Staying Positive in the Face of Negativity


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Staying Positive in the Face of Negativity ​By Elizabeth Shean

I had to run some errands, so I suggested to Mom that we go out for lunch. She's always up for that! Dining in restaurants is one of the little joys of her life, and an impromptu lunch date makes a nice opportunity for her to get out of the house.

Mom loves to point out interesting or amusing sights as we drive. One time, she got quite a laugh out of a billboard advertising "free vaccinations with spay or neuter" for pets because she initially associated the "vaccinations" with children and could not imagine what parent would.... never mind. Her cognition has declined now to a point where it often takes more than a moment for her brain to correctly parse the meaning of advertisements or signs—often to hilarious effect.

The hilarity is welcome because, frankly, it's in short supply with my mother. Her attitude frequently trends toward bitterness, which manifests itself in stories of how bad her life is. And you know what? I don't really blame her. Her life isn't very pleasant or happy right now, with physical pain and frailties accompanying the cognitive decline that frustrates her daily. At the same time, the constant barrage of these negative stories weighs on me, emotionally, and makes it hard to maintain my own cheerful equilibrium sometimes.

In fact, I found myself challenged on this particular car ride. The mood turned quickly from frivolity to unhappiness when Mom spotted a laser eye clinic.

"I wish I'd never had that laser procedure done on my eyes," she said bitterly. "It absolutely ruined my eyesight."

I felt my back stiffen and my jaw clench. "Here we go," I thought to myself. I'd heard this particular diatribe a hundred times before, and that's no exaggeration. What makes it particularly difficult to listen to Mom go off about this episode is that her account of it is entirely false.

You see, many years ago, after Mom had cataract surgery, she needed a second procedure to clear one of the prosthetic lenses, which had turned cloudy. A quick zap of laser energy cleared the lens, and she went on about her business for several more years.

But then the dry eyes started.

That's ‘eyes,' plural. Like many older adults, Mom is chronically dehydrated despite my best attempts to get her to drink more water. She began using saline eye drops periodically in both eyes, and it has provided her with some comfort. Mom blames her dry eyes on the laser procedure, but since the problem affects both eyes, not just the one that was zapped, it's hard for me to believe her theory. Nonetheless, I frequently get to hear about the grave injustice that was done to Mom by the laser eye doctor.

I tried to gently re-direct Mom's focus. "Oh, look, Mom. There's a flower shop. Isn't that a beautiful display they've put up outside the door?"

But Mom is having none of it. "If I could see them better, I would probably agree with you," she sniffed. "But that laser eye surgery absolutely ruined my vision."

The ruined vision lament isn't the only one I get to hear repeatedly. There's also the "I used to have that book in my collection, but I was forced to give them all to Goodwill when I moved in with you" story and the "Your aunt used to complain all the time about getting cheated out of some Social Security by being a notch baby, but honestly they wound up with more money than anyone" account of a story that occurred more than 60 years ago. Honestly, it gets wearying.

Not knowing what to say, I fell silent. I turned up the volume on the radio a bit. I thought about the fact I will never be able to change Mom into a person with a positivistic attitude. I reminded myself to accept her as she is while still remaining true to who I am, as well.

"Is that a hot air balloon?" Mom suddenly said with excitement, pointing toward a colorful dot floating above the west horizon.

Indeed it was. A lone balloon drifting above Albuquerque. Just like that the mood inside the car changed again, from bitterness to the joy that comes from witnessing something rare and special. I savored the moment while I could.

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