my mother, my country
by nikki meredith
I had my teeth cleaned last week and while my mouth was rendered unusable by me, the dental hygienist started talking about her husband. He works for a Bay Area police department and had just returned from some kind of law enforcement conference in Florida. At one point her conversation veered to the political and I held my breath or as much as I could hold my breath with someone’s hands in my mouth. I braced myself for a right wing rant. But that’s not what happened. She said when her husband returned home from his trip, he walked in the door and flopped down the living room couch. He looked at her and said, “I don’t recognize this country any more.”
While he was in Florida he saw campaign signs – apparently many of them – that freely, openly and unapologetically, used the n word in their anger-relled declarations.
“Can you imagine,” she said to me, “what it must be like for African- Americans to drive around and see those signs?”
On my drive home I thought about those signs and I thought about my mother. Before she died, she developed multi-infarct dementia. It started out as mild paranoia, moved onto to not-so-mild anger, and, finally, rage and bad behavior. My parents’ marriage of 50 years, a vibrant union of joys and sorrows, conflict and friendship, a finely-tuned system of checks and balances, unraveled. In the early phase when she could fake rationality, she did almost irreparable damage to their estate. And when she could no longer wage war verbally, she started to act out physically. For a while it seemed that she was losing faculties in the order she had once developed them – it was like watching socialization in reverse. Her beliefs in racial equality and social justice were vanishing along with her judgment.
My father came home one day to find that she had started a fire on the floor of the kitchen. She was burning years of my father’s canceled checks because she believed that his modest yearly contributions to causes – civil liberties, environmental, social justice – was depleting their savings and endangering their future. As upsetting as that was – I was now worried about my father’s safety – for me the most disturbing and confusing manifestation of her dementia was her bald-faced bigotry. Overnight, or so it seemed, my mother, a resourceful social worker who had devoted her life to working with abused and neglected kids, most of them from the inner city, became unrecognizable. When I was growing up, many Sundays when most of her friends were sleeping in, she visited Black churches, seeking families with whom she could place those kids. And she found them. Lots of them. She was so successful, the county of Los Angeles carved out a county-wide position for her so she could train other social workers to do the same. In the new version of herself, when we tried to hire people of color to help with cooking and cleaning, the vitriol that came out of her mouth made me want to kill her. And it wasn’t only African Americans. This woman who had traveled all over world, with curiosity and verve, started to be fearful of all outsiders.
Trying to support my father while still negotiating my own relationship with my mother was taking its toll and I was barely able to manage life with my own husband and kids. A friend talked me into seeing her shrink.
The first time I saw him – a wise, affable man with kind eyes — I recited the list of incidents. I explained the contrast between who she’d been and who she’d become. Who was she, really? Had her best self been a veneer?
Finally, when I had exhausted the list and exhausted myself reciting it, the psychiatrist looked at me and said he got the picture: “The lid is off,” he said.
I now understand the full extent of my fear about this election. The parallels between my mother’s dementia and what’s happening to this country are striking. There’s hardly an issue that I faced with her that isn’t an issue, writ large. Not only has racism and hatred of “the other” been unleashed and violence threatened, my confidence that the country has enough checks and balances to contain these primitive outpourings has been shaken to the core.
What’s happening now is no less painful than watching my mother regress 25 years ago and the consequences are much more terrifying.
The lid, indeed, is off.