Me: “Mom, do you want me to hang up the clothes I brought over for you?”
Mom: “No, just leave them on the bed. I’d like to put them away.”
Me: “Ok, so just remember that when you go in your room tonight, you’ll have to put them away first to get IN the bed, since there will be lots of clothes on TOP of the bed.”
Mom: “What?!? You’re going to bring them over and then just leave them there? You’re not going to put them away for me??”
The exhausting part of taking care of my mother is living two people’s lives at once. Her phone bill, her home, her health, her dog – her thoughts. I must hold my own life, my bills, my dogs, my hunger, my weight, at all times in my mind while also holding hers. Her world, her internal world, her conversations, are different from mine. They seem so rumbly-tumbly, so much like a rolling sage brush in the wind – to me. To her, the tumbles of her thoughts make perfect sense because when she has them, they are the ONLY true thoughts. It’s just that they get easily replaced by the next thought in the queue, and you never know who’s standing behind you, when you’re a thought in line.
Her logic, her memory, her priorities are, for me, so mercurial, so lightning fast in their fluid, instantly changing nature as to leave me breathless. It’s not just memories, either. It’s her actual opinions and feelings about things that change without warning or hesitation.
Me: “Mom, what do you want for dinner tonight?”
Mom: “How about fish?”
Me: “What? You hate fish. You’ve always hated fish.”
Mom: “Noooo, no, no no. I like fish. Just not slimy, naked fish, like that…. what’s it called?”
Mom: “Yes, sushi. Awful! It’s like swallowing snot.”
Me: “Have you ever actually eaten sushi?”
Mom: “Certainly not. That’s disgusting.”
Me: “So how do you know it’s like swallowing snot?”
Mom: “Because I just do. I don’t like sushi. Who would eat that? Other than that I like fish.”
Me: “Ok. Alright. So you want fish for dinner?”
Mom: “Fish? For dinner?”
Me: “Yes, you said you wanted fish for dinner.”
Mom: [Silence. Blink. Blink. She stares at me.]
Me: “Mom? You said you wanted fish before.”
Mom: “I said no such thing. Eiew. No way. I don’t like fish.”
Me: “I thought you just didn’t like raw fish, like sushi.”
Mom: “NO! I HAAAAAATE fish. You know that! Let’s have Mexican for dinner.”
Me: “Uh, ok, you don’t like fish, no problem. Well, sure, we can have Mexican for dinner.”
Mom: “Mexican? I thought we were having fish?”
Me: “Wait. You don’t like fish!”
Mom: “Who said I don’t like fish? I love trout. Hey, I have an idea. Let’s have trout for dinner!”
This is what got me thinking about the mathematics of listening.
When we are speaking, there is only one thing that can come out of our mouths at a time and only what currently, in that moment, exists in our minds can be excreted and extracted in language, and we cannot speak two words at the same time. We only have one mouth. So… with only the thoughts that currently exist in our minds, we must utter the thoughts we hold in that moment, one word by one clunky word in sequence, one after another. The thought/word pairing may be replaced by another, and then we can say another stream of words, representing another set of ideas, but that’s it. One mouth. One word at a time. One set of existing ideas already present in our minds. It’s a pretty small pipeline, when you think about it.
But listening is a totally different equation. While she is talking about fish, I’m calculating how tired she is, how likely it is that she’ll maintain this opinion long enough to get her to a restaurant, how wonky her hair looks as it grows back in from chemo, how my own stomach is growling, how I’m feeling bemused by her changing opinions on fish as opposed to how irritating the hanging clothes thing was last night, how I can’t wait to get back home to my own life. The TV is on in her room, and it’s loud again, and she’s talking a little loudly about trout, which once again reminds me of those damn hearing aids we paid $3500 for, the ones she won’t wear because “she’s not deaf.” She likes fish? Hates fish? Do we have trout in the freezer? Wait. About those hearing aids. Should I take them back? How do I balance her need to communicate with the people in her new assisted living apartment if she can’t hear them? By cajoling her into wearing them? But how to balance that with her need to maintain her independence? Haha, I think, sure, we can have Mexican, and also everyone else in her building is half deaf too, so what do they care if she can’t hear them, when they probably can’t really hear her? I can picture it now, as I grab her sweater and my car keys and remember that she will mistakenly head to the driver’s side again, I picture her saying to her new neightbor Arlene in the apartment next door, “What did you say about your couch? I didn’t hear you!” And the lady says, “Huh??? My pouch? WHAT? I can’t hear you.”
Then all of this must stop while I say only this: “Hop in, mom. I’m starving. Where’s your cane?”
I can think so many thoughts while listening to her opine about the world coming to an end, take in countless new thoughts (of hers!), one tumbling new idea after another, while hearing the blaring television, her voice, my stomach, tasting the residue of coffee in my mouth from this afternoon’s writing session, worrying about my bank account, chuckling about her wearing pink high tops at 85 yrears old, and helping her into the car.
When I answer, “I thought you didn’t like fish,” I really can only say that one thing. The other bits and bobs of thoughts and sensations stop for a tiny second to let the words out, as if they are the big fried onion smell in the room that crowds out the other nuances, the wafting gardenias and cinnamon.
Speaking requires one focus at a time, while listening is so much more juggly, so much more adept at squeezing 15 things out of a moment. It’s seems obvious that listening is the more powerful mental exercise. Maybe it’s me, but I can accomplish so much more while listening than while speaking.
Wait, accompishing? Is bearing the weight of 15 thoughts at once really getting anything more done than wearing myself out?
Speaking = one simple event at a time. Listening = rats nest o’ thoughts, all at once.
Perhaps, for an ADD mind like mine, listening is not the beautiful thing. Listening is diving headlong, back into the turbulent river of my mind, swirly swirly, swim little fish, swim! But speaking is where I can slow down, and rest. What??
Fish, or Mexican?
I started out this article thinking that listening clearly has the moral superiority, obviously takes the high road when it comes to things to do. But after writing one clunky word after another, which is as close to speaking while listening as I think I can get, I think I might be wrong. Listening kind of wears me out. Listening is loud inside my mind, it’s a torrent, while speaking is at least one conceptual foot in front of another at a time. Maybe speaking is the real reprieve to a busy mind. I thought listening is meditative but honestly, speaking is more like a walking meditation. You can only do so much at a time, whereas sitting and thinking thoughts *only* is enough to drive me mad.
I don’t know which to believe. But I’m certain of one thing: writing is the great in-between of listening and speaking, nestling into its quiet, feathery nest between the two. Writing is the middle sister, trying to make everything smooth.
Writing is the camp counselor of ideas, saying to the speaking and the listening, if they were gawky, pokey teenage girls in the hall, “Hey, now, how about both? Yeah! Fish tacos for dinner? Eh, eh?? Can’t we all just get along?”
Photo ©2015 John Cornicello