When did you first feel like a grown-up? When you graduated college? When you got married? Bought a house? Had a baby? Not me. Adulthood sucker-punched me at age 53, when I had to make decisions about my elderly mom.
Mom was a formidable woman. She came from a poor Cuban family of 11 children, the middle child in a family where the four girls were significantly less important than the seven boys. It’s sobering to be faced with the raw realization that you are a witness to your parent’s entire life. No, you weren’t there for all of it, but you heard the stories about her youth, how she was teased by her siblings, how she had to walk for miles to get to school in shoes resoled with cardboard, the heartbreaks that defined her. You begin to uncover the mystery that is the most influential person in your life.
She was always a dichotomy; confusing when I was young, mystifying to this day. She could be intelligent, polished and enchanting, but just as demanding, defensive and even vengeful. When her dementia could no longer be questioned, I watched, as if in slow motion, how all walls were torn down, defense systems were disabled, grudges disintegrated. All demands disappeared. Now, her memory is fractured. With every piece of her brain that collapses, another layer of memories vanishes, as if events never happened, and people never existed. Somehow, the best parts of her are left, but her memory is the price she’s had to pay. The human memory is marvelous and despotic all at once.
I didn’t count on having to adjust to it. Severe anxiety set in. I had to put our tumultuous history aside to care for this frail figure who could no longer remember if she had eaten or showered. I had to bargain sweets for pills when she refused to take her medication. At times, my husband had to be the dispenser because she would fight me so hard. We became parents to my parent. She was never one to walk off on her own, but she did forget to turn off the stove several times when alone. I never knew what I would find when I got home. The worst part is that she understood what was happening. She knew her independence had vanished, and the consequences of that reality. “I’m but a shadow of what I once was,” I heard her say one day to no one in particular with tears burning her eyes.
I didn’t have a clue what to do. The choices overwhelmed me, I had no siblings or family I could lean on other than my husband, but it wasn’t his responsibility to make critical decisions. It was all me. And the guilt, oh God, the guilt. I wanted to do right by her, but I also wanted the space to live my life, to travel, to write, to come home from work and not have to switch into caretaker mode without the opportunity to decompress. I felt like a failure as a daughter because I couldn’t do my duty.
Turns out I wasn’t a failure. A social worker told me in a tone full of gravitas that I would be neglectful if I didn’t find qualified people to take care of my mother, and that I wouldn’t be able to make the right decisions for her if I didn’t take care of me first. I did the best with the resources I had. That was no longer enough. My responsibility now was to find someone with the right skills to take over. I prayed myself to sleep asking for discernment in making the right choices.
After about a year of researching options that included private homes licensed as assisted living facilities, home care services, senior daycares and full-service institutions, a brand-new facility opened ten minutes from my home. The beautiful surroundings, well-trained staff and the proximity made for the perfect setting. And just in time, too. By the time they opened their doors, both Mom and I were reaching our limits. Mom was beginning to lose weight from her erratic eating habits, and falling into depression from all the time spent alone at home while I worked.
Almost immediately after she moved into the facility, a transformative miracle began to take place. With the wounds from Mom’s hard-fought battles forgotten, and my own hurts rendered obsolete, a budding new relationship emerged. On my frequent visits, we sit with her new friends, other golden girls, we draw, we play games, we talk about music and sing old Cuban ballads together. They’re always happy to see me. I love spending time with them. With Mom. I could have never foreseen that. She hugs me, she thanks me for taking care of her. If I hum a tune while we string colored beads into bracelets together, she closes her eyes like a baby under the spell of a lullaby. She blesses me when I leave. I have no recollection of that ever happening while I was growing up. In some ways, she is a better version of herself.
Until you go through it, it’s hard to understand. I don’t wish anyone the sadness of watching their parent relinquish a great part of who they are to this debilitating disease, but if it does happen to you, know that there can be silver linings and happy solutions. It’s all better now. After the moments of panic when there seemed to be no way out, I was granted an opportunity to renew this relationship so that when the day for the final goodbye arrives, I’ll have memories of singing, laughter, and peace to treasure.
Author: B.B. Free
Author Bio: B.B. Free always had a book on her nightstand from the age of three, and so began her love affair with language. As a teenager, poetry became her favorite vehicle for expressing the rollercoaster of those angst-filled years. When she became an elementary school teacher, she discovered the range and quality of children’s books and began creating thought-provoking storylines appropriate for children six to 11. This is when ‘The Rescuers’ was born, a South Florida Writers Association award-winning story, which will also be published in Spanish. Her passion for writing soon expanded to include adult fiction and non-fiction. And while she will continue to produce literature for children, she is currently editing a poignant, funny and stylish novel about female relationships, food, love and reinvention in sexy Miami.
B.B. Free is married and has raised a daughter, now 27. She continues to teach and foster the love of reading in young children. She also writes a food blog where she chronicles her adventures in pursuing another passion… fine dining!
Link to social media or website: http://www.facebook.com/bbfree61