Arguing with Mom


Mom wants to argue.

It’s something we do.

We don’t fight, just debate issues.

She is ninety-two and at sixty-two, I am still her baby boy. 

As for what she wants to argue about with me this time, it isn’t small potatoes. No, she wants the end to all wars and for cows to no longer be forced to lactate their entire lives. We should drink water and leave the cows be according to Mom.

And another thing… the real problem, as Tolstoy pointed out in his short story Master and Man, is that mankind is separated by class, and this is so wrong.

But let’s not forget economics. Income inequality is a big problem, but then, so is a meddlesome government. Further, she wants to know if I’m aware that women are struggling with a glass ceiling, and isn’t it sad there have to be so many two-income households? When I grew up, we just needed one. She agrees with Milton Freeman and John Kenneth Galbraith and wants to know if I’ve read them, lately. Supply-side and Keynesian economic theories are both mostly correct, Mom says, but also wrong in that they don’t agree about much of anything. Mom thinks they should find ways to get along. And did I mention? Stop all the wars.

So welcome to one of my arguments with Mom. They are a smorgasbord of rabbit-trail-possibilities. All of the above pops out in a matter of about ten minutes. This isn’t at all new (except for the cow problem) to the two of us. We have been engaging in these sorts of discussions for as long as I can remember. It’s part of the culture I grew up in, that of two parents who believed education is the solution to all significant problems and world-issue discussions are an important family bonding activity.

This past weekend I flew from Texas to see Mom in Alabama where she is living with my brother and sister-in-law in a downstairs room beautified and adapted to meet a nonagenarian’s special needs. In it, along with a single bed, a couch and comfortable chair, are her large bookshelves, massive against the back wall and filled with her books. She has read most all of them, and some a number of times. And on her walls are familiar paintings, collected over decades of world travels. They are witnesses to times that have now receded into the fairly distant past; times when Dad was still alive and healthy.

Mom and I talk on the phone once a week on Sundays. She wants to know how I am doing and also what I think about things happening in the news. Usually she will take some controversial position on something just to keep things interesting. But the last time I saw Mom was over a year before. I was prepared to accept that she would be a bit older, but not much. I also thought she would be in the car when my brother came to pick me up at the airport. This was the plan until about ninety minutes before my arrival. Dan informed me that things had recently changed, evidently starting about a week before with an incident at the swimming pool where she had, up to that point, been exercising a few times a week. Until just a few years ago she was swimming laps. Now she basically floats and moves her limbs. Nothing wrong with this at the age of ninety-two, but something irreversible apparently occurred this last time. If I understand the story correctly, while sitting on a bench near the pool she began to stare and for a brief moment became unresponsive. This scared my cousin who was with her and she summoned help. By the time Mom had become a fitness center emergency with personnel beginning to swarm, she snapped out of it and became very upset over all the fuss. Nothing was wrong she insisted at the time. Days later, however Mom began to realize that there were things beginning to go wrong.

When I was twenty and she fifty, I thought the purpose of our debates was to find solutions and to out-argue the other. Over time, however, I have come to understand that Mom just loves stimulating talk. It’s much more interesting to her than talking about food, fashion or the weather. And on this, I happen to agree with her. My ex-wife, on the other hand, never understood this arguing thing about either of us. She believes that arguments are a sign there is something wrong with a relationship.  Sadly, she and I are no longer together, and I happen to believe it is due, in large part, to the fact we could never find healthy ways to work through our disagreements. We never argued well.

With Mom and me, usually nothing ever really gets “fixed.” Instead our discussions come to an end when our time together comes to an end and we kiss goodbye. We are both sad we have to part but frankly take strange comfort in knowing another argument will be waiting for us just around the next corner. 

But this time things are a bit different. The once strong, energetic, uniquely original, opinionated and fiercely loving mother I have known, loved and argued with my whole life has become small and frail to the point that she now struggles with just standing, sitting, and lifting the weight off one leg and transferring it to the other.

