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.
(Note from Karen: This is a true story but my friends asked if I would change their names to protect their privacy. I was happy to comply.)
Eric walked into the kitchen as his young wife, Annie, was preparing dinner. The air was fragrant with the aroma of spaghetti sauce and garlic bread. After a long day at work, he was happy to see her and walked over to envelop her in a big bear hug. She was pregnant with their first child and was finally feeling better and interested in food again.
Yet, he seemed distracted when she offered him a taste of the sauce.
“Did the mail come yet?” he wondered out loud.
Annie recognized the anxious look on his face. “Yes, but your passport wasn’t in it.”
Eric looked at the calendar on the fridge. It was May 14 and he only had two weeks before their big trip (this was in the late 80’s when getting a passport wasn’t as complicated as it is post 9/11). He had applied for his passport in what he thought was plenty of time. He had expected to get his passport back last week, and it was getting alarmingly close to when they were supposed to leave.
They were expecting their first baby and for the last few months they had been planning a trip to Europe as a “last hurrah” before the big event. They were going to London, Belgium, Switzerland and then back through Paris, hitting the highlights of each city. And since Annie hadn’t been to Europe before, she was especially excited. Romance, adventure – it was to be their dream vacation, particularly since their honeymoon trip had turned out to be a nightmare due to a bureaucratic “red tape” fiasco.
Eric and Annie had gotten married in the Annie’s hometown in Canada. Eric was from the Seattle area, and they planned to live in the U.S. after their wedding. After the ceremony, they said goodbye to family and friends and drove to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were catching a plane to Hawaii. As a start to their new life together, Eric had planned a romantic honeymoon trip to the Hawaiian Islands. All looked promising. That is, until they got to the U.S./Canadian customs at the airport.
That’s when they were told that Annie’s “paperwork” wasn’t right. The U.S. Customs Service determined that her citizenship documents weren’t correct. Annie was refused entry into the U.S.
They were upset and confused. Before their ceremony they had been told that once they were married Annie would be allowed into the U.S. with no problem. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration didn’t see it that way. They had to cancel their trip.
At the immigration office, her honeymoon plans ruined, Annie fell into Eric’s arms and cried and cried. They begged, pleaded, and tried to reason with the border patrol to let them fly to Hawaii. But the curmudgeon guards, as unmovable as marble statues, wouldn’t be budged. Rules were rules. There was nothing more they could do.
After many phone calls to rearrange plans, Eric and Annie were finally able to drive to an old trailer on property that Eric’s family owned and camp there for their honeymoon with sleeping bags, an old hibachi grill and no hot water. They made the best of it. They were young and in love. But it wasn’t exactly the honeymoon they had dreamed and hoped for!
Now they were planning to take a trip to Europe and history looked destined to repeat itself. Could it be possible that lightening was about to strike twice?
Given their past issues, Eric applied for their passports in what he thought was plenty of time and expected to get them with a couple of weeks to spare. Annie had gotten her Canadian passport right away, but Eric’s U.S. passport still hadn’t arrived.
With only two weeks left until they were supposed to leave, Eric was getting anxious and irritated. Their tickets were non-refundable and, if they had to cancel their travel plans once again, they wouldn’t be able to reschedule the trip easily because of Annie’s pregnancy.
What was taking so long? He had allowed at least a two-week “margin” so they wouldn’t be in this position. The passport office was usually pretty quick to issue passports and there was no telling what the problem was.
They had saved and pinched pennies to be able to afford this trip as the tickets were not cheap. Things were not looking hopeful, and Eric knew that Annie would be devastated if this trip fell apart like their honeymoon. Worst of all, once again, there was absolutely nothing he could do.
They were down to the wire when, finally, he got a phone call from Annie.
“Your passport came! We can go!” She was so excited, her voice jumped up an octave, and she practically sang with joy.
Eric heaved a huge sigh of relief. “That’s great, honey. I was really starting to get worried! I don’t know why it took so long but I’m just glad it’s finally here.”
They went on their trip, had a great time, and didn’t give the late passport another thought… until ten years later.
Eric’s parents, Jim and Grace, had been married almost 60 years and loved to travel. They had been all over the world, from Japan to Africa. They loved venturing off to new places, just the two of them, and always enjoyed their time together. Even though Jim’s health was failing, he didn’t let that stop them from exploring new and different places. He had had a minor heart attack a few years back, and he valued every new trip with renewed vigor.
He was writing his autobiography and family history when he discovered that a close relative had, to his surprise, walked through the Panama Canal to get to the West Coast. He and Grace decided they would take a cruise that would partially retrace the steps of their family member. They had not been through the Panama Canal before so this seemed a great reason to embark on yet another adventure.
It was April, and as usual, the Seattle weather was rainy so it seemed a Caribbean cruise was in order. They left from Florida and sailed to a handful of islands in the heart of the Caribbean.
They had a lovely stateroom overlooking the water and Jim and Grace were quite content. The aqua blue of the Caribbean waters was soothing and the temperature was in the upper 70’s with just moderate humidity, making the weather perfect.
The ship passed through the locks of the Panama Canal and, as an engineer, Jim was impressed with the sheer magnitude of what it took to create a pass-through between the two continents.
They then sailed up the coast of Costa Rica.
Late Saturday night, he took Grace by the hand and said, “Let’s hit the midnight buffet, Momma. There’s Japanese food and lots of sushi!” Japanese food was his favorite and they had a lovely dinner, even though Grace noted that once he got there, he didn’t seem very hungry. But he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, nonetheless.
The next morning was Sunday and they got up early to get ready for the church service that was held aboard ship.
As Grace was getting ready to leave, Jim said, “You go on without me. I think I’ll stay and take a little nap. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Thinking he just needed to rest, Grace went on without him. When she got back to their room after the service, Jim was in obvious pain.
“We need to call the doctor now,” she insisted. He reluctantly agreed.
The ship’s doctor knew immediately that he was having another heart attack. He decided to rush Jim to the closest hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Grace sat alone in the waiting room. Periodically, they would give her updates on his condition. It didn’t look good. At one point, they told her they had lost him but were able to revive him. Then right after that, he went into kidney failure. She knew his condition was growing more and more serious.
That afternoon her husband of nearly 60 years slipped peacefully away.
Grace called her four children to tell them their father had died. Just saying the words sapped her of whatever strength she had left. On top of everything else, she was alone in a foreign country, grieving, and needed help getting her husband’s body back to the U.S. for a funeral. Losing her love of six decades was traumatic enough; having to deal with the maze of paperwork and logistics by herself felt like more than she could possibly bear.
She needed help desperately but she was in Costa Rica. She wanted her children with her and needed her children with her. Her oldest son couldn’t come. He checked his passport and it had expired. Her two daughters didn’t have passports. That’s when her youngest son, Eric, checked his passport. It had exactly two weeks left before it expired.
He was able to immediately fly to Costa Rica to help his mother and bring his father back home.
That’s when Eric remembered the two-week delay when he had applied for his passport, ten years before.
At the time, what seemed like an irritating and frustrating bureaucratic processing delay, now seemed like a precious gift.
In hindsight, Eric could see God’s hand at work.
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.