25: Trading Places

25: Trading Places

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Trading Places

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.

~Thornton Wilder

My mother was one of the strongest, most independent women I’ve ever known. Her mother died the day after her birth, and she survived a horrendous childhood, filled with two or three stepmothers and an abusive father.

Like so many in her generation, she became the single mother of two small children when my dad was drafted into the army during WWII. Only months before he left, they lost their third baby to whooping cough three weeks after his birth.

My mother struggled through the illness and death of my father when they were both only 41. I was married and had a baby girl at the time, so I did not witness firsthand how strong she really was, but I heard about it.

So it was with dismay and sadness that my two siblings and I received the news that, at the age of 88, our indomitable mother was diagnosed with stage III lymphoma. We had recently faced the fact that dementia was progressing quickly, and that the woman we knew and loved was disappearing before our eyes. With the lymphoma, her prognosis was six months to one year.

Since my mother lived in the same town in Southern California as my sister, Mom’s care fell to her youngest child. My brother and I both live in Illinois. Our sister kept us informed of Mom’s condition, and my brother and I both flew to California to be with her that last spring. When Mom’s doctor told us that our mother could fly to Illinois for one last visit, our reaction was combined joy and sadness.

The three weeks my mother spent with my husband and me in our home is a time I will always treasure. There were moments when she called me “Sweetie,” and I knew that she did not remember my name, perhaps did not know who I was. Only weeks before that, she had introduced me as her niece, even once asking my sister who I was. That was tough.

Often, as she napped in the rocker, I sat and watched her with tears in my eyes, knowing that it would be the last time she would be in my home. I cooked the foods she liked, ate with her, sat with her, and tucked her into bed every night. She had never liked showers, but one day I asked if she would let me help her bathe.

She thought about it for a moment. “That would be nice,” she said. “I’ve been afraid that I would fall, so it’s been a long time since I took a shower.”

I don’t know how to adequately describe my emotions as I helped my mother undress and get into the large, walk-in shower in our master bathroom. I eased her into a secure shower chair, padded with a thick towel for her comfort. I soaped and washed her back, and she said, “Oh, honey, that feels so good!” I swallowed tears as I gently washed her pale skin, taking the same care I would have for a small child.

During those three weeks, I did everything I knew to keep her comfortable. I reassured her when she could not find her way out of a room, calling “Barbara?” as she had done when I was a child and she could not find me. Her confusion progressed quickly during that fleeting time, and her short-term memory became nearly nonexistent.

I accompanied her back to California, reassuring her every few seconds that our plane tickets were safe. I left her in my sister’s capable, loving hands and flew home, knowing that I would not see my mom alive again. Only 12 short weeks later, she passed away.

Three years later, following a hip replacement, I found myself in need of care. Luckily, I had close friends and family members nearby to provide the assistance I needed. My son loves me, but he was not one to provide hands-on care. My daughter, older granddaughter and my grandson’s wife did the hard stuff!

But it wasn’t until the day that my daughter told me she would help me shower that I realized I had, so to speak, become my mother. I took a deep breath, knowing that the moment could be traumatic for both my daughter and me, before I shed my robe and put myself in my daughter’s hands. She had never seen me nude. Gently, she soaped and washed my back, and I closed my eyes, so very grateful for her compassion and willingness to help me.

“Oh, honey, that feels so good!” The words popped out of my mouth without a thought, and I was instantly transported three years back in time. For a moment, it was almost confusing, for I had suddenly become the older woman, dependent upon care from a loving daughter. I didn’t let her see the tears that spilled down my face, but I could have blamed them on the shower.

There is no other vulnerability quite like sitting naked, and helpless, while someone else washes the body we have always cared for. Gratitude, however, far outweighed any shame or embarrassment I might have felt. I am still a distance from being the age my mother was when she died, but I’m aware, up close and personal now, how fragile we are, how quickly we can lose our proud independence, how possible it is that we can become like a helpless child again.

What makes it bearable is knowing, hoping, that there will be someone to love us, to care tenderly for us when we can no longer do it ourselves. I’m grateful for my “trading places” moment, for I now know how my mother felt when, for a short time, I was privileged to be her caregiver. I treasure that moment, holding it close to my heart, remembering.

~Barbara Elliott Carpenter

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