Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Caregiver

I found it in the kitchen drawer. Cryptic notes on a page from a tiny tablet, dates, times, and amounts of liquid morphine and the other medicines I had given Mom her last few days of life. I'd had to write it down to keep it straight in my mind.  July 24, July 25,  right up to 11 AM on 26th, the last time I gave Mom her meds.  She opened her eyes and her tiny little breaths, short and gasping, ceased.  She quietly passed from this world at 12:06 PM.  I am unwilling to part with this little piece of paper.  It means something but I don't yet know what it signifies.

By placing myself here, at the keyboard, I'm feeling a heavy weight bearing down on me.  I don't want to write, haven't written since February.  I have been telling myself to channel my grief and sadness into my paintings, into the non-verbal discourse of art.  But that's not happening.  I'm sort of stuck, plugged up, corked (I think they call this "denial.")  I'm wondering if I've even begun to grieve.

Sadness and grief are partners but they are not the same.  I am sad, most certainly.  But there are feelings buried inside that I don't even begin to want to explore. Perhaps it's like returning from a trip or retreat or "mountaintop" experience; not wanting to talk about it too much for fear the telling of it is remembered more than the experience itself.  Are these memories too precious to be spoken of or too painful to admit?

Maybe I should begin by telling you that I was my mother's caregiver.  What a dignified title, "caregiver."  I didn't seek it but I  accepted it and I think I eventually learned to do it well.  Finally.  In the last few days of my mother's life.

I had really hoped that when Mom and Dad moved in with us they would be able to enjoy life in Saint Charles.  I dreamed of Mom and me going shopping and enjoying painting together.  I hoped Pop could walk up and down Main Street, smoking his cigars and flirting with the shopkeepers.  But by the time we convinced them to move in with us, Pop was recovering from triple by-pass and gallbladder surgeries and Mom's leukemia and congestive heart were advanced.  She was already dying, had been dying, by inches for a very long time and we just couldn't see it.  That sounds paradoxical because we had thought she was dying, expecting it for years but she had this amazing knack of recovery.  Total rebound that made us question each episode that preceded it.  Now, looking through the lens of the last few months, I see it all much clearer.

It didn't happen the way I'd hoped.  Mom lived here pretty much the same way as she had before coming, mostly in the bedroom and sleeping much of the time. We did a couple of shopping trips, a few lunches out, and maybe one or two times in the studio.  She expressed much regret and a lot of desire but never had the physical or mental energy to get out and do things.  But the one thing that I regret the most is that Mom was disappointed in our relationship.

Mom had anticipated life here as an extended vacation, much like the times that I had spent with her in their home in Alabama when we came to visit.  At the time they moved in with us, Tim and I were still teaching classes two-three nights a week and had a studio and gallery to run.  Even if I had had nothing to do, I still wouldn't have wanted to sit beside her bed all day long, to the exclusion of all else, drinking coffee endlessly and waiting on her needs (this was pretty much how my visits to Alabama went.)  But not only that, we found ourselves butting heads over almost everything, especially the dispensing of drugs.  And as the caregiver, I took that business very seriously.

If it was a matter of giving something other than the doctors had prescribed, I could not be swayed. My mother met her match in me.  Mom, who had spent her entire life governing herself and making up her own mind about which drugs to take and how much and when, now had a daughter telling her what she could and couldn't have.  We argued about this and other things, and Mom lamented that I was not the "Chrissy Jane" she thought I was and that even though she was so thankful to have my care and to be living with me, it was not what she had anticipated.

Now for my moment of self-justification:  even when I did take the time to sit with Momma, she would pick up a magazine or watch tv or most often, take a nap.  I would slip away and return to whatever I had been doing.  I thought that between mealtimes and coffee times and bedtime snuggles we had shared a lot of times but Mom said she thought it would have been better if she had stayed home.  At least, she thought, the boys checked in on her now and then.  No matter Dad was in his chair just outside the bedroom door.  No matter that she had been desperately lonely on the farm before she came.  No matter that we were living together, not visiting a few brief days a year.

