Family members should support and care for one another no matter what, especially when the chips are down. I shared in the care of my mother, Maryann, toward the end of her life. The experience was extremely humbling and fulfilling.
My sister Alisha was the principal caregiver. Mom and Alisha lived together, and my sister handled the lion's share of the care, while I pitched in with financial support and time whenever I could.
Mom was a rock within our family, a picture of health and strength. My father worked two jobs, sometimes three, which allowed my mom to stay home to raise five kids. We came to see Mom as being capable of doing and overcoming anything.
So when her health started to decline in the mid-1990s — [with] a cascade of issues, including triple-bypass surgery, diabetes, neuropathy, and pulmonary hypertension — it was shocking for us to witness. Here was this pillar of vitality battling to maintain a basic quality of life. She even lost toes to diabetes.
But she never sought pity. Mom was a woman of strong faith, and, as much as she relied on us as her health declined, she leaned even more on her religion. Mom never wavered in that devotion. She persevered and lived life to the fullest.
But no matter how upbeat the patient is, caregiving is hard. You are watching someone you love deeply fight for independence. And you can do only so much to stave off the inevitable.
Yet [caregiving] can make you a better person. My siblings and I learned so much — about patience, optimism, and the power of love. During the last six months of Mom's life, she needed help just to turn in her bed. My sister and my wife were there, helping Mom around the clock. When they needed a break, I would spend the night in the hospital, so Mom knew she had family there. As strong as my mother was on the exterior, she needed love and care and sensitivity, just like all of us, and we wanted to make certain that need was met.
The strains of caregiving can be intense — mental, physical, psychological — all poignantly intertwined. You are often asked to provide strength for the person who you have looked to for strength your entire life.
But isn’t that part of what love is about? Finding within yourself the willingness, the desire, to give back to someone who has given so much to you?
Every day, I made sure I told Mom, "I love you very much, and I thank you for all that you've ever done." (I confess: I've always been a mama's boy!)
After five months, Mom wanted to go home. We tried to bring her, but she was too sick. So during her last month in the hospital, someone from the family was by her side around the clock. We played her favorite spirituals and gospel music to help keep her strong. We knew she could hear even though the doctors said she didn't. We knew she did.
And while our vigil was surely comforting for her, it also helped us: In the end, we had no regrets. Also, we all knew Mom would have done the same for every one of us, no matter what stood in her way.
It was that certainty from our upbringing that helped me and my wife when we decided to bring my brother to live with us. Before Mom died, he had suffered a couple of strokes. He has recovered somewhat but still faces daily struggles — physical, mental, and emotional — so we wanted him in our home, around family.
Of course, that presents its own set of challenges. For one, I am asking my wife to help provide for my brother when I know how much she's already done in caring for my mom. But she understands family love. And I've reciprocated with her family and will always do so when they are in need. That's crucial in a marriage: knowing that each partner will show the same degree of care and love to the other's family.
So far, we've avoided "caregiver burnout." Our faith gives us strength and helps keep things in perspective. And I realize I am fortunate to have a stable financial situation, along with hobbies and outlets that help refresh my mind, spirit, and attitude. I enjoy working with kids, I have a classic-car collection, I love going down to the waterfront; that's probably most important to me, finding some peace and quiet, getting away and doing absolutely nothing.
At the same time, I try to avoid "majoring in minor things" — i.e., getting distracted by too many little tasks and pursuits. I constantly remind myself what's important in life. It's yet another [token of] how Mom taught me to live, and I am forever grateful for every moment we had together.