16: Be Sure to Call

16: Be Sure to Call

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Be Sure to Call

Ritual is necessary for us to know anything.

~Ken Kesey

My relationship with my parents was a warm one, particularly in later years with my mom. She was always concerned about me, especially after my divorce. If I traveled out of town, she’d admonish me, “When you get there, be sure to call.” And when I would oblige, she’d sign off with, “When you get home, be sure to call.”

Though I often fussed about having to report in to Mom when I was an adult, it was comforting to know at least one person in the world cared where and how I was at every moment of my life. It was her way of showing her love and concern, and the ritual became a part of our lives. When I’d hang up the phone after “reporting in,” I’d often feel a smile spread across my face.

Always self-sufficient, Mom became even more independent when Dad died. At age 62, she bought a car and learned to drive for the first time in her life. In the following years, there were many more firsts for her, and she handled them all with the same courage and determination. As she aged, she remained the backbone of the family, always there when someone was ill, available to babysit the grandchildren, and she still played hostess for the constant stream of visiting family. At the same time, she enjoyed an active social life with her own circle of friends.

Then Mom began having what the doctor described as “ministrokes.” With each mini-stroke, Mom’s personality changed a little more. At first, it was only minor things like memory lapses. Being the sibling living nearest, I assumed the role of caregiver. My mother, the independent woman, did not accept the reversal of roles easily. As she so succinctly put it one day, “Who do you think you are? My mother?”

My siblings and I hoped for the best, but her condition slowly deteriorated until my daily visits weren’t enough. My older sister, also widowed, moved in with Mom. Soon things were going well enough that I accepted an out-of-state invitation to a friend’s graduation.

Mom hadn’t given her ritual order for me to phone, but when I arrived at my destination I automatically did so. When she answered and I told her I made it safely, her response devastated me.

In a voice devoid of emotion, she said, “Okay,” and then hung up.

I held the phone while waves of disbelief flowed through me. When the knowledge crashed over me that Mom wasn’t capable of loving me anymore, the grief that followed spawned a torrent of tears. Her physical body was still there, but that one person in the world who cared where I was at any given moment was gone. It was as if my mother had died, and I had already lost her.

In the following months, additional strokes weakened her even more. Until then, we’d been able to include Mom in decisions about her care. Now she was incapable of participating. When my sister could no longer handle Mom’s physical needs, we hired additional help. Then Mom fell and broke her hip. When she left the hospital, it was to go to a nursing home where the family stayed with her in shifts until she was able to leave.

After her hip healed, we found a family care home with loving people dedicated to their residents. After a few months, Mom became non-ambulatory, and the family care home’s rules wouldn’t allow them to keep her.

Horror stories about nursing homes haunted me as we searched for a decent facility. The one we finally decided on wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a bad place either. It was short-staffed, as all such facilities seem to be, but the people who worked there appeared to care.

My job allowed me the freedom to drop by every day. I staggered my visits, often getting there as early as 6:30 in the morning. I guess I thought if the staff didn’t know when to expect me, Mom would receive better care. And no matter how hard and long my day had been, I made sure to be there every evening so I could sit with Mom until she settled in for the night.

Conversations during those long evening visits were difficult. She often thought I was her sister or asked about people from her childhood as if they were still alive—including her long-deceased parents. I tried to tell her family news, but most of the time she didn’t know who I was talking about. My own children had spent a lot of time with her when they were babies, and she was especially close to them. When she couldn’t recognize their names or photos, it broke my heart.

As the months went by, in order to get through those visits and attend to Mom’s needs, I built a wall around my heart and feelings. I thought if I didn’t I’d never get through the long haul ahead. After that, I didn’t allow myself to see and love her as my mom, but only as a dear one who needed care.

There were moments when I thought Mom recognized me, but those were rare and short-lived. Then one night, after a particularly difficult time, I prepared to leave and went as usual to her bedside where she was nodding off.

I placed my palm on her folded hands. “I’m going home now. See you tomorrow. I love you.” That had become the new ritual—words mouthed to make me feel better because she no longer understood or cared what I said.

She stirred and opened her eyes. For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw recognition there. Her facial expression didn’t change, but she spoke in a sleepy soft voice. “Call when you get home.” Then she closed her eyes again.

I froze at the realization that my mom was still in there, the one who’d always loved and cared for me. The wall I’d built around my emotions crumbled, and that old feeling of comfort and warmth enveloped my entire being. It humbled me to think that even in the darkness that filled her room of memories, she could still find the remnants of a long-time ritual to show me her love and concern.

I left her that evening with something I had lost when I built that wall around my feelings—hope. Hope for more moments like that night’s, and hope that I could again love my mom completely.

Until Mom’s death at age 93, our times together were filled with love. Sometimes, we carried on simple conversations where I answered as her beloved, deceased sister. Occasionally, we’d have a moment of laughter. Often, we sat in peaceful silence. And, once in a great while, glimpses came through of my still loving and concerned mom, the one who hadn’t abandoned me, but had only stepped into the next room.

~Delois McGrew

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