Author’s Note: As Memorial Day and the month of May draw to a close, I have written this piece to honor my Mom, to kvetch a little about the joys and trials of being a parental caregiver, and to give Thanks that my Mom and I have grown so close in our Golden Years. She is one of the most intelligent women I have ever known, and I deeply admire her can-do attitude, her strength and courage, and her abiding faith in all things good and true. Out of respect for her privacy---and also because I couldn’t find a decent picture of the two of us together, the Feature Photo is of Mom’s rose garden, which we planted together nearly a year ago. I know how lucky and blessed I am to still have my mother by my side.
Lately, I’ve been prone to prefacing my comments about my Mom (generally, only to a few family members) with the following: “I love my Mom…. But she is driving me crazy!” Followed by a pantomime of me banging my head against an imaginary wall. This relieves whatever momentary confusion I’m experiencing over some question she’s asked or a request she’s made for the second or third time in the last 5 minutes or half an hour! Now, I know this doesn’t sound very daughterly or loving. But in fact, it is both! First, you must understand the fact that my Mom is now 83 years old and that she has weathered some major health concerns over the last 10 years. She has been stalwart about living with COPD, osteoporosis, and diabetes—not to mention her miraculous 3-year remission from stage 1 lung cancer—gamely breathing with the help of her oxygen tank whenever we go out, walking with a cane to help steady her step, and somehow managing to control her diabetes despite virtually ignoring most of the dietary restrictions associated with that condition.
Second, you must understand that she is in no way fully dependent on either the oxygen tank or the cane! At home, she goes about her daily chores—cooking, cleaning, gardening, etc., without these aids; she only uses the oxygen tank overnight as she sleeps, and only uses the cane to go up and down the stairs. My “caregiver” duties are fairly limited. Allow me to illustrate our roles with these two short vignettes:
The Snake in the Stairwell
A couple of weeks ago, Mom wanted to clean out the leaves and dirt from the outside basement stairwell. I gathered the broom, dustpan, and a plastic bag to git ‘er done. By the time I walked out the front door, around to the back yard, and swept down the stairs, Mom had made her way to the basement from the inside and opened up the basement door, ostensibly to hold the bag for me as I cleaned up the bottom of the stairwell. As I was sweeping, I saw a baby garden snake wriggling among the leaves. I yelled, “Eek! Oh s**t, there’s a…” and before I could finish and run up the steps, Mom had, herself, run back up the inside basement steps, walked around back, and met me at the top of the outside stairs! Without her cane! After we fell over each other laughing at our fear of the baby snake, I asked her where her cane was. She had left it behind in the basement, next to the now closed basement door!
There’s a Storm a’ Comin; Let’s Clean Out the Rainspout
One afternoon, we had just gotten back from an appointment, when Mom decided we had to clean out the back rainspout because she had a feeling it was about to rain. So, she pulled the tall stepladder out of the window well, then instructed me on how and where to set up the ladder, before telling me how to climb the ladder while she spotted me from behind, handing the rake up to me so I could clean out the clumps of leaves that, minutes later, would have surely overflowed the rainspout if she had not acted on her premonition. All the while, she’s worrying over me as I reached out the rake as far as I dared while clinging for dear life to the shaky aluminum ladder set up in the grass! We just barely got the ladder put away and made our way back into the house when the sky opened up with thunder, lightning, and, of course, a deluge of rain.
So now, you can see that, physically, I am Mom’s doer, carrier, fetcher, and finder of lost things. I carry the laundry bag up and down the basement steps when she does her laundry, and I fetch various and sundry items for her when she decides to sit down for awhile: her eyeglasses or phone, which she invariably leaves in any room other than the one in which she’s settled down; or I will climb onto a chair to retrieve a roll of paper towels or a box of tissues, which she keeps on the top shelf of her linen closet. My least favorite household “chore” is searching for a particular canned good in the back of the bottom kitchen cabinet—sitting cross-legged on the linoleum floor with a flashlight in one hand, while moving her meticulously organized-by-product cans out of the way with my other hand to find the prize. Getting down on the floor is easy! Getting up again is another story: I have to grab onto the refrigerator door or a kitchen table leg for support as I hoist myself back up to a standing position, thanks to my own physical troubles—chronic lower back and hip pain.
When Mom is frantically searching for her grocery list or an envelope she just addressed, I retrace her steps through the house and, most of the time, I present her with the lost item within 5 minutes. Sometimes I will also find some other item that she lost ages ago but gave up on! Like her beloved daily devotion book that I found in her bedside table drawer while I was actually hunting for her nail clippers.
But my least favorite “chore” by far is shopping with my Mom. I am an in-and-out shopper, be it for groceries or clothes or whatever. I go into a store with an idea of what I want and I walk out quickly—either with my desired purchase in hand, or with nothing at all. Mom, on the other hand, is a browser. And in the grocery store, she’s a browser in a riding cart! Zipping up and down aisles, stopping for what’s on her list and lots of things that aren’t on her list. With me trailing behind her for 2-3 hours, then toting the bags from the store to the car and, back at her house, from my car to her kitchen, I am ensured of completing all the exercise I need for a week in that one trip. Lately, I’ve found it easier on both of us if I step outside for a cup of coffee and a look at the plants outside the store. Then I meet her at the checkout counter.
The most difficult task, however, is the emotional caregiving, and this is actually a two-way street! It is not easy for me to assume the role of the child as the mother to the woman! Nor is it easy for my mother to hear me chastise her using the same language and tone she used on me when I was her little girl and she was my all-knowing Mommy!
We are both firstborn daughters of firstborn daughters. Alpha females, if you will. Both of us are used to being the boss and giving the orders, and neither of us will relinquish that role willingly. So we often butt heads, giving each other identical cheetah smiles as we slink back to our respective corners to lick our wounds.
But here’s the beauty of it all: Mom, in her infinite wisdom and by her lifetime of example, has taught me the most important life lesson of all: know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you,” and enfold her in a rocking and loving hug before saying goodnight after a long day.