En español | Twice in 10 months. First Dad died. Then Mom. I still can’t wrap my heart around it; still no need to dig deep for the pain. Talking about it, though, is a whole other story—actually, two.
My seven siblings and I became orphans last year. But first, we became caregivers.
In late January 2009, the oncologist’s gently dropped bomb exploded: Dad had stage IV pancreatic cancer. No cure. Chemo was an option, but Dad chose hospice at home. Three intense, exhausting weeks later—and two months shy of his 87th birthday—my dad was gone.
Then in May, our mom—who had multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer—reacted badly to chemo and was hospitalized. A week later, she was in a rehabilitation center and soon entered hospice, which provides at-home assistance to the terminally ill. As with Dad, we siblings rallied to her bedside, sharing frequent-flyer miles and needed cash so we could care for her at home.
This time, facing what we hoped would be a longer journey for Mom than for Dad, our out-of-state siblings, their spouses and older children took up the caregiver’s mantle, coming to Phoenix to help. Then we all started chipping in for a daytime caregiver.
Despite the extra help, the grueling schedules of full-time work and nighttime caregiving took their toll. In September, I moved from Washington, D.C., to live with Mom and work remotely. By November, it was time to take family medical leave.
"We couldn’t be shy, couldn’t be intimidated. We had to advocate for Mom."
We watched Mom’s body gradually vanish, but the passion and determination that had made her an honored community leader and activist—and made her Mom—remained. Her face brightened when she’d “order” us to wash our hands or pick up after ourselves, when she’d laugh at the silly humor my five brothers inherited from Dad, and when she held our hands.
Then Mom’s smile faded; the passion turned to peace on December 7, 2009.
Raising eight kids builds you up or wears you down. Mom and Dad grew strong. Even in their eighties, they kept their home spotless, planted flowers, argued politics, lived life fully and laughed a lot. I guess I thought that they’d stay that way, that they’d just slip away, still mentally and fairly physically intact.
The reality: Caregiving is hard, it hurts, it lifts you with hope then drops you into an abyss of fear. It makes you plumb the depths of your being for inner strength; makes you cry with pain, and with frustration; saps you physically and mentally; and lets you return, in the most intimate of ways, the love your parents gave you.
Inner strength. That’s what some people call it. Uh-uh. If you’re a caregiver, you wear it on the outside; it’s in-your-face, loud, frustrated and sometimes really, really angry. Like the day in rehab when Mom’s innards seemed to turn themselves inside out, sending her into a spiral of dehydration. The nurses would do nothing without a doctor’s orders, but where was he? We threatened to call 911 or take Mom to the emergency room. Before we could finish packing her things, an IV drip was started. Mom improved dramatically.
We couldn’t be shy, couldn’t be intimidated. We had to advocate for Mom—push, and keep pushing, for what was right. I started spending nights with Mom. On our own, we took Mom to her oncologist. My younger sister and I would play “good cop, bad cop,” but it was no game. We’d take turns complaining when Mom wasn’t getting her meds or meals on time, complimenting when things went right. But when after a week of requests Mom still hadn’t seen a staff doctor, we took her home.
As Mom grew weaker, we grew stronger. We learned to value the strengths and knowledge each sibling brought to our new reality. The computer-savvy searched for resources; the outgoing made phone calls; some of us cooked; some brushed Mom’s teeth; all of us found a wellspring of patience.
We learned to rely on the kindness of strangers. We felt blessed that Dad’s hospice nurse and social worker became Mom’s too. But when hiring daytime caregivers, we had to trust that they’d be good to her, gentle in their touch, loving in their attitude. And we found out that the right caregiver when Mom was stronger wasn’t the right fit when she was weakest. The first kept Mom active; the second kept her comfortable and feeling safe.
As I’d lie beside Mom at night, holding her hard-worked fingers, caressing her once-strong-and-broad shoulders, I’d marvel at how she managed to raise eight children. Whether she always knew that we’d all be there, right next to her and Dad, when they needed us most. I’ll bet she did.
The love they gave, the joy they brought, the utter heartbreak of hearing their last breath—each stage of life we spent with Mom and Dad remains. Maybe we’re orphans in name only.
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