In recent years, Christmas Days have been rough. My mom lived in a nursing home and we always brought her home for the day. She and I had a troubled relationship and holidays were no exception. Since she passed six years ago, every Christmas I rehearse all the amends I wish I had made to her while she was still alive.
One Christmas Eve, I told my daughters some stories about their eccentric grandmother.
Once while living in the nursing home, she was in distress and repeatedly called for a nursing aide, but no one ever came. The authorities later told me the full story. Mom was so pissed off that she called 911, telling them that she had been dead for an hour and they’d better come pick up the body. Several minutes later the police and an EMS van showed up. The home wanted her arrested, but I talked the cops out of it.
I also told them about grandma and her little red pickup truck. Against everyone’s advice she insisted, at age 82, on driving alone from Minnesota to my brother Tony’s home in Victoria on Vancouver Island. She made it.
However, after she had been there about a week, my brother called. He said that he had ridden with her a few times and it had been terrifying. She was a danger to everyone on the road and should no longer drive. Of course, he was the good son and could never do the deed. No, this was a job for his already suspect older brother.
My mom was fiercely independent. In her old age, running unnecessary errands from morning till night gave meaning to her life. To give up her pickup was as good as a death sentence. I had little empathy for her feelings of powerlessness, until I later had a grand mal seizure and could not drive for 90 days.
This was the battle royale of our troubled bond. In the months that followed, one discovery fueled my resolve: I found that she had a portable, yellow flashing light in her truck and, on occasion, put it on her roof to get around or through situations that displeased her. Her driving career ended at age 84. She never forgave or forgot.
My daughters asked why me and grandma fought all the time, particularly during the holidays. “Because we were so much alike. I hated being around her too much because she was a constant reminder of everything that I dislike about myself.”
Then, to help illuminate my point, I told them a tale about myself.
At age 72, I had some eerie, miniscule blackouts while driving. A two-hour drive home from my cabin ended 16 hours later when my wife found me in a strip mall with significant cognitive impairment. She took me to a hospital and they began brain scans, including for epilepsy.
Before that incident occurred, I had been taking steroids for chronic lower-back spasms. Consequently, I was quite talkative and my perverse sense of humor was on full display. A nurse freaked out over my behavior and called in a psychiatrist for a consultation. That incident recalls an old slogan from the Psychiatric Survivors Liberation Movement: “Is the patient disturbed, or is the patient disturbing?”
In short order, he diagnosed me with “hypomania” and signed a court order that incarcerated me for a 72-hour hold on a locked, geriatric psychiatry ward (since I still see myself as perpetually youthful, he had added insult to injury).
It took three security guards to get me there. The ward social worker interviewed me and said they could “help me” with my hypomania. My response, “Get the hell out of my room!” My neurologist liberated me after 17 hours. These effervescent episodes are not a psychopathology; they are a gift little understood by psychiatry.
Ma Bute had hardscrabble grit, but at times she was also a shameless conniver. She raised me to take no shit from anybody. A friend suggested that wolves had raised me. The metaphor does capture my take-no-prisoners personality – I am my mother’s son. Only later in life do I look back and recall the tenderness of wolves. Whenever or wherever external danger lurked, she always had my back.
Ma Bute and I were damaged souls, cut from the same highly flammable cloth.
Nevertheless, our life-long clashes are what made me such a formidable foe during my 55 years as a radical activist. Governors, prison wardens, higher-education chancellors, psychiatric-ward “caretakers,” college presidents – none were as fierce as her.
I love you mom. I only came to terms with your aberrant nurturing after you passed, and the wounds had somewhat healed. I hope I have passed along to my daughters your toughness without the toxicity.
You raised one hell of a strong offspring . . .
Monte Bute is a professor emeritus of sociology at Metropolitan State University, where he taught for 37 years. He has been a grassroots organizer for more than half a century