Saturday, June 25, 2011
Like many women, I sometimes feel like the Queen of Guilt. It started in my childhood, as these things usually do. I felt guilty when I made a less-than-perfect grade, because I was a perfectionist. I felt guilty when I dropped out of college after one year, disappointing my parents. I felt guilty wanting to get married at 19 and choosing to marry an active alcoholic. I felt guilty because I had to work and put my kids in day care. Through the years, I have felt guilty for just about anything, from what I choose to eat and not exercising enough, to playing the harp too infrequently and not making enough quilts. I feel guilty when I procrastinate about balancing the bank statement. Oh, brother, do I feel guilty!
But some of the worst guilt feelings I have ever experienced have been in the last three years, and they involve my mother (now 88).
Mom, having lost Dad in 1980, has lived independently all these years until she was involved in an auto accident and broke a hip and ankle. After the hospital gave their exceptionally wonderful trauma care and sorely lacking followup care, she moved to rehab. The next step was up in the air. She clearly couldn't live by herself anymore. Even if she completely healed from her injuries, she was getting macular degeneration and blepharospasm, she had one hand permanently in a claw-like position and arthritis had deformed all her fingers, so going back to her little house was out of the question. My sister Joy, who lived locally around Memphis while I was up here in Maine, visited a few nursing homes but she said the ones that Mother could afford were bad. So there was only one thing left to do.
My sister sold her beautiful dining room furniture and turned her dining room into a hospital room for our mother, as it was the only first-floor room she could use. She installed the hospital bed, potty chair, wheelchair, and all the other accoutrements of postsurgical/elderly care, and moved Mother in with her. Mother has been there ever since.
I can't help but admire the sacrifices Joy has made in these last years. It started with getting up every night multiple times to care for her, and as Mother got more mobile, Joy was in charge of making sure her prescriptions were refilled and picked up, her doctor appointments had to be scheduled and Joy had to take time off work to drive her there. She has had to put up with everything that living as an adult with your elderly mother entails. With her own daughter starting 12th grade, a second daughter in college, and full-time job, and her activity in her church, Joy has had her hands full. On top of that, Joy has had to take care of Mother's house, making sure the grass was cut and beer cans from the neighbors were out of the yard, that it was not broken into, that repairs were made, and gradually Joy has cleaned out the house so that she can finish repairs and put it up for sale.
Oh yeah, and Mother's dog? Joy had to adopt it, too. (For a few months, Joy had her own old dog, her late father-in-law's dog, and Mother's dog all at the same time.) Add vet visits and dog-hair cleanup to Joy's overflowing schedule.
You can see where the guilt comes in. Joy is sacrificing her family life, her social life, her personal mental and emotional sanity, privacy, and any hope of being able to just relax and do something for pleasure and recharging. Meanwhile, except for a short yearly visit to stay with Joy and help with Mother (which brings it own set of problems, having to host out-of-town relatives, of course), I have been sitting here in Maine with a predominantly non-stressed life. I like my job, my kids are all grown with their families and doing great, my husband is retired so he stays home and cooks wonderful meals every evening, my house is quiet, we live in the country, I have time to do my hobbies. Just because of the fact that we moved to Maine 15 years ago, my sister is having to handle this life stress all by herself. Hence, the guilt. Powerful guilt.
A few months ago, Joy and I started mentioning in passing how nice it would be if Mom would come stay with us for a while. When I even mentioned the idea, Mom scoffed and changed the subject. She has never flown and won't start now and refused a car trip. So the conversations progressed to more pressing suggestion, that she really needed to take a break and come up here for a while. Nothing worked. It finally was clear that only an order would be accepted, so we just flat out told her she was coming.
So in a couple of weeks, my 88-year-old mother with her walker and her prescriptions and her topical lotions and potions and her walker and clothes and, yes, her dog, will be living here with us. I didn't have a dining room to turn into her bedroom, but I do have a very small third bedroom I've been exercising in, so that's what she will have. We've been cleaning and organizing and buying things and hanging curtains, and trying to arrange furniture to be walker-friendly and getting ready for another dog to be living here, as it's been over a year since our Babe died.
It will be a stressful trip bringing her and the dog back. She has bad anxiety and tremors anyway, and this will be hard on her. But I think once she gets here, she will relax and settle down and get into a new routine. After all, we told her, Ed and I already live like old people. We have no social life, we eat at 5 p.m., we watch old movies from the '30s and '40s on the weekend, our house is elder-friendly (wide doors, push handles, etc.), and we have put cable TV in her new room just for her. Add that the fact that she can see her grandchildren and her 3 great-grandchildren on a regular basis, and it sounds very good, doesn't it? Mother has never liked change, but I think she has finally adjusted to the idea of living with us.
I am really looking forward to it, also. Sure, it will assuage some of my guilt for Joy having to have borne the burden ever since Mother's accident, but here's something surprising: Along with my guilt has been some jealousy, too. Joy has gotten to interact and take care of Mother for quite a while now, and now, it doesn't just have to be my turn, I want it to be my turn. I talk to her every night but I really miss her, and I look forward to touching her old gnarly hands and kissing her good night on a regular basis. Oh, I'm sure the stress and irritation will wear on me - it'll be like having a little kid at home again that you have to worry and watch out for, except this kid will query me every time I leave "shouldn't you wear a hat?" - being the stereotypical "once a mother, always a mother." We will have to make sure her prescriptions are refilled, that she gets to the doctor, the dog to the vet, that she gets to watch her favorite TV shows. We will have to figure out what to do about holidays since she will probably be homebound when the snow and ice starts this winter. I'll have to get comfortable exercising in a more crowded part of the house somewhere, and poor Ed, who thankfully genuinely likes my mother, will not have much privacy anymore and won't even be able to cuss loudly at the weatherman. It will be a major change in our lives.
But I will have a little less guilt and a little less jealously, and I am grateful for the opportunity. My sister has been a saint. I will never be able to be as conscientious and organized as she has been, but we have one thing the same in Tennessee and Maine - and that's lots of love to offer. Wish us luck!