Relying on child was unsettling, but a relief

Washington Post
Published: 1/30/2018 5:07:45 PM

I needed surgery for an infected tooth. The dentist assured me that after five shots of Novocain, the procedure wouldn’t be painful. Except for the bill, I wanted to say. But something else made me uneasy: Relying on my daughter to retrieve me, with a reusable ice pack on my cheek, and to escort me home. I wasn’t ready for her to be my mother.

My husband was a thousand miles away on a business trip, and our 22-year-old daughter worked a subway ride away from the dentist’s scalpel.

“Ask her,” my husband encouraged.

“No, I’ll just come home myself,” I insisted.

“You’ve done plenty for her,” he reminded me.

True, but I didn’t start chauffeuring my mother to and from doctors until she was in her 80s. Nothing prepared me for the awkwardness of becoming my mother’s mother. At first I just hung out in the waiting room, pretending to be engaged in gossip magazines. Later, when she was suffering from Lewy body dementia, I began accompanying her into the exam room. I felt like a voyeur probing into her private medical life.

When my daughter was an infant, I stood next to her pediatrician, trying not to shed tears as vaccination needles stabbed my tiny baby. I wobbled next to a plastic surgeon who was sewing my daughter’s chin back together after a fall at summer camp.

By the time my daughter was 13, the pediatrician kicked me out of the exam room. I understood why. She wanted her patient to be free to talk about sex, birth control, drugs. I was banished to the waiting room, alongside toddlers playing with blocks. I wanted to tell their mothers how brief this time together was, how much they will miss it.

Back in the present, I forced myself to overcome my discomfort and asked my daughter to be my official post-surgery escort.

“Of course!” she said. “I’ll hop down on my lunch hour. You did it for me. Now it’s my turn.”

She was talking about her wisdom teeth removal. When they called me in afterward, my teenager was zonked from painkillers and couldn’t utter a coherent sentence. It was disconcerting to see my child stoned, albeit legally. Thankfully I never saw her in that condition again.

On the morning of my oral surgery, my daughter assured me, “Everything will be fine.”

And it was. Yet I still couldn’t adjust to the shift in our roles. I felt old, weak, embarrassed for her to see me stagger into the waiting room after being assaulted by drills, scalpels and sutures. It was difficult for me to accept that this was only the beginning of a paradigm shift. I’d nurtured my daughter for decades, through illnesses, injuries and different stages of development. Now I wouldn’t always be the one to stand alone on two feet.

That night, after my Novocain wore off, she made me caramel custard from scratch. Cheese soufflé was on the menu for Recovery Night Two, the same dish I’d made for her after her wisdom teeth removal. She was a better caretaker than my husband, who is a kind man but relatively clueless when it comes to nurturing.

My face turned black and blue, a common side effect of dental surgery. I was hesitant to be seen in public this way. My daughter led me into the bathroom, whipped out her makeup case and gently painted my bruised face with concealer, as if I were at the makeup counter in an upscale department store.

“There,” she said, proud of her handiwork, “you can hardly see it.” And she pronounced me presentable enough to return to work.

In two weeks, my bruises abated and the surgeon proclaimed his work a complete success.

In spite of my initial reluctance, however, I was relieved to discover that my daughter could take such good care of me. I felt a new sense of pride in her maturity and capabilities. Our role reversal was far from permanent. But how comforting to know that she’ll be there for me.

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