My mom has always been an amazing woman… strong beyond belief, sharp as a tack, and more energy than a roomful of Energizer bunnies! No kidding, my dad had a stroke when he was 53 (his left side was paralyzed) and my mom took care of him single-handedly for almost 22 years until he died. For all intents and purposes, she had no life besides caring for my dad. She never considered that there was any other choice.
Mom’s of that stereotypical Midwest-Norwegian farm heritage… up at the crack of dawn, get done what needs to be done as quickly as possible and don’t stop ’til you drop. She took care of my dad (never herself) from sunup to sunset, day after day, year after year.
After my dad passed away, my mom cried and grieved for about a year and then the butterfly emerged from the cocoon. She sold the house and moved into a retirement community as one of the youngest members. She made new friends, traveled the world, and was in charge of just about every volunteer activity you could imagine.
That’s why it’s so hard for me to wrap my arms around my mom now (figuratively speaking, of course). It was about two years ago that my bright, energetic, superwoman mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Her onset of Parkinson’s was gradual at first. She would fall on occasion (I was with her when she fell and hit her head while traveling in China and Spain, which was really scary in foreign countries!) and she complained about feeling stiff all the time.
She had a slight tremor in her hand but, still, the diagnosis came as a shock.
The doctors put her on medication to slow down the progression of the disease but it slowed her down, as well. That, and the fact that her body is just plain worn out after years of taking care of my dad…
This is so not what I expected.
This sounds tacky but I always sort of expected that one day we’d hear that my mom just keeled over and was gone. Simple, quick and fast—just like my mom.
But actually, these days she’s looking more like the other, non-Energizer bunny—the one who just slowly winds down and painstakingly stops running.
I don’t know if it’s the Parkinson’s, the medications, or a combination of both, but my mom is acting very differently these days. She falls frequently, needs a wheelchair often, and is getting confused with details more and more often.
And quite honestly, I haven’t been doing so well with that. When mom says something that is off the mark, I get irritated; not all the time, but sometimes she says things that are so out of character, I am shocked. Then I hear myself talking to her with a tone of voice that is appalling and I hate how exasperated I sound when I respond to her.
I have been trying to figure out why I get so irritated with her. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s an issue of my expectations: I expect my mom to be “her old self” and when she isn’t, it makes me sad and hurt and frustrated and angry, all at the same time.
I miss my mom, the way she was. I miss her quick wit and her humor that got her through so many really, really tough situations. I miss her spunk and her tenacity and her perseverance in the face of challenging adversity (let’s just put it this way, my dad was a great guy but would never be nominated for sainthood!). And I miss the person who emerged from that cocoon of self-sacrifice to enjoy living life with a zeal that was a pleasure to watch as I saw her get back some of the “quality of life” that she had missed for so many years.
I know intuitively that Mom hates being in the position she is now. She doesn’t like needing to be the one being “cared for.” She has always been the caregiver so this is a new role for her. And one she wouldn’t have chosen if she had a say in it.
So it’s time for me to emotionally be okay with letting her be who she is now, the same person only in a very different stage of life. It’s time for me to pause and differentiate between my mom in my memory and my mom today with Parkinson’s (she can’t change her Parkinson’s and neither can I—even though we both would want to).
And, most of all, it’s time for me to remember that each day with her is a gift, because no matter what, she’s still my mom and that, I would never change.
This morning, out of the blue, I got a Facebook message from an old friend. He asked, “Are you still waiting for Y2K to hit?”
I’d like to share my answer to that question with a little background first.
For many of my friends who knew me in the late 90’s, I was very involved in “the whole Y2K thing” because, for me, it wasn’t about a “computer problem,” it was about three things:
- Being prepared for any emergency.
- Being emotionally okay during hard times.
- Being ready to serve others if the need arose.
You see, “being prepared” made sense to me. My dad was an independent insurance agent and he drilled into my head since I was very young that unexpected things can happen.
Even as a little kid I remember having fire drills at home so we would know how to get out of the house and where to meet if there were a fire. I was admonished that under no circumstances was I to stop to go get my favorite stuffed animals and that my parents would be responsible to get our dog out of the house. We kids weren’t supposed to worry about anything; we were just to get ourselves out of the house (I’m a firstborn and they knew me well!).
Obviously, nobody “expects” to be in any kind of accident, but accidents happen – whether it’s your fault or not. That’s what insurance is all about. It’s about planning for something that might happen so you’re okay if (or when) it does.
At the time when people were thinking about possible Y2K problems, I was also very concerned about how women, in particular, were coping emotionally with their concerns about how life might change if there were a crisis or emergency. Since by training I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist, I knew that difficult circumstances can create enormous pressures on people and can have major consequences. Trying times can often draw people together but it can also pull them apart.
I was also concerned about being able to care for others. As a person whose faith is very important to them, I know that in both good times and in desperate times, there is a call to help people in need. When I think of how to take care of the people I love, I also need to think about how to care for my “neighbor,” whether that person is next door, in my office or in another part of the world.
So I began writing an online newsletter called “Dear Karen” with advice on being physically, emotionally and spiritually prepared for what might happen in an emergency or crisis.
And the good news was that when the clock turned over to the year 2000, many of the problems had gotten fixed or didn’t happen and everything went back to “normal” for most people.
But I continued to write my column for a few more years because for a number of people, they actually did find themselves in difficult or challenging circumstances.
I got many letters from women whose husbands had lost their jobs, had passed away or left them alone to fend for themselves and their kids. I got letters from women whose neighborhoods had been hit by tornados or floods or lost power for long periods of time from snowstorms. I also got letters from women whose best friends or neighbors had run into seriously hard times. But because they had prepared, they had their basic needs covered and were okay until they could get back on their feet (or they were able to share what they had with others).
So here we are in 2009 and given the current economic crisis, things are happening we never imagined or expected. And not only are they happening, they are on the front page of the newspapers, TV and Internet with lightening speed – increasing anxiety and fear like never before.
With that as background, here’s my response to my friend’s question:
“Unfortunately, “Y2K” is hitting everywhere… economically! It was always about being prepared for an emergency or crisis… and for many people, sadly, they are in a crisis and aren’t prepared for it. The good news is always that God will see us through… even in the difficult of times.”
The three things I was concerned about then, I’m concerned about now: that people haven’t planned for a “rainy day” (which was always the mantra of parents of Baby Boomers), that stress is taking its toll on individuals and families, and that the economically hurting “newly poor” now include our families, neighbors and friends and maybe even… us.
That’s why I want to share now, as I did then, that there is hope. Hope that we can handle whatever comes our way, we will get through this, and with God’s help, that it is never too late.
And if the problem sometimes feels too big, remember this. My favorite old joke has always been, “How do you eat an elephant?” The simple but profound answer is always the same, “One bite at a time.”
Let’s pass the fork.