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When my father died on July 12, 2005 I felt a “voice” telling me to stay and help my mother. I’ve always tried to follow that voice, even if I don’t understand it when I hear it. My mother had been my father’s caregiver for ten long years after he had his first stroke (a TIA) in 1995. I was already “home again”, as the saying goes, because God put me in place as a result of my car accident and the subsequent hurricane that destroyed so much of my life and what I knew. My mother is what I often refer to as “the salt of the earth” – she has a sweet and humble spirit and is gracious and always grateful. This journey that began caught me by surprise. I was always close to my mother but living with her on a daily basis is, like any other relationship in that it is filled with twists and turns. I soon came to realize that helping my mother and becoming her caregiver was “the gift” and not too many of us get that gift. As I write this, it has been six and a half years since I made that decision—the one that told me to stay—and to rise above “self” and look towards a greater good in helping someone else.

How often do we think about the sacrifice our parents made for each of us? I daresay I knew my parents sacrificed for me but in all honesty, I didn’t think about it all that much until I got to know my mother. It didn’t take long for my mother to transition from being “Mama” to “friend”. There have been countless nights where I have listened to stories about her life—ones I never knew, even when I was growing up. My favorite story is the one where, as a young girl of nine, she was out playing with her cousin (a boy) when he decided to shimmy up a pine tree. My mother, ever one to have a strong and feisty spirit, told him in no uncertain terms to come down out of the tree. But do children listen? Of course not! And neither did her cousin. He stubbornly refused to climb down so my mother said, “Okay, you don’t want to come out of the tree, then I’ll make you come out of the tree.” She left for a few minutes and when she returned, she was wielding an axe in her hand. She then looked up at her cousin and said, “I bet you’ll come out of the tree now.” What did she do? She chopped the tree down and her cousin came flying out of the tree, his britches flying in the wind. It was stories like this that gave me a glimpse into the life of my mother. I would discover far more serious stories—stories of being raised during the Great Depression and not having much to eat except cornbread and syrup, and usually three times a day. 

My mother was someone who knew great adversity and lived to overcome it. In an era when “women didn’t work”, she raised four children amidst living my father’s “dark cloud”—the dark cloud of drinking binges and angry rages. She was one to stand up to him, also in an era when that was unheard of. I like to think of my mother as a pioneer of sorts.

One of my favorite things to do with my mother is when “we go to town” for her medicine or groceries and we just sit, the two of us, at a local hamburger place, munch on a hamburger and fries, sipping sodas and reflecting on life. There is also never any place that I could travel that would mean so much to me as the days I travel “a back country road” with my mother as we go to a neighboring town.

I’d lived in big cities for so long prior to returning home that it took awhile for me to appreciate that a wave from a nearby truck wasn’t someone raising a gun to shoot me. 

Being a caregiver isn’t easy. Some of it has been filled with tears and trying to make sure I make the right decisions—like the time my mother “didn’t feel quite right” and instinct told me to call the ambulance instead of trying to get her to the ER. That one decision saved her life. She had lost so much blood that it caused a heart attack and she was subsequently hospitalized for a blood transfusion and other care. You learn a lot when you take care of someone when they can’t take care of themselves. My mother’s humor is always intact, though, and just when I have been at my breaking point she’d say, “Oh, I’m just a crazy old coot.” 

I’ve discovered the alarming truth that so many elderly people are pushed aside. As it has been said, “you get old and then nobody wants anything to do with you”. I often think, “Well, okay, but we’ll all grow old if we live long enough.” One of my dearest friends is a physician and he told me that he sees a lot of children who bring their parents in through the ER, admit them when there is basically nothing wrong with them and then abandon them. For a moment, I thought I’d misunderstood what he said, but sadly, I did not. 

Our parents just grow old. Their bodies wear out and their eyes grow dim and sometimes their hands tremble when they try to eat and they don’t walk as fast as they once did but that’s no reason to abandon them. It is a hard choice to care for anyone who needs help but I happen to believe, at least for me, that it’s the right choice. 

Sometimes our gifts come disguised in unexpected packages—often in choices and “life moments” we could easily have missed.

I am grateful for my mother and the blessed opportunity to be not only her caregiver, to let her know, on a daily basis, that she doesn’t have to worry about waking up one day and being abandoned, that she is appreciated and loved and that she may be growing old, but she is not growing old alone. And that is truly the gift.

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