Just before Christmas, my uncle committed suicide. My grandmother, Obachan, who lived with him, found him hanging. The last time I saw him, he looked like a beaten man. I later found out that he had attempted it before, while my grandmother was visiting relatives in Japan. His wife didn’t tell us about it. She had left him. He faced financial problems. He drank a lot. He was visibly depressed. Obachan, to this day, has not discussed the fact that he killed himself. It is supposed to be a secret.
As we packed up my grandmother’s belongings we found a little notebook with notes to his wife, his children, and his mother, written presumably during his previous attempt. He said he loved them, that he was tired, and that he was sorry. My mom told me a few years ago that he had begged her to take Obachan so that he could work on his marriage. She refused.
My grandmother had to move to Colorado to live with my mother, about whom I have written before. Mom left my sister and me with my father when we were kids. My father had been battling cancer for years when she left. Eventually he died due to complications from it. She didn’t come to the funeral. She didn’t come to claim me or my sister. We didn’t see her for years after…we rarely see her now. Our kids barely know her.
I love my mother, but I think it is an automatic love-something programmed into me because she gave birth to me, nursed me, and kept me alive when I was helpless. It is obligatory and painful. Our relationship consists of phone calls during which I listen to her talk about her life. She married my step-father shortly after leaving, and had my two brothers, whom she managed to raise to adulthood, thank goodness. Mom talks about them, their accomplishments and failures, her own trials and tribulations…I listen.
My sister and I have accepted that mom is incapable of empathy. We suspect she is a narcissist. When all of this happened she lamented to me, “if only I hadn’t married your father, my parents wouldn’t have ever moved to this country and your uncle wouldn’t have met his wife, and none of this would have ever happened.”
Our children know that Grandma is not the doting type. She doesn’t send gifts or visit or call them. She doesn’t keep photos of them in her wallet (or smartphone). She is ill-equipped to give comfort and sympathy to the grieving in more than a superficial manner. This brings us to the plight of Obachan…
Mom calls to complain about Obachan nearly every day. She’s not eating, she is locked in her room, she cries all the time, she is miserable here. No shit, she found her only son hanging. Her daughter is a sociopath. She wants to go home. There is no home to go to. The home is in foreclosure. It turns out that my uncle used my grandmother’s credit to purchase cars, pay bills, pay for his estranged wife’s bills, his kids’ car insurance, the list goes on. My grandmother is in serious debt that she knew nothing about. At 87 years of age, she will never pay it all off. She has been betrayed by her son in so many ways, and now her daughter wants to be rid of her. Mom says my step father didn’t sign up for taking care of her mother (or the two kids she had previously).
Unless my sister or I take her in, mom says she will allow her to go to the daughter of my uncle-my cousin who went to jail for stealing thousands from my grandmother’s bank account. Who, incidentally, would have avoided prosecution if she had told Obachan the truth. Since she denied the theft, they reported it to police, who witnessed the video of her withdrawing the money from an ATM. This genius cousin raises only one of her four children, the baby. Her pattern is to love the babies, then give them up when they are older and more annoying. I suspect she has a problem with drugs. I know for a fact that she can’t take care of her own children, let alone my grandmother-something my mother knows as well.
Obachan took care of my sister and me when we were little. When one of us had a bad dream or fell down and skinned a knee, Obachan was the one who gave us kisses and Band-Aids. She cooked delicious meals and and sewed our dresses and cooed over our artwork. She also took care of my uncle’s children and their children until they no longer had need of her. There are three people in my family who loved my sister and me unconditionally; two of them are dead, the other is Obachan.
My children love her dearly and endure her endless fussing over them, though it sometimes embarrasses them. She tells cashiers and passersby on the street that these are her “grand-grand children.” They are fascinated by her, this link to their Japanese heritage. She makes quilts and aprons and knits doilies for everything. She has a supernatural green thumb, able to take a little tiny snip of a stem and grow it into a tree. She saves every scrap of food, down to the crusts of toast, because she can’t bear waste. She is annoying, nosy, bossy, and weird, but we love her.
I live in an 1100 square foot house with more people and pets than I have rooms. When my mother in law had to live with us for seven months, she stayed in our living room on a hospital bed, which drove us all crazy. It was traumatic for my children and really untenable as a permanent solution. My sister is in a similar situation. I could finish a room in my basement or my sister could find a bigger apartment, but neither of us have the resources for either of those things at present. My mother, whose home is nearly 5000 square feet and who subsists on six figures, can’t seem to find a way to help. Her struggle is real.
I am overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for a person who is near the end of her lifetime. I am already overwhelmed by my other responsibilities. I recently had a hysterectomy, which depleted my sick leave. I juggle weekly doctor’s appointments for the many issues that my children face, trying not to let it interfere with work. My day is full from dawn until my weary head hits my pillow. What happens when my grandmother comes to stay? I think she is clinically depressed, but the language and cultural barriers make it difficult to find help for her. I communicate with her with a mixture of Japanese, English, and hand gestures. Usually, we both reach the point of fuck it, never mind.
The way that my mother seems to think we should take care of Obachan, without regard for the impact on our finances, our marriages, or our children, shouldn’t shock me. I tried to explain the obstacles. Her response: “then tell her you don’t want her.”
My uncle’s suicide hit my eldest daughter pretty hard. We weren’t close to him, but he was always nice to the kids when we saw him. When my daughter saw him in the casket, his death became real to her. Obachan’s pain was hard for her to witness. She began to think of losing her own parents and loved ones. She struggles with depression herself, as do many of us on both sides of her family. She began to think, what if I ever get that hopeless? She has been in counseling over this and other things going on in her life.
Will taking on the care of another person further diminish my capacity to take care of my own children, who need me now more than ever? Will it affect my marriage adversely? Will the stress be too much to bear? Do we have a choice here? What is the right thing to do? My Christian friends would say that God gives us no more than we can handle, but I don’t believe that. We handle things until we can’t, as my uncle so sadly illustrates.
I believe our only option is to figure out a way to take care of her. How can we not, when mom would allow her to go into a potentially abusive and unhealthy situation? My sister and I are going to work together to figure it out. OUR husbands, thankfully, take seriously the vow of “for better, for worse.” I can’t help but think that when the time comes, my mother will also expect us to take care of her. What will I do then?