She was dying and needed lots of love and reassurance.  Because I was suffering from caregiver fatigue, and because she'd rallied so many times that neither I nor any one else believed she was ever going to really die, and mostly because it happened so gradually that I didn't believe the evidence before my eyes, I withheld the last bit of energy and love that I could have given.  Until she was really and truly dying, and then I gave her my all.        

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What is Joy?

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." James 1:2,3

What is joy?  Emotion, certainly, but not in the same category as "happiness" which is fleeting.

-deep satisfaction in God, his goodness, grace, love, provision and purpose
-rooted in knowledge that is tested, tried and true

John Piper paraphrases the Westminster Confession: "God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him. "

I confess I distract myself with trivialities, the shallowest of pursuits, none of which produce joy OR happiness, like playing in a tidal pool with the Atlantic Ocean at my back.  But no, that is not apt because tidal pools are fascinating and wonderful, even though much less so than the entire ocean.  It is like being invited to the most glorious bangquet imaginable but preferring to eat rice cakes instead, alone, at home, by myself.

Why do I do this!? I think, at the deepest level, even though it is tasteless, boring and bland, I prefer my own company to that of anyone else.  I am most satisfied in myself.  

(to be continued.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Family Friendship

I'm getting to know my parents on a different level, one of friendship more than kinship, I suppose.  I've enjoyed an "adult" relationship with them since I got married and moved out at the very young age of 18. We lived near them, as a young married couple, and I spent a tremendous amount of time with them then, perhaps too much (if you ask Tim.)  I thought I was very adult at the time.  Basically, I was seeking a new recognition and approval from my parents of their grown-up, married child.

I attach significance to dates and anniversaries, for some unknown reason. For example, I remember when I turned 36 and rolled into the "I've been married longer than I was not" stage of my life.  We had been in the Navy for eleven years and lived in many places around the US as well as two years in the Philippines.  We had not, as a family, lived near my parents for a considerable amount of time.

And as it turned out, we never lived in close proximity to them again until they moved in with us last April.  Even though we had visited with them on a regular basis, sometimes three or four times a year, I regarded them in much the same way as I did as a child. I told them about my successes (they applauded.) I shared my heartache (they sympathized.) We laughed at old jokes, the familiar family lexicon, baby language that is undecipherable to the uninvited, uninitiated, the outsider. That intimacy of shared experience.

Do we ever "know" our parents?  Supposing one had a good childhood (as I did) and good folks (which I have) and, all things being equal, has a good relationship with one's parents. Do we build upon that foundation or just take it for granted?  Do we look at them fairly or are we prejudiced in favor of childish wants and needs?  How do we shift into a different mode of communication when all our lives we've been parent/child and not friend to friend?

One of the greatest challenges for me, since my mom and dad moved in, is learning how to be a caregiver without being condescending.  The roles have shifted somewhat, but please Lord, help me not assume that I am now 'parenting' my parents.  I want nothing more than to be  good, kind, concerned and at times, a firm giver of care to my folks.

And, may I make one thing clear?  Do not ever think I am being self-sacrificing or noble in having my folks live in our home.  There are all kinds of reasons for them to be with us right now, but one of the most important is that it is much easier to care for them when they are near. It would have been impossible to help them if they'd had to move into an assisted living facility in Alabama.  If you've ever had a loved one in a nursing home in your own town, you'll know what I'm speaking of.  There is always the guilt at not spending enough time with them or having to pick them up and take them to their doctor visits.  Whereas physically it is more demanding to have them live with us, emotionally it is far far better. And there are so many gifts I have received from them.

By far the greatest of these has been knowing them better.  Mom has had to fuss at me a few times to stop me from being so bossy.  She is teaching me how to give graciously and love well.  I am beginning to see so much of myself in her, which leads me to greater understanding of myself.  I am hearing her voice in a way I never did before.  I'm enjoying her company in a different way.  It's hard to communicate with Dad because of his hearing loss but it is so worth the effort.  I try to include him in all of my conversations, no matter the difficulty.  He surprises me sometimes at what he hears; it seems selective at times!  Because he needs to be as self-reliant as possible, I try to not smother him with too much care.  We try to get out and "mess-around" (running errands, WalMart, Post Office and such) every couple of days or so.  These are our bonding times.

