A few years ago, when Mom was still able to fly across the country and visit me in California every January, I bought her a fancy tracksuit at Neiman Marcus for her birthday. It was black velour with little rhinestones on the side front pockets of the zip-up jacket, and she loved it. She not only wore it for lounging around the house, but she wore it on the treadmill for her early evening workouts while watching the news.
Yes, treadmill, the professional-grade machine that had a prominent place in her finished basement and was so big it dwarfed her. The woman was in her mid-90s but utterly disciplined about going on that machine every day and walking for an hour, and she’d been sticking to her exercise routine for years. It kept her trim. It kept her feeling productive. It gave her a sense of control, which became especially important when her memory began to deteriorate and she needed to rely more and more on Sandy, her full-time caregiver, who filled in the blanks when she couldn’t remember where she was going or why. She did her laps on the treadmill when she could no longer contribute to her monthly book group discussion and stopped going. She did her laps on the treadmill when she could no longer tell you who was president. She did her laps on the treadmill when she could no longer drive a car. The treadmill was her touchstone, a way to prove to herself and the rest of us that she was still in charge of her body and mind. She even got a new, more high-tech model not long ago, as if to say, “I’m still here. I’m still me.”
And then she stopped using the treadmill the way she stopped watching the news. At 98, she’s unsteady on her feet, shuffles more than walks, needs help getting up from the sofa.
But did she admit any of that when I broached the subject of my taking the treadmill to my new house in CT so I could walk in inclement weather? Absolutely not. Here’s how the conversation went.
Me: “Mom, how would you feel if I bought the treadmill from you, since you don’t use it anymore and I need to exercise indoors now that I moved here?”
Mom: “What do you mean? I still use the treadmill every day!”
Me: “Uh, no you don’t.”
Mom: “Of course I do! I go downstairs and walk for an hour!”
Me, getting the picture and not wanting to agitate her: “Right. Well then, never mind. You keep it. Absolutely.”
A few minutes later, Thelma, who was covering for Sandy that afternoon and whose kind and gentle manner calms Mom, came into the room, sat down with us and said very diplomatically to my mother, “Jane would really like to have your treadmill. Wouldn’t you like her to have it? You don’t need it anymore.”
Mom: “Of course. Why shouldn’t she have it. It’s not even a question.”
It was as if I hadn’t asked the first time and gotten such a negative reaction, as if this were an entirely new subject. Now I didn’t know how to proceed. The last – and I mean the very last – thing I wanted to do was strip my mother of any vestige of the life she’s enjoyed, the life that has enabled her to live so long and so well, not to mention take advantage of her memory lapses. If she felt the treadmill was still important to her, then that was that and I wouldn’t bring it up again. I’d keep looking for a used one on Craigslist. No biggie. But if she didn’t have a problem with me taking it, that would be great too. Which was her “real” answer? To hang onto her treadmill or relinquish it and, perhaps, her sense of independence?
I went home and resumed my Craigslist search – until Sandy called.
“Your mom wants you to have her treadmill,” she said. “We talked about it. She knows she can’t use it anymore.”
I asked “Are you sure?” over and over again. This was tricky terrain for me, as I said. I wanted to respect my mother’s wishes, but I’d been confused about what they were.
“I’m sure,” said Sandy. “Besides, I’m not letting her use it. It’s not safe for her now.”
Not safe for her now. Sandy’s words made the decision easier. She was the one living in the house with Mom. She was the one who helped her bathe and gave her her medications and held her hand when they crossed the street. She made me understand that taking the treadmill would be an act of care for Mom, not a theft of her identity, as well as an act of care for me, for my health, given my much-too-sedentary lifestyle. And wasn’t that what good caregiving was all about? A balancing act between taking care of loved ones and taking care of ourselves? Hadn’t I written a book on that very subject?
The treadmill is now in my basement. The first time I turned on the TV news, stepped onto the machine and began to walk, I teared up. I pictured Mom on that thing, watching the news, hardly breaking a sweat, and I felt sad that I’d lost the mom she used to be. And then I quickly rethought my visualization. Instead, I imagined her standing off to the side cheering me on. “The treadmill was a big part of my life and now I’m passing it on to you, dear,” I heard her say. And then, because my mother has a sense of humor, I also heard her say, “Just don’t be a slacker and stop using it.”