Of course, at rest, her sharp mind is ready for a good discussion of world issues and so she starts in with the list I gave above. But now, as I clearly see and begin to appreciate the depth of her struggles, it adversely affects my debate performance. Her weakness is adding weight to her words and I find myself agreeing with her. She wants to be relevant to an uncaring and disinterested world, but in truth she will likely only be relevant to those of us who know her best and love her most. I think the world is missing out. In spite of the fact there is no fight in me today, I know I must at least try to carry my weight but all I can say is that it isn’t likely the world will suddenly see the light and change. Honestly, at a global level, there is nothing she or I can really do about any of these matters. Of course, my weak response doesn’t appease her, but all I end up doing is softening and agreeing with her passionate desires that the world would become a nicer place.

So today, Mom finally wins the argument. And beneath what is spoken, but what both of us can clearly see, is that our arguments are soon to come to an end, and that just it isn’t fair.

With the argument over, we turned to what became our best diversion throughout the weekend. We played SkipBo. She loves this game and is good at it. It’s a typical card game with its clever balance between luck and skill. It provides options, decision points, and ultimately, whether you win or lose, there is always time for one more hand. In SkipBo we are equals and our win/loss record is fairly even. So if the world won’t listen to our logic and stop all the hate, at least we can play another hand of SkipBo. 

Finally Sunday morning arrives. After showering and dressing I come into my brother’s family room where I find him sitting on a couch watching a rerun of Law and Order. He tells me he was up in the night because he heard Mom coughing through the intercom. He needed to make sure that what he heard was just a cough and not, as my sister-in-law, Madeline, thought, the sound of her falling out of bed. 

As I sit down next to him on the couch with my bowl of Cheerios, he tells me once again that things have changed. This is all new territory. He looks concerned. 

Then Mom appears before us winded from having climbed the stairs from her bedroom and declares, “Take me to a convalescent hospital. I can’t do this anymore.” 

So I help her to the kitchen table, pour her some cereal and start the peeling of her tangerine. As she eats we all talk about options, to include part time help, moving her upstairs and massive shower modifications in one of the bathrooms. Finally, we all agree with Mom that she needs to have a level of care none of us can provide. Dan and Maddy will take her after I am dropped at the airport, to the ER of a geriatric hospital. In this way, she can have a medical assessment in order to determine the level of care she will need. In addition, her primary physician, a geriatric specialist, works out of this particular hospital. 

With plans settled, Dan and Maddy go off to get ready, leaving the two of us alone together at the kitchen table trying hard not to think too deeply about implications. 

So, I ask, “Wanna play SkipBo?”

She brightens, says yes, and I get out the cards. 

It turns out to be a really tough game. Both of us get bogged down in the middle not getting the cards we need which then creates problems with cards previously discarded becoming unplayable as other cards are discarded on top of them. 

Mom actually gets into a worse predicament than me. Although we can both see cards in the piles in front of her that would be great to play, they have been locked out. But Mom, true to her nature, soldiers on.

Finally Dan returns and sees where things are in the game and begins helping Mom. With this little encouragement she begins gaining traction. I too start getting a few lucky breaks and it all comes down to the wire.

Mom, having really pulled from behind, wins our last SkipBo and we all laugh and celebrate. 

Getting out at the airport curb, I open the front passenger door and kiss Mom goodbye. We each tell the other of our love. No arguments there. I close the door and walk quickly into the terminal. 

I have come to the conclusion that the entire continuum of time does not contain what would be necessary to ever say a proper goodbye to someone we love. So it isn’t something you or I will ever be able to get right or do well. Endings are just miserable unnatural things. In fact, I don’t think our lives were ever meant for goodbyes any more than they were meant for wars. And this is why I cling to a hope in a good God who will fix all the problems of this world Mom and I never could by bringing us into a new one, where she and I can keep playing SkipBo and cows go free.