7: What Would I Be Without You?

7: What Would I Be Without You?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

What Would I Be Without You?

For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.

~Lily Tomlin

“What would I do without you?” my 85-year-old mother-in-law exclaimed, fanning her knobby fingers to admire her fresh manicure. It was our Saturday morning “usual”—washing her hair in the kitchen sink, setting it, then filing and repainting her fingernails. I’d done this for years, after realizing how difficult her arthritis made this simple beauty regimen.

What would I do without you? I knew the answer: plenty. Except she wouldn’t be able to do it. Already we were realizing that the memory loss we had observed was the beginning of something serious. Her son (my husband) paid all her bills. I figured her income tax. We took away her car keys, promising we’d always make sure she got to the grocery store and church. When shopping became too confusing and exhausting for her, I just added her list to mine. Finally, I was providing every meal and doing her laundry and housework.

In those hazy days between her “growing old” and facing death, I was pulled into a role I never expected as a daughter-in-law. Thankfully, in a wise move two decades earlier, we had moved her and her ailing husband from their rural mobile home to a small house next door to us. Living just steps away, we walked together through her widowhood, cancer, heart attack, and the slow erosion of Alzheimer’s disease.

Progressively came incontinence, wandering, and confinement to a wheelchair and the need to be fed. Finally, when I hurt myself lifting her, we had to place her in a care home. She died 11 months later at 89.

But as I thought back to better times when we could still carry on a conversation, and her losses frustrated her, I remembered my own frustrations. I’d put aside “my” life to serve her—and why?

Then I realized the answer came on ordinary days, like one when I took her to buy a new lipstick. Hers was several years old and down to the bottom of the tube.

“Mauve Rose! Very Berry!” As we stood in the cosmetics aisle, I almost shouted the lipstick names because her hearing loss muffled my normal voice. She reacted in shock at the prices, as her memory of what a lipstick cost was locked into what she paid decades earlier.

“I can’t make up my mind,” she said. “You choose.”

So I did, and then offered my arm to help her walk to the cashier. I paid from her coin purse, knowing how counting money confused her. Then I tucked her hand in my elbow and walked her out to the car. That simple errand was her big, exhausting task of the day.

From that came one of many lessons of caregiving: one thing at a time. For me, who prized the ability to multitask while raising a family and working from home, it was a difficult lesson. As her losses increased, my learning curve steepened.

One lesson was to slow down. I equated “going for a walk” with pushing myself at an aerobic pace for a mile or more. But she was breathless as soon as I led her off the porch. Hanging onto me or her wheeled walker, she went one tiny step at a time. The walk up and down the block meant numerous stops to look at a neighbor’s neatly landscaped yard and name the flowers. We’d comment on the sky. I’d point out quail strutting across the street. I learned there is value in noticing simple things.

Another was to major on the majors. When she started losing things on a regular basis, I realized how impatient I was in helping her find a lost bill, hearing aid, or specially purchased birthday card. It wasn’t her; it was the disease that was robbing her of her true self. She needed help, not censure.

She taught me to accept help when we need it. I was juggling the roles of caregiver, mom, and wife fairly well when I slipped on ice and broke several bones in my ankle. Suddenly, somebody else had to make her meals, clean her home, wash her clothes, take her to the doctor, and do her hair and nails. And over at my house, I learned the grace of letting others do the same types of chores for me.

We learned together to find the good in the not so good. While setting her hair, I noticed a suspicious reddish patch growing near her ear. Her doctor confirmed it was a type of skin cancer that needed to be cut out. Her incision itched unbearably afterward. I tried to encourage her by saying, “He almost gave you a face lift on one side. You’ll look 10 years younger.”

She spent most of her last year in a care home with other memory-impaired seniors. Some could still walk, and said and did bizarre things. Others, like her, were helpless and said little. But her eyes still spoke, as they did with me one day a few years earlier, before her losses became so profound.

“I’m just not good for anything anymore,” she complained, discouragement in her chocolate eyes.

“Oh, yes, you are,” I countered. “See those photos of all your grandchildren and great-grandchildren? They need you to pray for them!” I hugged her and added, “Besides, you still have a really sweet spirit.”

To the end, deep inside a cloyed body and mind, we could sense that sweet spirit. And that was the final, lasting lesson of my caregiving years: uphold each person’s value. For even when she was just a shadow of her former self, she was teaching me to be patient and affirming, and to realize that life isn’t always about accomplishing something.

After she’d taken her last breath, and I closed her unseeing brown eyes, I knew caregiving had deepened me. The original question she posed after each week’s manicure was changed. Now, it was this: What would I have become without her? This, for certain: I would have missed lessons in becoming gentler and wiser.

~Jeanne Zornes

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