Friday, August 24, 2012

Looking Past the Hurricane

I began this blog with a post entitled Hurricane Ruth what seems like a lifetime ago to create a place to chronicle the lonely journey of caring for my mother in her waning days.  Truth be told, it was not that long ago, and I can look back on it now and realize that my trials and travails as a primary caregiver of an ailing elderly parent pale in comparison to what many adult children experience.  Of course, to be fair to myself on the other hand, on the day of mother's accident, which is kind of the bright line of where it truly began for me, I had been struggling to help two teenage girls battle eating disorders and drug addiction for the past six years and my tank was already close to running on empty.  And, if I'm really allowing myself some slack, Life handed me some other extreme challenges to handle during those last months with Mom.  But, I am well aware, with all of that being said, that I had some advantages that some children-caregivers do not:  there was enough money to make sure she could be properly housed and cared for, my husband was sympathetic and supportive, and the last, worst period was measured in months, not years.  If that sounds harsh, it is not meant to be.  This has been on my mind lately because we are fast approaching what would have been Mother's 94th birthday.  She was 92 when she died and had a good run at life.  She was stubborn and independent, and when her body took that away from her, she was miserable.  Her mind betrayed her too, and in the moments when she was lucid enough to know it, it was heartbreaking.  Truth be told, of course, during the other times, it was a struggle for me.  But, Mom had always wanted her end to be like Phyllis Diller's.  At home in her own bed, passing on in her sleep.  That wasn't meant to be for my mother, but I'm glad actually she only had months to contemplate that fact, not years.

Yet, I know some individuals in the caregiver role do spend years at it, and there is an emotional toll that is heavy because it is deeply complicated to care for someone you are so emotionally vested with.  I also know that everyday can seem like a year, some days longer than that.  I remember the weight, almost the literal feeling of heaviness, that the responsibility brings, and the fear that your own life is slipping through the hourglass while you are busy trying to care for another.  Nurses are angels in sensible shoes, but they do get to go home at the end of their shift.  I know that the shift never ends for you.  Not to mention which, the person you are caring for often lashes out against their circumstances and that manifests itself on the person they feel safest with:  you.  In short and simply put:  it is hard and it often sucks.  At my age, I regret that I know several people who have either gone through this or are going through it now.  Maybe regret is not the right word, but I ache for them because it's a painful, confusing and lonely process.  And there will be an inevitable conclusion that will leave them in grief.

I am not mocking when I point out my adventures on the other side of this process.  At least I sincerely hope that is not how it comes across.  What I wish to do is to offer hope and set up the expectation that when our parents pass, as time will without exception cause to happen, we can forgive ourselves for surviving and go on living.  Enjoy it in fact.  That sounds odd perhaps, but I have seen that.  Survivor's guilt.  I see it in spouses maybe more so, but in children too.  The thing about it is that you know your loved one would hate that happening and not want that for you.  Honor them by enjoying life where you can.

In the meantime, take the moments that come to you to try and take care of yourself as well.  Take five minutes in the evening and allow yourself to sit quietly and watch fireflies, if that helps you.  Take a bubble bath here and there.  Most of all, watch for those moments when you can see in your parent's eyes the person they used to be and the person who still loves you, because it will probably happen.  Take those moments away as the memories you have of your failing parent.  Not the arguments over taking away their car keys, worrying over the medical bills, or who gets to make what decision.  Not the adult diapers and doling out of medications.  Because that's not who your parent really is, it is just what is happening to them.

I think for me, the gift I will give my mother on what would have been her 94th year this August 31 is to remember those moments.  There were a few.  They would crop up at odd moments from time-to-time.  I would look at her and her eyes would be clear like she could really see me, and her face would be a little more relaxed and she would thank me or say something endearing.  Of course, the next day she'd be back to calling me by my dog's name and trying to sneak money out of her account so she could run away to Pennsylvania, but those quiet, tender moments sustained me through those other days in a way that I couldn't appreciate at the time.

And to those of you who are still actively caring for a loved one:  you are the saints of the modern world.  It's tough, it's gross at times, and it's heartbreaking, but love yourself for what you sacrifice to do it.
Mother and Me Circa 1997

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