9: In Her Hands

9: In Her Hands

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

In Her Hands

Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.

~Richard Bach

Many of the common struggles of aging can be accelerated by Parkinson’s disease. In a much shorter time than normal, a loved one can decline drastically in physical and mental capacities, so drastically that it’s hard for family members to keep up with the practical and psychological adjustments demanded by the progression.

For my mother, it seemed that she was healthy and active one day and, in no time at all, debilitated to the point of needing someone with her at all times. The disease left her vulnerable to falls, and the trauma and injuries from two serious falls compounded the challenges of her overall weakened condition. This was a major change for a woman who grew up on a farm, worked most of her adult life in an automobile factory, maintained an immaculate home, and counted her sick days on one hand. It was a major change as well for my father, my siblings, and me because we only knew her as the strong hub of our family.

More than anything else, I remember resisting the role reversal that was imposed on me. I would have done anything to help my mother, but it was as if I was hardwired to be the child and allow her to be the parent. After all, that’s who we had been to each other all of my life. When I helped her get dressed, monitored her use of the bathroom, and checked that her food was cut into small enough bites, these were precious opportunities to help meet her needs. At the same time, they were such foreign tasks, running totally contrary to our relationship.

I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the role reversal; my mother seemed to resist it as well. Sometimes she looked at me with heart-wrenching regret and whispered, “I’m sorry.” It was hard enough for her to be incapable of performing basic daily activities, but it must have been harder still to need help from someone she was accustomed to helping. We made the best of the situation, teasing and joking whenever possible, but both of us felt how unwelcome the circumstances were.

Even though I tried to be the epitome of a pleasant, positive presence in my parents’ home each weekend when I visited, in my heart I wanted everything to go back to “normal.” I wanted to reverse time, only a few months, back to the point that my mother was only slowing down rather than overtaken by a disease. With every phase of her decline, I had to muster more and more willingness to watch her be redefined by Parkinson’s.

Then, one Saturday morning, there was a turning point. I had driven from Missouri to Kansas after I got off work the night before in order to spend the weekend with my parents, as had become my custom. My mother had just finished eating breakfast, and I was settling her into a favorite chair in the family room for a morning of visiting. I couldn’t keep from doing what I did every weekend—notice, as if for the first time, the many ways that the disease had changed her. She was just a fraction of her previous size and strength, her face was drawn, and her whole body trembled. I looked at her hair, which still needed to be combed, and the cotton robe that was the only attire my father could manage. That’s when I saw my mother’s hands.

What caught my attention was that I had overlooked a small spill of oatmeal on one of them. I would have to return to the kitchen for a washcloth. But suddenly I was overwhelmed with the recognition of those hands. They hadn’t changed, not really, not from age or from disease. Sure, there were some wrinkles and tremors, but they were so clearly the same hands that had cared for me my entire life.

I saw in those hands the person who had scooped out my meal portions, the person who had tucked me into bed, the person who had checked my temperature and bandaged my cuts and scrapes, the person who had examined how my clothes and shoes fit, the person who had studied my homework and admired my report cards, the person who had handed me birthday presents, and the person who had asked to see the first ring that a boy gave me. I realized that it was still my mother inside that aged, diseased body because those were her hands.

So many things had changed, but the important things were unchangeable. In my mother’s hands, I recognized the person who had cared for me more than anyone else in the whole world. That was the person I wanted to care for in return, not some redefined or lessened identity, but my mother, the mother I saw in those hands. That’s who she was, still, regardless of frailties or needs.

From that moment until my caregiving ended with my mother’s passing, neither she nor I felt any more awkwardness over role reversals or unwelcome tasks. I can honestly say that there wasn’t even the slightest sense of drudgery either, not ever. Somehow, in her hands, I caught a change in focus, from the challenging time that would be her last years to the whole that made up her entire life. For other caregivers, it might be a look in the eye, an expression in the face, or a tone in the voice that conveys so clearly, if only for an instant, the person we recognize. Yes, he or she is still there, and that’s who we honor with our care.

~Judy Brown

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