The shape of me


DECEMBER 25, 2022 8:00 AM

I watch as my mother inches forward in her recliner as she readies herself to stand.

She pauses and looks at me, “Beth Ann, do me one favor before I die, would you?”

“Of course, Mom, what is it?”

She wags her bony index finger in my direction and says, “Just once. Comb your hair.”

I get up and leave the room.

A few minutes later, I return, and she is pushing herself up to a standing position. She grips the arms of the walker and tells me she doesn’t need my help, even though I have not offered it. She begrudgingly uses this walker when either my brother or I are nearby. She laughed at him when he threatened to throw her cane out into the pasture one day. She knew that even he didn’t have the moxie to do that.

At 87, a lifetime of osteoarthritis has corroded her joints. She accepts this fact as simply as the natural consequence of a life of hard work. Years before I encouraged a consultation with an osteopathic surgeon regarding a hip and knee replacement. She refused to go, stating that she’d prefer to die with all her original parts in their rightful places.

I couldn’t make her go to that surgeon. My father and my brother couldn’t make her go. No one had ever been able to make her do anything she didn’t want to. My mother has traveled at her own pace and on her own terms her entire life. Even now as her body deteriorates, she does it her way.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve admired and detested my mother’s strength of will in equal measure. Her willpower has kept her going and now it’s beginning to seem that it’s what will also bring her down. How am I supposed to protect her against herself?

Out of a combination of practicality and guilt, I just keep buying products. On more than one shopping excursion, I’ve annoyed Mr. Dick, the owner of Dick’s Home and Health Care, with multiple questions about assistive devices: a tray for her walker; a second walker with wheels; a toilet seat riser with attached arms; no-rinse shampoo caps; long-handled grabbers; a skin foam that is both cleanser and moisturizer, a hand-held bidet; and lift recliner chairs she can sleep in. I believe I have helped keep Mr. Dick in business even though Mom has rejected many of these products. My brother laughs every time he sees something new appear in her house.

Her eyesight is as keen as ever. She can still spot a speck of dirt on the floor at twenty paces, demanding I pick it up. She tells me how she prefers the towels folded and makes me re-do them to her specifications. She has tried to shape me into her own considerable image — one concerned mostly with the sensory details of a domestic lifestyle — careful attention to cleanliness and orderliness. Her neighbor used to joke that you could eat dinner off Mary’s kitchen floor. She established an act I could not follow and still can’t even though I, now well into my own middle age, believe I’ve done pretty well. I’m not sure she would agree, given her opinion of how I comb my hair.

Her body might be failing but her opinions are not.

They seem to me pointless and unimportant. From my vantage point, she has lived a very small and narrow life. She was mostly concerned only with her little corner of the world, making it as comfortable and tidy as she possibly could. I yearned for a larger, messier world. She never saw the need to leave home. I never saw the need to stay home.

Her stubbornness may well inevitably be her downfall. She only agrees to minimal help in her daily life, choosing to live alone and demanding that we abide by her wishes. As my brother likes to say, it’s not a matter of if she falls, it’s only a matter of when. He accepts this truth more readily than I do. He is much more like her than I am, after all.

Regardless of her age or condition, she’s still my mother. This is her final chapter. How does she feel about that? I ask, because I really want to know. But she avoids my questions, instead focusing on the dishes being washed and the removal of grime in the windowsills. She tells me how to complete these jobs and then corrects me when I do them improperly, according to her. She is consistent in her criticisms and I live up to them.

This mixed bag of affection and disapproval has shaped me. As I watch her slowly and painfully walk back to her chair, I glance at myself in the mirror by her front door. My curly gray hair is unruly. My mother is correct, I have not combed it.

I don’t plan to anytime soon.

Beth McLaughlin is a writer and narrative coach. She thrives on helping others uncover and tell their stories. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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