On Friday, as I was anxiously counting down the final moments of this dismal year, I got the news from my husband that Betty White had died. “Really?!” I asked, while already fully believing it was true… After all, I was well aware that people were looking forward to her 100th birthday in a couple of weeks, and it’s really not a stretch to wrap your head around a 99-year-old dying rather suddenly.
My next thought was, “Well, that’s just apropos for 2021. Another good and positive force in the universe…dead.”
The previous day, I had been visiting another Betty—my 94-year-old mother—in her memory care unit, where she’s been since the pandemic first started. (Her memory had been waning for a period of time before we were able to forcibly move her from her assisted living apartment to memory care in 2020. I can’t tell you how lucky we were to get her into a care unit immediately prior to everything locking down.)
On the day I visited Betty G. (aka Mom), her dementia had her very confused and weepy. Her younger sister (her only sibling) had died a couple of weeks earlier, and she remembered that loss and was feeling it acutely. Since my dad died in 2017, she’s lost numerous other loved ones of her generation, and the few that remain are mostly incapacitated in memory care units and nursing homes, unable to visit with an old friend who would greatly benefit from it.
As my mom sobbed on my shoulder, I hugged her and told her that she was okay. I told her she was safe and cared for in her apartment and that even if she didn’t remember our visits, we were visiting her regularly. I reminded her that she had spent Christmas Eve with me and my family and Christmas Day with my brother and that we would continue to see her and take care of her. Over and over, she thanked me for being a good daughter and told me how much she loves me.
This may not seem that remarkable, but it really is. If you’ve followed my family saga (and unfortunately anyone who has had to interact with me over the last 10 years has heard versions of it), you’d know that we’ve gone through hell and back with our aging parents. I first wrote about this here in 2013. As my dad’s dementia progressed, we wanted my parents to downsize and move from their house to an assisted living community where my mom would have help caring for my dad. She flat out refused. Over and over again. We tried hiring in-home care. She fired them. To say this put a strain on our relationship is an understatement. It felt like we were at war.
After numerous health emergencies, we finally had an intervention with my mother (and got a social worker to moderate the discussion). This is referred to in our family as the “Ill-Fated Meeting” or IFM for short. It ended with my mom basically telling us kids to all go to hell, that she regretting having us and didn’t care if she ever saw us again. I’m not exaggerating. She hit us. She spit at us. I had never seen anything like it. She more or less told us that we were irrelevant, that she valued her possessions more than her relationship with her children, she didn’t care about the impact her behavior had on the rest of us, ad nauseam.
Afterward, in shock, my disowned siblings and I went to the local bar and consoled each other while dredging up the worst memories from our childhood. My mom had always been a very controlling person while raising us, and we all had our personal issues with her. For me, it was lack of support in me wanting to go to college and a very outdated view on women’s roles. Her only aspirations for me were to get married and have kids. She would have supported me becoming a “stewardess” for a short career before marriage (but only because she thought that was a glamorous occupation and was hoping for some travel benefits).
Anyone who knows me will laugh at the image of Stormy as a flight attendant (so much for the “friendly skies”). However, I was lucky compared to my older sibs who experienced an even more domineering parent. My sister can tell you about a Battle Royale that erupted over addressing envelopes, for example. By the time my younger brother and I were teens (numbers 8 & 9), my mother had nearly “given up” on child-rearing, so we had considerably more freedom than the older kids.
After the IFM, my dad’s health continued to deteriorate. With each hospitalization, we’d try to get the hospital to intervene and require that he be released to a care facility. They had a note in his medical record that my mom’s insistence on caring for my dad alone was bordering on “elder abuse,” but we were helpless to change it without going to court and claiming her incompetent. Finally, after a terrible 91st birthday in which my weakened father fell multiple times, we kids hired an ambulance to transport my dad to a nearby senior facility and had him admitted to hospice. We drove my mom over to be with him—with no intention of letting her return to their home.
