Benjamin Franklin once quipped, "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." In the natural course of life, many of us will see our parents die. How they go - peacefully, in their sleep, tormented by disease, or something in between - is something we have little control over.
The role of caretaker is as old as humankind. With our children, it's pretty straight-forward: nurture, mentor, let go. Pictures, videos, and joyful phone calls commemorate every milestone: first tooth, mastering a two-wheeler, driver's license, graduation, job, marriage, and children of their own. There is no such rush to record the downward spiral of aging parents. Instead, we mourn the loss of yet another aspect of that person we knew and loved: no more driving, cooking, check writing; forgetting words, faces, or events; misplacing items, losing teeth, falling, frailty, and the indignity of incontinence.
When my father began his slow but steady decline, my mother kept him at home. She had outside help, but overseeing his day-to-day care was her responsibility. Pa's deterioration was painful to watch. An example: my father loved to eat, always. And it showed; he was a man of robust proportions. He would recount, in exquisite detail, meals he had enjoyed at fine restaurants decades before. But, towards the end, my father had lost so much weight, his caretaker mistakenly dressed him in a pair of Mom's white shorts. He was, in all ways, a shadow of his former self.
In the span of just a few years, Pa got sick and died. Likewise, my Uncle Bob, Mom's only living sibling, and Aunt Claire, my mother's best friend and sister in law. Standing outside that emergency room, a few minutes after Aunt Claire died, Mom had a massive stroke. It ruined her eyesight, leaving her legally, if not completely, blind. The bottom fell out of the life my mother had known, leaving this once vibrant lady literally in the dark, depressed, and diminished. While she has rallied since that low, my mother never really recovered.
What precipitated this latest crisis
The current crisis was precipitated by two factors. At the rate Mom was spending to maintain the care-taking infrastructure, she was surely going to run out of money. And, that care ended after dinner. In addition, being alone at night is no longer feasible, however much Mom might protest.
Here's why. Some weeks ago, she fell out of bed in the middle of the night. She did not press that button on the life-line around her neck and remained on the floor until someone came the next morning. Until a few days ago, we never knew why Mom didn't use the life-line. Did she knock herself out? Had she been delirious? Mom now admits that she was mad at herself, at her body for betraying her. She was acting out; it was futile, childish perhaps, but completely understandable. What was flashing through her mind? Perhaps, Former All-Chicago Field Hockey Star Requires Assistance To Get Up Off Floor.
One evening a few years ago, she got stuck in the tub, unable to pull herself up and out. Luckily, that time she pressed the life-line. Two strapping firemen came in and liberated her, first opening towels in front of her to give my mother a semblance of privacy. Bless them for their sensitivity. She must have been mortified. We may lovingly tease Mom about her many fans at the fire department, but we ache for her lost vitality.
In this together
I can't stress enough how lucky I am that I'm not dealing with this all by myself. I have two older brothers, one here in town, the other in Boston. We've been forced to confer much more frequently, as we explore what's best for my mother's health and safety. Each discussion has been painful, as we've scrutinized every option and all its ramifications. Doing nothing wasn't going to work. So, we had to move forward, somehow.
Betty, Mom's main caretaker, has serious health concerns of her own. So, a 24/7 arrangement with her was not possible. And yet Betty had indisputably become the focus of my mother's shrinking world. With husband, siblings, best friend, and most of her contemporaries out of the picture, Mom spends her days in the navy recliner where she reads the Sun Times and watches the Cubs, with intermittent outings to the bank, the grocery store, or the beauty shop.
It's become too much trouble to get together with her remaining friends, my mother says, so she gave it up. In recent years, Mom has spent more time with Betty than with anyone else. She poured all her energy into Betty, who became her protege. She taught Betty French, exposed her to the wonders of good literature, and coached her until she could duplicate my grandmother's recipes, thereby recreating for Mom the tastes and smells of her past. As my mother put it, "Betty and I suited each other perfectly." Sadly, that set-up was about to change.
An imperfect world
Winnie, the woman we have found to stay with Mom, came very highly recommended. She's kind and gentle. And she's doing her best to help my mother get through this difficult transition. But she's someone new and my mother is old and very, very tired. She was happy with what she had. And she's always resisted the idea of having someone there at night. She felt it would further erode her independence and privacy. While Mom has reluctantly acknowledged the need for change, that hasn't make this process any easier. Change is hard, all the more so for an elderly person whose memory is fading at breakneck speed, right along with her eyes and ears.
To take away Mom's familiar caretakers, especially Betty, might seem an unnecessary cruelty. Are my brothers and I like a military force that liberates a village by leveling it, killing all its inhabitants? Have we made my mother safer but left her an emotional basket-case? The truth is, we have, at least for the time being. For her own good, we, her loving children, have yanked the rug out from under her. How painful, how poignant. How unavoidable. And how awful. It gnaws at me in the wee hours of the night.
My father's mind turned to mush years before he died. My mother said to me on more than one occasion, "if I ever get like that, shoot me." Losing control over mind and body is a cruel blow to any proud soul. Mom's fully aware that each loss brings her a step closer to utter dependence, physical and mental decay. Yet she has dealt graciously with the cards she's been dealt. Thank God she is still able to read, an activity she has always greatly enjoyed.
I have apologized for causing my mother pain, however inadvertently. "Don't worry about me. I'm strong. I'll be fine." I fervently hope so. Thankfully, Mom knows for a certainty that her well-being is our only concern. For what it's worth. This road we're navigating together is a bumpy one, filled with potholes and pitfalls. If we can somehow help Mom maintain her dignity along the way, that may be the most any of us can ask for.