Our youngest son, Ben, has been in transition over the last seven months and has lived with us for a few weeks, here and there, during that time.  I realize that I did not know him, really, not like I do now.  He had, after all, been gone from our home since he was nineteen years old.  And even though we lived in neighboring towns and visited back and forth pretty regularly, we were stuck in that parent/child mode of communication.  Seeking approval or solace, stuffing each other into boxes that they do not fit (or perhaps, never did), making presumptions and misjudgements.  It is utterly fantastic to spend time with him, this fascinating man that he has become.  I would never have know what I was missing if he hadn't moved back in for these brief spells.  What a loss that would have been.

The only way I can insert myself into my daughter, Cara's, insanely busy, complex life is by taking the train to Springfield and spending a few days with her and her family.  Living together, talking for hours, running errands with her, drinking gallons of coffee and playing Scrabble  endlessly on my iPhone.  I haven't been able to do that with her that since my parents have moved in and I grieve for the loss of that precious time with her.

Our middle child, Andrew, lives in Houston.  We haven't lived near to him since he was seventeen years old.  We dropped him off with relatives in Alabama to work the summer before college because we were moving across the country, to California.  We've always rolled out the red carpet for him when he came to see us, three or four times a year.  Like the prodigal son returning, we'd kill the proverbial fatted calf, trying  to stuff into those few few days the kinds of life experiences that build up the commonality, the lexicon of family intimacy. In recent years, we have spent many lovely times together, loving each other and counting our blessings, but we have not had the leisure of living together. I doubt I truly know who he is and I'm sure he doesn't know us anymore.  We've all changed, grown and hopefully, become more fully who God has intended us to be, but we are familial-strangers.

I guess my purpose for writing this is to say that I am a very blessed person.  I am eternally grateful for the precious opportunity to know and love and serve my family in this way.  Don't congratulate me or pat me on the back because then I will think I've done something special rather than being the recipient of treasures beyond compare.  If ever I begin to act or sound otherwise than joyful or grateful, remind me of what I've just told you about family friendship.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Downy Comforter

We closed the door.  The room was dark.  We crawled under a plush comforter on the tall, four-poster canopy bed and talked. Well, mostly I talked and my friend listened. Each time I paused, my friend would say something like, "It seems like you've got a lot of people depending on you." After about an hour we heard people stirring outside the bedroom and she said, "We probably should be getting out there in a minute or two, but before we go, let me pray for you."  She prayed for me.  Me, who always prays for others, who strengthens and sustains, counsels and cares for so many, for my strength to be restored and for encouragement and joy in my heart.  Soft tears fell gently from my eyes.  I felt her love and sincere friendship enveloping me and through her, God's love.  My heart cried out "Let this be enough.  Let this be...."

Today, on Face Book, I shared with my friend (who has cancer and is receiving radiation) the terrifying news of my dad's tumor, plumbing the depths of her experience.  She asked me pertinent questions and then proceeded to pray for me in her reply message. I received her words like a feather comforter being wrapped around me, melting into my skin and covering me with grace.  Warm tears blurred my eyes, obscuring the prayed message words.  I am comforted, consoled and humbled by the love of God expressed through my friend.  My heart cried, "Let this be enough.  Let this be..."

And now I am going to snuggle into that same downy comforter and let the goodness of friends and the love of God expressed through them console me.  When I rise I will be the comforter and strengthener of the ones who need my loving care.  And I will try so hard to remember that I have the privilege to give that which I have been given and that it is enough.

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, 
Weak and wounded, sick and sore; 
Jesus ready stands to save you, 
Full of pity, love and power. 

I will arise and go to Jesus, 
He will embrace me in His arms; 
In the arms of my dear Savior, 
O there are ten thousand charms. 

 "Come Ye Sinners", Fernando Ortega