This was in December of 2017. Dad went straight into hospice and we moved my mother—completely against her will—into an assisted living (AL) unit. We had given her a week’s notice to prepare, but she must not have believed we’d actually defy her because she didn’t pack a single thing. Since she refused to cooperate with us, we decided which of her belongings to move with her. (And believe me, deciding what items from to move from a three-bedroom house stuffed with 70 years of accumulation was no easy task). We didn’t move her car along with her. Having seen her vulnerability to scams and increasing confusion around how to use her computer, we didn’t let her have that either.
My mom was furious. She threatened to call the cops. She threatened to call a lawyer. We told her that there was nothing legally stopping her from moving herself back home, knowing that she didn’t have the mental wherewithal to pick up the phone and coordinate such a move. It was basically every senior’s worst nightmare of their children dictating their future, and we didn’t want it to be that way. We literally had no other options.
My dad was in hospice for two weeks before he died of congestive heart failure. My mother was devastated. They had been married for 70 years and had met as teenagers. My dad was a wonderful man. Her loss (and our loss) was profound.
For approximately two more years, my mom lived unhappily in her AL apartment. We would visit her, but the visits would often devolve into screaming matches with her insisting that she wanted to move back home. Her memories were completely distorted. She couldn’t recall any of my dad’s falls or hospitalizations, or her own hospitalizations for that matter. She didn’t recall the years of us begging her to choose a senior apartment, so we wouldn’t be forced into doing what we ultimately were forced to do. In that stage of her early dementia, her recollection was that she and my dad were doing just fine living on their own and were blissfully happy until her terrible children intervened with the intention of taking control and running off with all their stuff.
An aside on that: My parent were solidly middle class people raising nine children. They couldn’t afford to send any of us to college. They had no valuable possessions that we were waiting to get our hands on. Cleaning out the house was a painful process that took us over a year to complete because we were so disheartened and depressed about the situation. We each took a few items that were sentimental or useful (you can never have too much Corningware in my book), but if my mother knew how many truckloads of her valued possessions ended up at Goodwill or in a dumpster, she would have been appalled.
As my mother’s dementia continued to progress, we had to forcibly move her again into memory care (with more threatening to call the cops on us, etc.). Due to these experiences and the resulting strained relationship with her kids, half of my siblings don’t visit with her on a regular basis. Yet, she has no recollection of all this ill will and their negligence is breaking her heart.
Well, you’re probably thinking, this Betty story is depressing as hell. What’s Stormy’s point?
Here it is. We all get to choose which “Betty” we want to be.
Watching various tributes and retrospectives of Betty White’s life, a few themes emerged as to what made her so beloved. Granted, she had a phenomenally long and successful career, but that’s not why so many are celebrating her life. Instead, it’s because:
- Betty White lived, right up until the point where she died. This is no small feat. My mom has mostly given up and is literally counting down the hours until her death. Although she has some crazy longevity in her family and triple-digits are not out of the question, I doubt she’ll make it another year simply because her will is gone.
- Betty White kept a positive attitude. She had sorrow in her life, but chose to look on the bright side and embrace living while she could. My mother now tries to be pleasant and to take her situation in stride. She regularly tells me that she thinks she’s in a nice apartment and that the caregivers are very nice (which is a big improvement from earlier when she referred to it as “a fancy prison”). Unfortunately, it’s hard
- Betty White had a great sense of humor. She wasn’t afraid to look silly or undignified if it could make someone laugh. She knew that humor isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for coping with this ludicrous world. My parents both had good senses of humor (that comes with raising nine kids, I guess), and it makes me smile when my mom is able to crack a joke, despite her situation.
- Betty White wasn’t afraid of the future, she was realistic about her aging and made necessary accommodations but continued to be curious and optimistic about the world. My mother was in denial about the fact that she and my dad were aging and couldn’t continue to do the things they had always been able to do on their own. She thought her kids were out to get her for suggesting that they prepare for their old age. It’s not uncommon for older people to look with confusion and disdain on new technology and changing attitudes and think “the world is going to hell in a handbasket.” My mom is firmly in that camp and, as a consequence, is anxious to leave this world (the source of so much frustration and pain) behind.
