Photo courtesy of Peter Gerstenzang
I never knew a house could be so quiet. Or that as a middle-aged man, I could be so bereft and directionless. My mother died a few months ago; we were very close, so this would’ve hurt like hell, anyway. But in the last year, I became my mother’s caregiver. This, putting it mildly, was not my dream job. Yet over the course of that year, something changed. The more I cooked, cleaned, listened to mom’s stories and started running the house, I went from restless and resentful, to a man who actually liked his work. Taking care of this woman helped me transcend myself—for the first time in my life I became that guy who does stuff for other people, the one who actually cares. I miss that new me, almost as much as I miss my mom.
It’s safe to say that initially I would have been absolutely no one’s first choice to be a caregiver. I was your classic, carefree bachelor, living in New York City. I was good with dogs, passable with house plants—and that was about as far as my day-to-day concerns stretched. I loved being unattached and unencumbered. But when my mom was stricken with a serious heart problem it quickly became clear she couldn’t stay in our beloved family house alone. I was wildly unimpressed with the professional home healthcare workers I’d met: They seemed way too interested in babbling on their cells and watching daytime TV. So I decided to step in. I sublet my apartment, moved back to the house where I grew up in upper Westchester, NY and tried to take care of the woman who once did this job so well for me.
I won’t lie to you: I was not a natural. I had various levels of success with the vacuum cleaner and was vaguely competent using a pill cutter for mom’s meds. But when it came to washing floors and making meals, I experienced an eerie case of deja vu. As a teen, I had to do such jobs—and I hated ‘em. If I was being graded by Olympic judges, my scores would’ve been embarrassingly low for both degree of difficulty and execution. My cooking was particularly frightening: lumpy oatmeal, soup salty enough to send a seven year old’s blood pressure soaring, terrifying main courses.
What made this worse for me: my mom never complained. Sure, she criticized my impatience and my surly attitude, but never the work itself. Hello, guilt. But things change. Slowly, I started to master nursing and housekeeping. And I began to know this woman, not just as mother, but as person, too—one with actual feelings, experiences of loss and a (gulp) love life. Perhaps most enlightening was the conversation we had when my mom talked about my dad, who’d died a few years earlier. “Did you know,” mom once said, lying in bed, as I dusted her night table, “that your father and I genuinely liked each other? Sometimes, early in our marriage, we’d stay up all night, just talking. Even though we both had to get up early to go to work.”
My mother opened up about her childhood disappointments. She described the many nights she spent sobbing on her stoop until it was dark, waiting for a hard-driving mom who wasn’t coming home. It was startling enough to hear about my mother’s sadness. I’d never pictured her as a kid before—one who’d suffered a brand of loneliness she made sure my sister and I would never to face.
Then there were the confessions: wonderful, naughty stuff. My mother admitted that the only reason she so readily volunteered for nightly walks with Freckles, our Fox Terrier, was to sneak cigarettes, even though she claimed to have quit long ago. We both laughed hysterically at her unburdening. You had to be there. I might have heard more, but it was time to stop dusting and make a pot of soup.
My job wasn’t easy. There were harsh words followed by hours of angry silence. But these periods because less frequent as I got better at my own my reinvention. Having avoided grown-up responsibility most of my adult life, I came to rely on my new life and habits as much as my mother did. After a life of doing whatever whenever, I found that I liked taking care of somebody. I imagined a couple of ex-girlfriends whispering in my ear: 'Why couldn’t you be this way when I was around?’ Then I went and watered the plants. Which was exactly what I was doing when my mother died. I’d just finished up with the ficus and went upstairs to see if mom wanted any tea. Her death was quick and painless. But it didn’t make my panic any less real. It took five tries before I could correctly dial 911. And the real pain was yet to come.
See also: Why It’s Important to Celebrate. A lot.
It revolved around loss, of course. My mother and I, always on good terms, had become remarkably intertwined over the months that I cared for her. But as the days went on and I decided to stay in our house for a while, I realized something more profound and harder to shake had occurred. My self-identity had become so wrapped up in being a caregiver, I now had an impossible time picturing myself going back to my old life.
I had become a new person—one who had no idea what to do with himself. But that changed, too. I realized that next door, my mother had an elderly friend, Margaret. I started doing occasional tasks for her—little things at first, like bringing her newspaper up to the door. Then I started shopping for her. There were one or two other seniors on my street who needed similar help. Nothing huge: change a few out-of-reach light bulbs, or maybe re-attach a pesky lever on the garage door so the damn thing will actually go up like it’s supposed to.
I’m not a big believer in the spirit world. But now, every time I’m in the local market buying prunes (nope, not for me) or corralling an octogenarian neighbor’s dog that has scooted out of their front door, I hear my mom say, ‘Good work.’ It’s not like having her back. But it’s a nice feeling nonetheless. I’m back to dating, writing and being myself. But I haven’t forgotten what those months with mom taught me. And in a small but very real way? I’m a caregiver once again.