Thursday, August 20, 2009

" Sixty-five years. They go by in a flash."

" Sixty-five years. They go by in a flash."
William Parrish in Meet Joe Black

Between 1992 and 1995, I was the primary caretaker of my mother while she functioned as the primary caretaker for my father as they were simultaneously, terminally ill. I was 35 years old. Jim and I were married fifteen years, Barry was 12, Kara was 8. Looking back that summer was a summer of endless waiting.
I have since learned that was only one in a series of periods of seemingly endless waiting.
Mother was on a wait list to have double valve, double bypass heart surgery that could save her life, in the meantime, we tried to make her comfortable while her lips turn blue from a lack of oxygen.The stress of mothers failing health had a negative, ripple effect on my father. Dad had a stroke twelve years prior which at the time seemed to have created no physically apparent damage. As a result of stress characteristics of his dementia began to manifest at an accelerated pace. His dementia was growing exponentially until he changed from an intelligent strong man into a huge toddler in need of my constant supervision. Although he avoided to admit it out loud he had become very dependent on my mother. Married forty years; they were the personification of two people functioning as one. Mother was the intellect and dad was the physical strength.
We waited for ten plus hours in Mercy Hospital Coronary Surgery family room to hear the news how mother had survived her extensive surgery. Five hours into the wait daddy looked at me in panic and asked, " Who is going to take care of me?" "I will, daddy, I will take care of you." I promised that day. Through out my middle thirties everyday was consumed with driving my parents to doctor visits, making nutritious meals for Jim, Barry, Kara and my parents, doing laundry, finding home health care nurses, adult daycare, getting prescriptions filled, balancing check books, selling their home and personal belonging then finally making pre-funeral arrangements. There were times I was so sad, exhausted and frightened of what was going to happen next that I used to lie face down on the floor. Being prone on the floor used to help me fight the feeling of falling deeper into despair.
My father used to follow me around the kitchen at meal times so faithfully that my brother Mark joked, "To him, your name is Chuck Wagon." I can read this now and laugh, at the time my life and eyes were filled with tears of exhaustion.

I share just a few of the events from my three years of being a caretaker for my dying parents not to complain but to convey that wisdom may be gleaned from spending time with the elderly or dying person of any age. There is a book by one of my favorite authors M. Scott Peck called, The Bed by the Window. More than just having the privilege of spending their last three years as caretaker for my parents; I had the unique experience of being with them as doctors explained their prognosis of their near and eminent death.
It is a humbling and a powerless positions to look into the eyes of someone who has their days numbered before them. Knowing the roulette wheel was spinning towards an unknown date for my parents deaths opened a multitude of questions in my own life. The thing about being a caretaker is that no matter how good of a job you do the patient always dies in the end. The surprise element was my mom died just before Thanksgiving in 1994. My father died just seven months later on Father's Day 1995.
Part of the healing process for me was to ask myself if I had completed all of the goals for my life? Did I allow fear of failure to stop me from pushing myself into uncharted territories? What do I need to do each day so when I am in The Bed by the Window, I have no regrets of what might have been?
Facing these nagging questions led me to pursue what might happen if I studies art in college. Eventually the quest for graduate school was the driving force that propelled me away from the comfort and security of my home, my husband and my family last year to live on my own in Savannah...
Pictured here is a piece I made about My Life Unraveling at 35. Seven handmade, abaca paper squares are sewn into pockets divided by hairbands covered with my own hair. I had braided then cut my long hair at age 35 as a sign of submission, giving up my freedom, to become the caretaker for my parents. This small piece represents a monumental life experience when I was trying to maintain order as my life was falling apart.

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