- Betty White was an advocate for those without a voice. Whether standing up to racism, embracing the LGBTQ community or tirelessly working for animal rights, she understood that the best way to endure the tragedies of this world is by working to eliminate injustice. My mother volunteered in many ways when her kids were young and has a strong sense of justice. I think her influence led to me wanting to adopt Blossom. Unfortunately, both she and my dad had an old-school view of retirement—it was all about playing golf and having fun. Later, her sense of purpose came from caring for my dad. However, that also caused her to withdraw from the world and left a huge void after his death.
- Betty White made friends across all age groups and walks of life. Even after her husband and childhood friends were all gone, there were still plenty of people (and animals) to bring joy to her last few years. My parents gravitated toward a senior trailer park in Florida, where they hung out with their lifelong friends. They were away from the family for half of the year and never became that close with their many (30) grandchildren or great-grandchildren. My mom constantly grieves the losses of her childhood friends, parents, sister and my dad. She has only her children as companions and mourns the ones she doesn’t see regularly. It’s a sad existence, particularly at times like these when her senior community is experiencing a Coronavirus outbreak, and I’m not allowed to visit.
I have a habit of looking both backwards and ahead this time of year, and I want to end this blog on a more upbeat note. There’s a silver lining in this story, and that’s my personal relationship with my mom. For many years—about a decade—I was so stressed over the situation with my parents/mom and so exhausted from the fighting that I was secretly wishing it would end (and could only envision one possible ending). Yet I knew that my overwhelming feeling, upon learning of my mother’s death, would be one of relief. And that realization made me feel terrible.
Fortunately, as my mother’s dementia has progressed, she has reverted into the more nuanced person I knew growing up. She’s still not perfect, but she’s SO MUCH better (and nicer to me) than in the days of the Ill-Fated Meeting. (In fact, I may be the only child in this world who is actually grateful for her parent’s Alzheimer’s.) These days, she no longer accuses me of lying or gaslighting her when I recall something that she’s managed to block out or simply doesn’t remember. She’s incredibly thankful for my visits and tells me over and over how much she appreciates me and loves me. She now gives me hugs and kisses every time I see her. (I’ll confess that, as one of nine kids, I NEVER got as much parental affection or attention as I would have liked from my mother. It just wasn’t her style. My dad was the affectionate parent, which is part of why losing him was such a tremendous loss.)
What’s tragic, though, is that she often laments her plight—saying, “I never thought I’d end up this way.” This is ironic because we kids not only saw it coming (as though it were an out-of-control locomotive barreling down the tracks), but we TOLD her (multiple times!) this is what would happen if she didn’t work with us to make arrangements for later in life.
So the silver lining that I mentioned is this: Now, when my mother finally does pass away (and I’d be surprised if she makes it to another new year), I know my feelings will be different than five years ago. I think I’ll still feel some relief, and reassurance that she’s with my dad and no longer sad and frightened, but I know this: I will miss her as well.
Looking back on the last, most difficult, decade with her, I now have a different perspective. I believe my mom was under an enormous strain caring for my dad, but as part of the “Greatest Generation” was committed to taking it all on herself. I also believe she was seeing evidence of her own forgetfulness and was terrified about losing control. And she projected so much anger on us kids that I just couldn’t see past it. We should have done more to help her, despite her refusal and her protests. I actually wish we had forcibly moved them earlier than we did, so that she and my dad could have had additional care and some higher quality time together during their last few years of marriage.
In cleaning out my parents’ house and belongings, it also became apparent to me that my mom had some significant undiagnosed mental health issues her whole life (ADD/OCD/depression and who knows what else). Again, mental health wasn’t something people of her generation talked about. You were just expected to cope the best you could. Given these challenges, I think she really tried to do her best in raising us, even if we feel like she sometimes fell short. Raising nine competent kids is an incredible feat.
So, my hope with this New Year’s blog is to get you to think a little about your own future. Some of you may be nearing retirement, some of you are just starting to raise kids, some of you may have horrible relationships with your aging parents and feel alone in that. (I assure you, you’re not.) What do you want your future to look like?
I’ve inherited some of my worst traits from my mom. Like her, I can be very critical. Like her, I have a sharp tongue” and often say things I regret. But over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about which “Betty” I want to be, and I encourage you to do the same.
I will continue to love and honor Betty G. and make her last days as pleasant as I can. But for my own future, I’m choosing to be like Betty White.