So I haven’t written for ever so long and, like any muscle or skill you neglect, my writing may be rusty. For sure I’ve felt the need to get back to doing what not only helps organize my random thoughts about getting through each day but which would help me plug back into my long-neglected outlet to try to reestablish a little normalcy in my life. I hope you’ll indulge me while I do so.
My Mom has been through hell and back for the past 4 months. Following a bad fall the day after Thanksgiving, it’s been one not-great and sometimes terrible thing after another. Without going into all the dreadful details, that she is still here with us when we were told 7 weeks ago that she wasn’t going to survive what she had gone and was going through is a miracle that none of our family or friends will ever take for granted. I don’t think it’s being self-indulgent or self-pitying to say that her illness has affected all of us as well. I’ve changed during the process in my role as her primary caregiver during her illness and I hope I’ve learned things about myself to help me embrace the lessons I’ve learned.
I’ve learned never ever to take anyone for granted. The Saturday night before she was hospitalized in February she was baking a cake. 5 days later we were being told she was likely not going to come out of the hospital. That things happened, and happened that fast were a veritable shock to my system that I’m not sure I’ve still recovered from. I had to make calls to people and tell them things were very bad, calls that you know you may have to make one day but that you don’t think are going to happen any time soon. Mortality, at least for me, is a concept as opposed to a reality. I know we all have a ticking clock, a life that will end at some point but when faced with my mother’s mortality, it was utterly debilitating for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and I felt sadness, such sadness and emptiness and guilt.
I’ve learned that guilt is a wasted emotion for the most part. The day my mother was hospitalized I got annoyed with her over something minor and spoke more sharply to her than I intended. And when she went to the hospital and I arrived an hour or so later, thinking she had some minor ailment and learned instead how serious her situation was, I was crippled with guilt. I’m still crying about how I acted that day, even as I write these words. And even though I know my mother knew I didn’t mean to be abrupt with her, I had to ask for her forgiveness as she lay in her hospital bed hooked up to all sorts of machines monitoring everything and spitting out reports that terrified us. Of course she forgave me but even though I logically know that guilt only hurts you and doesn’t undo what you’ve said or done, I’m still struggling with that emotion.
I’ve learned that you cannot be someone’s caregiver 24/7 without hurting yourself physically, emotionally, mentally. Sleep needs to become your best friend; crying if you need to should be embraced, not dismissed; remembering that a bottle of water at breakfast is not a meal and won’t give you the energy to get through the medical maze you’ll have to navigate that day. And as my great friend, Mary McKenna, has told me for years, there’s a reason flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first before you try to help someone else. If you don’t take care of yourself and make sure you’re healthy and alert and emotionally and physically well, you can’t help anyone even if that person is dependent upon you for everything.
I’ve learned that if someone offers to help you, take them up on it. The nights my sister or my great kid let me sleep through the night or sleep in on a morning were like being on vacation. My mom, when she came home from the hospital, required medication injections 3 times a day: 7:00 am, 3:00 pm and 11:00 pm. That schedule, along with helping her dress and walk and eat and taking my mother to multiple doctor appointments each week and scheduling in-home visits with a nurse, a home health aide, an occupational therapist and a physical therapist, were all-consuming and there was more than one day when I’d realize it was mid-afternoon and I’d forgotten to eat breakfast or take a shower. I figured out that “yes, please” is a great answer when someone suggests that you go get lost at a movie for a few hours or go for a drive or just sit in your car and read or cry or pray. I wasn’t good before at asking for or accepting help. I’m much better at it now.
I’ve learned that hard times and sadness and illness help define who you can count on. Both of my sisters and their spouses, and my great kid, and my niece and nephew were and are stellar. My Burke cousins sent cards and called and prayed. My mother’s friends from years ago reached out to see how she was doing. My ever-loyal, ever-loving DC girls were there for me every step of the way and still are. And there were people who texted and e-mailed (Lenny Giuliano and my best friend Jimmy Courage, I’m looking at you). I’m humbled and grateful for all the love because to know so many people worried about and care about and love my mother is the greatest gift anyone could give me.
I’ve learned that I need to work more on forgiveness. I need to forgive myself when I get impatient over small things that don’t really matter, impatience born out of fatigue or frustration or both. I need to forgive those who mean to help but instead offer advice that I don’t need or insights I would prefer they not share. I need to forgive people who wouldn’t or couldn’t or didn’t reach out to us or to her. They have their reasons, I’m sure, and until I walk a mile in their shoes, I cannot judge them. I don’t have to; they can judge themselves.
I’ve learned – or remembered, more accurately – that not only is God good but that His presence in our lives is the thread that gets us all through every day, whether the day turns out to be good or bad. Prayers work, good intentions help, kind words lift you up and a good support system is everything.
And finally I’ve learned that my mother, my hero is one kickass woman who would not and did not take this lying down. She would not give up or give in. What she went through was hell, truly and really. She cried many times, she was in pain, she was frightened. But she fought and fought and fought and 20 days after they told us – and we told her – that it didn’t look good, she came home and has continued to fight to get better every day. Her sense of humor is intact, her generosity of spirit is ever there, her kindness and her strength are inspirations. And if I am ever half the person she is, I’ll consider my life a tremendous success.
And that’s what I know now.