I was sifting through the mail on the counter, and while I have grown accustomed to seeing several items for "Marlene Venuti", this one caught me off guard...
She has not commandeered the entire household, and we've lived here twenty years! The "who" of Marlene has a simple answer in that she is Jeff's mother, but her reality, like most people's, is much more complex than that. The "why" of Marlene, and her place in my home on a figurative level, has the same sort of layers. The most basic explanation is that I inherited Marlene when Jeff passed away in 2018. I met her roughly three weeks before Jeff died. I rarely say the words "Jeff died" in part probably because I don't want to fully accept it, but also because someone that vibrant and so much larger than life never really does. Anyhow, a couple of us went to see her to share the news that her son's condition was worsening and would not be getting better. She was then promptly brought to the hospital to visit him.
I did not see Marlene much over the next few weeks, as we were typically on different visitation shifts. The day after Jeff's passing, I found myself across from Marlene at the funeral home planning his services. I had spent so much of the prior year planning, or at least hoping, for his recovery. Our trips to Dana Farber had brought us so incredibly close together, but it felt like I was a complete stranger to pretty much the rest of Jeff's life. People from various parts of Jeff's circle were incredibly kind to me and expressed such gratitude for all I had done. I felt uncomfortable, like some kind of fraud, because no matter what I had done, Jeff was gone. At the services, Marlene addressed my husband and children with lovely words about me, echoing them again when I introduced her to my mother. I figured those closest to me would recognize her grief talking and pay no mind.
Jeff's "Boston Boys" doted on her at the luncheon following the services...
...and as kind and welcoming as they had all been to me, I felt I owed it to them as well to look after her. I knew Marlene could be needy and had a tendency to lean towards dramatic, but I also recognized that she was a grieving mother, who had lost her husband earlier that year, and found herself living in a nursing home (medically compromised enough by Parkinson's Disease to be there, but with a mind not ready to have so many liberties taken away). As far as "inheriting" Marlene? I found myself in her room with three other people who had various motives, some of them slightly more nefarious ones I was too much of a sucker to recognize. When we dispersed, I was on my way to becoming Marlene's power of attorney, health care proxy and overall primary contact person...for someone I had known for a month, who rarely if ever had my name correct. In case you are pondering whether there were more likely candidates, yes, she has three other sons - two of which live locally. They are not who she chose, even when suggested. It was all said to be so simple, these new responsibilities I literally signed up for.
Some days it made me laugh how this situation played out as it was just so incredulous. Some days I kicked myself for letting my grief and need to feel like I saved something, did something, fixed something get me involved. In the moments of nonsense and madness though, I fear I find myself thriving most of the time, even when it feels like things are falling apart. I visited with her, and tried to be patient as we rehashed Jeff's illness, what she thought he didn't tell her and what she simply did not recall. I went to care planning meetings, brought my paperwork to the banks, signed the checks, wrote out the birthday and holiday cards sprinkled with some heavy sighs, eyerolls and facepalms. I took the phonecalls for every slip, fall and confiscation of wine coolers and cleaning products she bought when a friend took her to the store. I went with the funeral director to bury her mother's ashes that had been boxed up for over thirty years,
(I felt compelled to dress the part on her behalf.)
messed around with her wig collection,
went out to dinner with some of Jeff's oldest friends who were now my dear friends,
and basically just tried to love on her as if she was my own...because basically she was.
When the pandemic hit, state mandates kept me away from both my grandmother and Marlene. In their own ways, and for their own reasons, neither of them understood the gravity and implications of the situation. One of the first phonecalls I got in the spring was Marlene "needing" some snacks to supplement the terrible food at her facility. Then there were complaints about the phone in her room and the answering machine that she was having trouble mastering before the lockdown. I had to keep in mind that she had no true idea of what those of us on the "outside" were having to do to cope with trying to keep ourselves and our families safe.
I was finally able to visit Marlene in early August, and admit that I turned my head and cried upon spotting her waiting at the table.
Her eyes looked so happy, and she was healthy! The hairstyle and color were incredible! (The new wig, a hand me down from one of the aides who didn't like it for herself.) We talked about the usual things, and she handed me an empty foundation bottle and lipstick tube that she needed replaced-because a pandemic is apparently no excuse to not put your face on! We got a couple more visits in before everything closed down again.
Once again, Marlene had her own agenda and priorities and I received phonecalls expressing concern over getting holiday gifts for her loved ones, as well as lottery tickets for her to hand out to staff. I tried to explain that people's expectations were a bit different in these crazy times, but she was not to be dissuaded. The nursing home would not accept any dropoffs, so she wanted the lottery tickets mailed to her. As I put forty lottery tickets in the mail addressed to her at the nursing home, I said a little prayer that they would not be forwarded back to me - where all of her other mail goes! The next crisis was making sure I took care of ordering her son some Hickory Farms for his birthday. All I can do is shake my head. I know that she has far too much time to sit with far too many thoughts all day, every day. I know that I brought this storm on myself, but weathering it has taught me much about myself, Jeff, love and expectations.
I struggle with my thoughts and beliefs about how those who have passed on may communicate with us. I got a piece of mail addressed to Jeff at my address last week that stopped me in my tracks, despite knowing it was just an autorenewal of sorts. Do I just look for signs? Today we are the Venuti Household?! Yes, I changed her address probably two years ago, and yes maybe filing her Medicaid application somehow made it more official somehow. But also? Jeff's birthday is next weekend and maybe he wants me to have pizza and cookies to celebrate...