101: Listen with Your Heart

101: Listen with Your Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Listen with Your Heart

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

You know how you remember that one moment in your life that changed everything? What you were doing when President Kennedy was shot or when man first walked on the moon? I’m dating myself, but that’s the way I’ll always remember the moment I found out my mom was dying of cancer.

I was attending Crime Bake, a mystery writers’ conference in Boston, where I had a total fan girl moment after interviewing the brilliant author, Sue Grafton. Exhausted but happy, I flew to Florida to meet my mom, Rita, in the new home she had purchased as a family vacation home for her giant brood. It was a gorgeous sunny day, with birds chirping, lawn mowers groaning, and kids squealing in their swimming pools. A very normal day for many, and then my world collapsed to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas,” the ringtone alerting me to a call from my mom. But it wasn’t my mother on the phone. Instead, my sister had the very unpleasant task of being the bearer of bad news. After going to the doctor with a cold and cough that just wouldn’t go away, Mom was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

I’m pretty sure my brain just stopped working at the word “cancer,” although I remember hearing “terminal,” “six months,” and “no hope.” Mom wouldn’t be joining me in Florida after all, and I just knew that I had to get on that next flight home. After blubbering my way through the airline conversation, tossing stuff in my luggage and waiting endlessly for the taxi, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around what was happening.

Walking into Mom’s house, reality quickly set in as somberness and tears permeated the room. Since she had opted out of medical care that offered no real hope, we knew home hospice was what we needed to do. Along with my eight brothers and sisters, a schedule was devised where at least two of us would be there at all times. When you add in the rest of the family, the house was never empty, and Mom got to see everyone for a final visit.

Being single, I moved in to begin a journey of the best and worst six months of my life. I thank God every day I didn’t have to go it alone, and that Mom had everything so organized. All the final decisions were made. She had already arranged her own funeral and paid all her bills. Mom never wanted to be a burden to anyone.

Now all we had to do was care for her, a woman who was used to doing for others and not having them cater to her every need. And, oh, how she hated feeling so helpless. She despised needing assistance to take a shower, go to the bathroom, and even change the channel on the television.

Still, in the beginning, it was pretty easy. Make some soup, sandwiches, egg salad. Give her Tylenol when she wasn’t feeling so good. But, eventually she needed a walker. One time, she needed to get to the bathroom in a hurry, so she tried to do it without the walker. My brother and sister were right there and chastised her for it, worried that she might fall. It was the first time I ever heard her use the “f word.” Her frustration and humiliation were felt by us all, but it only made us more patient and sympathetic.

Toward the end, she could only tolerate watching endless episodes of The Golden Girls on television. While I always enjoyed the show, we now found ourselves giggling at things the writers probably hadn’t thought would be funny, like the dated outfits. If their shoulder pads got any bigger, they’d all look like linebackers for a football team. But it provided us with much-needed laughter and brought back many memories.

It was during this phase of caring for my mother that she managed to give a lasting gift of precious memories to me and everyone else in the family. You’d think after 50 years, I’d know everything there is to know about my own mother. But I found out I knew very little. With her strength waning, we began going through old pictures, and she started telling me stories. Being the middle child in a pack of 14 kids, she led quite the life, and while I knew the basics, I’d never made time to find out the specifics.

It turns out she went to a one-room schoolhouse where every girl wanted to be a nun and every boy a priest. She loved school and was the editor of the school paper. Her favorite drink was Coke, and she dreamed of coming to the big city to work as a secretary. She was very fashionable and loved red lipstick. I was shocked to find out she could do a split and was very athletic (things that aren’t in my genes). When she met my dad, it was love at first sight.

I knew, of course, that their union produced nine children, 23 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren. But I was surprised when I asked her if she would change anything in her life. Without hesitation, she said, “Not a thing.” She felt blessed to have made it 80 years and felt that with her children she was leaving a living legacy.

In reality, I was the blessed one. By having those six months, I grew to know my mom more than I had in all the previous years. Our bond was stronger than ever. I now had memories and a family history I could pass along to my children and grandchildren. I do regret the years I wasted being too busy in my own life to take the time to stop and ask questions and really listen to the answers. It was a disservice to both of us, but like most young people, I was convinced that the world revolved around me. So, even in the end, she was teaching me things, like how to really listen. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that throughout this time, she gave me one more precious gift—a renewed, strengthened relationship with my siblings that persists to this day.

I never liked the song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and now I really know why. It’s not only about not being there physically for your kids, but not being there physically and mentally for your parents as they age. I can’t get back the years that I missed, but I can go on knowing that those last six months were God’s gift to me.

Being a caregiver is more than just dispensing medications. It’s talking and listening and helping and anticipating. It’s being there because you want to, not because you have to. I never realized what exactly went into being a caregiver, but now I have the utmost respect and reverence for those who endure every day. I also know that if I had the choice, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

~Barbara Vey

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