29: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

29: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

~Mother Teresa

It was one of those rare fall days when the sun shone brightly, warming everything it touched through the crisp morning breeze. I sat peacefully on my patio as I sipped hot coffee, wrapped in one of my favorite quilts, and savored the cozy contrast of cool fresh air mingled with the warmth of the new day sun. With such a magnificent morning, the promise of a great day seemed certain. Then the phone rang…

I heard my mom’s voice. “I’m not feeling very well, and I’m afraid. Would you mind coming over, dear?” she asked ever so sweetly. Well, honestly, it was my day off—and a beautiful one at that. I had a list of things to do, and my list did not include her. You see, I knew my mom as a master manipulator, and she knew it was my day off. I was certain that as soon as I arrived at her house, she would suddenly “feel much better” and want to go out to lunch. However, I sensed genuine fear in her voice, so I agreed to go over.

When I arrived at her house, I found her sitting on the couch, afraid to move or even speak. She was extremely pale, sweating, and clutching her chest. Terror filled her eyes. I will never forget those piercing, pleading eyes. Immediately, I dialed 911. When the paramedics arrived, they suspected she was having a heart attack and rushed her to the nearest hospital. After numerous tests, the doctors confirmed the paramedics’ diagnosis—a heart attack, but with serious complications. Then I heard the words, “Your mother probably will not survive.”

I was stunned! No one ever expects to hear those words. I felt overwhelmed by the myriad images and emotions that flooded my mind. I needed the world to stop so I could sort things out. But everything around me continued in a frenzied, chaotic turmoil. I turned to my confused, frightened mom to try to comfort her, but neither of us could speak. So much needed to be said, but neither of us knew where to begin. Our thoughts were interrupted by Mom’s cardiologist: “Immediate surgery is our only hope of saving her.”

The surgery lasted nine and a half hours. The rest, they said, was up to her. Mom fought hard to recover, as though she knew there was unfinished business to be concluded. Miraculously, she was released from the hospital two weeks later. However, her doctors recommended that she no longer live alone.

I considered numerous possibilities for her future care, but ultimately came to the realization that the task was mine. I would be her caregiver for as long as needed. It was the right thing to do. That was how she had raised me—to do what you have to do, whether you want to or not.

Had I known the extent of my commitment, perhaps I would never have made it. Mom lived 10 more years, requiring me to give up my career and devote every waking hour, and countless sleepless nights, tending to her welfare. The physical care was the easy part, but the unspoken emotions between the two of us ran rampant. The make-believe façade of our happy, loving mother/daughter relationship quickly came crashing down upon us with the agonizing weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies and neglect. Our history of pretension was undeniable, but this was the time for healing—for both of us.

The months passed slowly as I cared for Mom, with tormenting memories, long hidden in the shadows of time, surfacing to remind me that she had never really taken care of me when I was a child. To this day, I cannot recall a single time when she affectionately hugged me or told me that she loved me. I remember asking her once if she loved me, and she replied, “Of course, I’m your mother,” but she never said the words that I so desperately longed to hear. Sometimes, I would fake being ill because she would put her lips on my forehead to see if I had a fever, and it felt like a kiss. She never kissed me otherwise. When I was a young girl, I was repeatedly molested by someone close to our family; she chose to look the other way. When my stepfather called me stupid and said the world would be a better place without me, she never came to my defense. When I was raped at the age of 13, she suggested I must have done something to invite it.

At times, the tension between us was palpable. Here I was—sacrificing my own life to care for her when we both knew she had never cared for me. The irony repeatedly slapped us in the face.

As the months turned into years after her heart attack, we began to talk—long, healing talks about our mangled bond as mother and daughter. With every deepening and heartfelt conversation, each of us was set free, little by little, from the sorrowful chains of brokenness.

Finally, one beautiful fall morning, much like the one where our journey began, my mom died while I held her in my arms. The last words she spoke, as she looked deep into my eyes, were “I love you, baby girl.” I knew in the very depths of my heart that those final words were not only meant for that day, but were meant to reach back through a lifetime of neglect and yearning to re-write our history. And I wept. I wept for the loss of the relationship we had finally attained. But, more importantly, I wept for the little girl still hiding in the dark places inside of me, who at last truly felt a mother’s love.

I have come to understand that caregiving is more than the job of helping someone get healthy. It is something we do, not because it is “the right thing to do,” but because it is the purest expression of love. And when it is done from the heart, we receive far more than we give.

When I offered to care for my mom, I never dreamed the outcome would be my own healing. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of caring for my mom in her last years. Because of this very special time we shared together, she was released to die in peace, and I was released… to live in peace.

~Sandy Adams

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