a couple weeks ago, my 16 year old sister was presented with one dozen carrot cake cupcakes, 11 of them adorned with lettering to ask boldly: HOMECOMING?
she came home floating, and i was locked in a room with my mother, an early onset alzheimer’s patient with a penchant for incessant wandering. i had been caring for her (read: mostly following her around) all day while my siblings were in school, and all i wanted was to sit and read, unbothered. minutes after i was settled, i heard the back door slam, and soon enough she was knocking on the bedroom door, attempting to lure me in to her place of happiness.
“guess what i haaaaave!”
“unless it’s a million dollars, i honestly don’t care,” i quipped from the other side, deflating her moment. after a mumbled “well, fine then,” and audibly dejected steps toward the kitchen, i felt like the worst big sister in all of big sisterhood, and called her back to a now unlocked room. a large pink bakery box made its way through the door well before her. she didn’t speak to explain, just grinned and opened it, revealing the confectionary proclamation of puppy love she’d received from her crush earlier in the day. there were only a few left; elated, she had taken the box to every class to show them off and give them away. she showed me a before picture, of the cupcakes in all their undevoured glory. i cracked a smile, however weary.
“happy for ya.”
that night, she giddily detailed her first date-to-be, all the while texting her crush and “playing it cool”. the next day, she asked me to take her dress shopping, explaining that i could fit in shopping for her (and possibly my sister who is a freshman) with the after school sports schedules of my two other siblings. since she doesn’t have a full license yet, i’m responsible for getting all four of them where they need to go every day. feeling slightly overwhelmed by my responsibilty in her dance planning, and in general, i exclaimed: “who AM i?” the question was meant to suggest that at times, i feel more like a nanny, nurse, and personal assistant to my family, than a member of it. the answer i got was wholly unexpected.
she said it with merely the tiniest amount of sarcasm, and i think it was only added to make me feel less burdened by what that really meant. i quickly followed up with a joke to keep myself from overthinking: “no, i’m your big sister. which means you can completely take me for granted and disrespect me, but because i’m not your mom, it’s okay.” she laughed and replied “you’re still kind of a mom, though. seriously.” i rejected her assertion again, but with more gravity; i really needed to make clear that i’m her sister, not her mother.
since being back home and helping care for my mother and siblings, i’ve struggled a lot with how exactly to define my role in general, but particularly with my siblings. my father, who works 14 hour days as a football coach, has no choice but to delegate a large (and at times, crushing) amount of responsibility to me. some of the volleyball and football moms from my two youngest siblings’ school have been kind enough to help with carpooling when i need it, and we’ve even had a few meals brought over to give me a break from cooking. everything else? i’m on my own. my time is consumed with caregiving that is maternal in its nature; i often find myself realizing that because of her state, in many ways, i mother my own mother. there’s a beauty there, because i do for her nearly everything she had to do for me as a child. but it’s odd, because i’m not a mom.
i cook every day, and rush to pick up “the kids” (a phrase i use so often i’m frequently assured i’m a mother), and listen to boy dilemmas and vents about how dad is unfair and annoying. i demand that my sister go upstairs and change out of those tight pants, or tell my brother to put a belt on and watch his language. i refill prescriptions, schedule orthodontist appointments, register my siblings for school, and place my name instead of my mother’s as the secondary contact on the obnoxious slew of paperwork that apparently comes with everything a child does. these things would feel less mommy-like if my mother was well, but she’s not. and there’s no escaping the fact that i’m doing the things she used to. because of that gray area, people constantly tell me how i’m “practically a mom”. i even received 3 or 4 happy mother’s day wishes earlier this year. but i’m not a mom, i’m a sister. i’m motherly, but not a mother. i have absorbed my mother’s former responsibilities, but the title remains with her, one she earned over the course of 22 dedicated years. sometimes i’m bitter about the ambiguity of my role, because in the eyes of my siblings, and sometimes, my dad, that makes all my work worth less than it should be.
but i remember that motherhood is often thankless work, done so efficiently behind the scenes that those who benefit from it barely notice enough to fully appreciate its difficulty.
that was the beauty of what my mother did.
and so i sit here, on my parents’ 26th wedding anniversary, eyes welling, missing her. what hurts most about her illness is that i have to lose her twice; mentally, then physically. everything that made her who she was as a person, and as my mother, is gone. i can only hope that i’m doing things half as amazingly as she did, and that in whatever piece of her mind may be left, she is proud of me. i honor her by doing her work, but never seeking to take her place.