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.