply to email. Once we figured that out, we started visiting more.

It was a few hours into one of these visits when my mom smiled at me and asked with luminous social grace, “And tell me, how are you related?”

I took her hand and fought to smile back. “I’m your daughter,” I said.

"And for how long?" she asked, as if I were telling her about an interesting hobby.

“All my life,” I said, and repeated my birth story, as she’d so often told it to me. She was genuinely charmed to learn that I’d lived in the same places she had, and that I knew the family dog.

At first, my brothers and I were astonished at how quickly my mother’s dementia seemed to have overtaken her. But now I think we were simply as willing to be deceived as my parents were eager to have us believe the fiction that everything was still just fine.
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