29: The Healing Power of Toilet Paper

29: The Healing Power of Toilet Paper

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

The Healing Power of Toilet Paper

With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.

~Abraham Lincoln

A letter to the editor in our local newspaper complained about nocturnal pranksters stringing toilet paper on residents’ trees. That letter brought a flurry of responses defending this act as being a harmless tribute to friends: “It’s an honor to get toilet papered,” admonished one writer, “and good clean fun for teenagers!”

Reading these letters brought me chuckles and then tears as they stirred up old memories of my mother’s ninety-second year — a year Charles Dickens would describe as “the best of times, the worst of times.” She was terminally ill that autumn. And I watched, powerless, as my mother’s vigor and grit gave way to frailty and despair.

Mom’s ninety-second year was also my tenth one as her care-giver. A decade before, I helped her, as she liked to call it, “break out” of the nursing home where she resided. It was a fine facility with a caring staff. But Mom didn’t want or need skilled care; she wanted to live on her own and just needed some assistance to do so. Being in a more restrictive environment than was necessary had plunged her into a clinical depression; she got out of bed only at mealtimes and spent the rest of each day staring at the ceiling, disconnected.

And so I made a leap of faith. With her doctor’s blessing and my determination to help Mom live independently, I found her an apartment, furnished it, and hired a few part-time caregivers to assist us.

The risk paid off, and I was abundantly rewarded by seeing my mother once again enjoying her life. Icing on the cake was Mom’s eagerness to resume our fun-filled weekly outings — “adventures,” we called them — exploring country roads to discover what lay around each bend: a field of flowers, an old barn or maybe a country café to stop at for pie and coffee.

It was during these years of Mom’s need and my help that we became closer than we had ever been.

Though I still look back and wonder how I found the time and energy to manage Mom’s home and helpers, along with my own home, family responsibilities and job, I did handle it — one day at a time. Mom was happy and thriving; that kept me strong and resolute.

Then, ten years later, Mom was diagnosed with cancer. Following on the heels of her chemotherapy, she suffered a series of strokes that made walking difficult.

As Mom’s health declined, my caregiving duties increased, leaving little time for things like adventures. Those days the only unfamiliar roads we traveled were the ones leading to Mom’s new symptoms and my corresponding duties. Who had time to even think about fun or outings?

Then, one balmy September evening, for some inexplicable reason, I invited my mother to do a thing neither of us had ever done: “Let’s go toilet papering!”

I picked her up around twilight that evening and headed to a store to buy our double-ply ammunition. We devised a plan to paper the yards of her two other children, my brother and sister, and to hit a few of her grandchildren’s homes, time and energy permitting.

This outing would push my mother to her physical limits. Was I making a mistake? Her usual bedtime was 9:00 p.m. and it was already 8:30; we always used the handicap spaces, but this night, to avoid notice, I parked a full block from our first stop.

At that distance, we snuck arm-in-arm down the dark walk leading to my brother’s home. Mom’s steps were labored, but her attention was focused on the clear, star-studded sky and gentle autumn breezes.

Once in his back yard, I guided Mom to a small tree and handed her a roll of toilet paper from our canvas bag. Without hesitation, she shot it skyward. We watched the white ribbon sail over the crown and glide down the other side, leaving a streamer of well-placed Charmin.

I retrieved the roll and handed it back to Mom; she had both hands clasped over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Hugging each other, we glanced toward the patio doors and spotted my brother relaxing in his recliner. The sight of him so oblivious to our presence emboldened us to continue our shenanigans.

Bent over and leaning on me, Mom shuffled from tree to tree, gleefully pitching rolls like an ace. We were in a timeless cocoon where pain and burdens didn’t exist. Finishing the last tree, we stood a while to survey our handiwork; the moonlit yard looked like a surreal wonderland of shimmering white streamers. Mission accomplished, we headed back to my car, giggling all the way like two schoolgirls. Mom was to paper a dozen trees in four family yards that unforgettable evening.

We both knew this would be one of our last outings, but the lesson we took from it would ultimately help carry us through the rough days that lay ahead. Mom and I resolved that night to make some play time every day, in whatever way we would be able; I added crayons and coloring books to our shopping list.

The day after our big adventure, Mom and I sent an anonymous card to each of our victims, signed, “From your EXTERIOR decorators.” We laughed all the way home from the post office. In the coming weeks, Mom and I shared many more laughs after each of us received calls from puzzled family members wondering who had done those strange things.

Our family Thanksgiving gathering was at my home that November. To accommodate the thirty-some guests, I set dinner tables in my basement recreation room. My brother, sister and their families made many trips up and down the stairs that day to help carry food and dishes, and to use my first and second floor bathrooms.

That evening, my sister was the last to leave. At the door, she pulled an envelope from her purse, handed it to Mom and then kissed us goodbye. Baffled, Mom read the note: “From your INTERIOR decorators.”

For the first time that day, I had a chance to go upstairs; the entire second floor was strewn, top to bottom, with toilet paper!

My mother’s last year was marked by physical decline. Nevertheless, we kept our resolve to share some simple fun each day. Those lighthearted moments were like a salve on our stress, and they are the ones I’ll always remember. Toilet papering had taught us that play is, indeed, powerful medicine!

~Toni Becker

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