10: Bernie’s Last Thanks

10: Bernie’s Last Thanks

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Bernie’s Last Thanks

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.

~Aristotle

I didn’t feel old when I retired from teaching that May. I had been a mother, a spouse, a teacher, and a volunteer for decades. Now I would have time to pull out my tucked-away dream to become a writer and artist. That was until I received an early morning phone call, one that placed an immoveable barrier in front of my plans.

It seemed my mother-in-law, Bernie, had fallen in her bathroom. She had no broken bones, but the trauma, and possibly a mini-stroke, made her completely disoriented. Her slight dementia had become severe, making it impossible for her to live alone, even in her well-monitored retirement community.

“You’ll have to be the one who cares for her,” Bill said realistically, since his medical practice required 12-hour days. My husband Bill, an only child, and I had always known the time would come for Bernie to move in with us.

Reluctantly, I relinquished my dream and went through the motions of being a good caretaker. Throughout those first weeks, as I sat with Bernie in the hospital, I observed how many trained nurses and attendants it took to care for Bernie’s basic needs. When Bernie was moved into a rehabilitation unit for her physical and speech therapy, I was again overwhelmed.

“Bill, it takes two, sometimes three people to lift her out of bed and into her wheelchair,” I said.

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of the heavy work.”

“Don’t worry? How can I not worry? What if I do something wrong?” Now I was being the realistic one, convinced my English/ art background hadn’t prepared me for the science of geriatric care. I could mess up with words or paint, but now I would have his mother’s life in my hands. There were no delete keys or paint-overs with someone’s life.

“You’ll do fine,” Bill said.

So while Bernie processed through her rehab, I hoped for another solution to somehow turn up. All the while, my fear mounted each time I heard testimonies from caregivers whose lives had been altered for the worse.

“Don’t even try it,” one woman instructed firmly. “My brother-in-law had to move in with us over 10 years ago, and our lives will never be the same.”

Too many stories poured in, infused with guilt, bitterness, and sorrow. In turn, I related each one to Bill, hoping he’d realize our lives could easily slip into theirs. He could choose not to come home, confident that I would care for her. I envisioned how I would become haggard and embittered, and our reduced lives would end our marriage.

“This will change me,” I confessed. The loving spirit I possessed was paralyzed by fear of the unknown.

Yet, I questioned if I even had a choice. For each day when I delivered Bernie’s milkshake, her face beamed like a child for this simple gift. How was this dear woman, now dying before me, to finish out her life? Intelligent, well-spoken and reserved, Bernie now babbled incomprehensible phrases, interspersed with sobbing. Dante failed to mention this circle of hell.

So what could I do? Since Bernie’s life was no longer in her hands, I owed it to her to make my hands capable. And somehow, with the Lord’s help, I did. By choosing to look at what I could do for Bernie instead of all that I couldn’t, I changed the climate of our house—to a place filled with life instead of fear and death.

“Okay, Bill,” I said, unwavering this time, “we’re going to rewrite the end of our story. We’re going to have a good ending, or at least a better ending to tell than those other people.”

I suppose it was blind trust. Bill and I worked out his part as he planned breaks during the day to run home and help me with the weighty tasks. I sought to care for more than just her basic needs. I let the Golden Rule become my dictate: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Bill and I showed Bernie our love and gratitude for her many sacrifices. I thanked her for being the mother of my husband, for her years preparing hot meals, keeping a clean home and making sure Bill minded his manners. Sometimes I sang, and her eyes would light up.

“People still talk about your coconut cream pies,” I’d say. “And I’ll never be able to make Thanksgiving dressing as good as yours.”

When I showed her photographs of her deceased husband, her eyes studied his face, and I talked about heaven filled with her loved ones.

On those difficult days when I ached for her shriveling body, which was wracked with pain, I kept uplifting music or television programs going. Mostly for me, I suppose. The time came, though, when I needed to call in more troops. That’s when I discovered our area’s hospice home health group. These trained men and women—a band of angels in disguise—offered comfort and expertise for Bernie’s last months.

They provided a support group, and Bernie and I both benefited from their competent care. The nurses monitored her changes, the bath attendants pampered her, and a volunteer even sat with her so I could run errands for a few hours one day a week. All were tender and compassionate, releasing warm scents of vanilla and cinnamon through our home.

Somehow throughout this time of caring for Bernie, I did change. I learned about dying, but most of all, I learned about living. I quit making excuses not to paint and write. While the hospice nurse or attendant cared for Bernie, I painted or wrote instead of doing laundry or dishes, even if it was just for an hour. I also experienced my relationship with Bill deepening to a new level as we worked together to care for his mother.

One early spring afternoon while I was feeding Bernie, she grabbed my hand and clutched it to her chest, an unusual gesture. Caught by surprise, I tried to interpret her need. I focused on her piercing blue eyes, now tender, and she offered the sweetest smile, an expression of robust gratitude. That was Bernie’s last thanks, and I’m still struck by its power.

“You’re more than welcome, Bernie. Thank you.”

~Ann Robertson

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