Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Love Story for Valentine's Day

My mother, Mary "Martin" Campen.
I have just finished reading Jo Maeder's true story, When I Married My Mother: A Daughters Search for What Really Matters- And How She Found it Caring for Mama Jo. The author makes a compelling case that "until a daughter is able to truly embrace her mother and appreciate her, she is not fit to embrace the rest of the world".  I believe from experience, she is right! I took care of my mom for the last seven years of her life and it became a very defining time for me.  I appreciate that not all have this privilege and for those that have many siblings, care of a parent may not always be divisible between them for geographic or other reasons.

I did find, like this author, caring for an aging parent often means turning your life upside down and rearranging it but is well-worth the effort. The intimacy of care-taking really does test a person's faith and fortitude and causes growth and love that cannot be measured.

I am the second born child in my family out of four kids, though my younger brother died at age thirty-three. Being a middle child, I had to surrender my role of baby two times to my brother and sister. Not only were they younger, but both had medical needs that required more of my parent's care being portioned out to them. Both were born enough years later that our family seemed to be naturally divided into two different families, each with its own culture as my parents were better able to afford raising the last two children and yet my older brother and I had younger and more active parents. I think in the end, we got the better portion of their lives, though I experienced much jealousy, as suffice it to say, the younger ones were more endulged.

While my younger years were what I considered to be ideal, my teen years weren't so much. Despite my parents high level of involvement during my high school years, there was an on-going back and forth struggle to become independent. I don't think this is unusual, though not all parents were "shorted" in their own upbringings, nor had the challenges that my parents did with their younger children. My mother was the fifth of eight kids and always said she was too old or too young to get the benefits awarded to the older or younger children and my father was orphaned at an early age and raised in an orphanage. They were excellent parents to young children but our teen issues left them perplexed and conflicted between being eager for us to emancipate and not wanting to let go. The 1960's and 70's had many revolutions taking place as well that marked us as a generation very different from that of our parents. I found myself emancipated early and yet unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.

I was naive and dependent on my parents for helping me make decisions though they weren't always "in step" with my generation. As I tossed about on the winds of change,  I was fortunate to land in the office of the college psychiatrist who finished what my parents could not and left them scratching their heads as to where they went wrong! They thought I had many "screws loose" to need such support. Relating to my parents adult-to-adult was further challenged when my younger brother suffered a severe physical decline with an atypical case of Multiple Sclerosis and my younger sister was dealing with serious drug addiction problems. My parents had little time to relate to their older children or be grandparents to our children.

Life had ceased to go as my parents had planned and they had their hands full taking care of my younger brother and sister as well as their children and later they even took on the final raising of my oldest brother's son. Not only had the lives of my younger siblings unraveled but so had the lives of my parents! Parents grow with the needs of their children, but my parents were challenged with extreme needs they never imagined, ones that were beyond their planning or control!

After my dad died and my aging mother needed support, I knew what needed to be done and did it, though like Jo Maeder, the family I had emancipated from had grown very complex such that embracing the care of my mother in her senior years was no simple task. Mom had hoped to remain in her own home but got little support from my sister and was aging and often left alone with the responsibility of caring for what had become my sister's unruly teenage daughter. I was a wife and mother of two teenage girls and suffering with a chronic illness whose symptoms meant fatigue and exhaustion and was struggling to work a part time nursing job as well as tying fishing leaders at home to help support my family. Still, I didn't see any choice but to offer Mom the support she needed, never mind any inconvenience to us.

I was reminded as I read, When I Married My Mother, how  I had flown home to Denver to bring Mom to Vermont, before thinking through every step. Suddenly I was helping her dissolve her home and relocate though neither of us had a clear plan. I quite literally prayed my way through each day and still marvel, as it seemed that everything miraculously fell into place.

After bringing mom to our home, she and I busied ourselves purchasing a beautiful little show home next door to ours, as my husband's sister and her husband were hired to repair, sell and pack her home. Moving her right next door to us, we would be able to provide assistance to her on an ongoing basis while she could maintain some independence and we could still have some privacy for our family as well.

As I moved into the role of becoming mom's caretaker, I had to work at re-establishing her trust in us and the process was not always straight forward. I sought private counseling which was invaluable.  I learned to better understand that any unresolved issues I had, now needed to be resolved on my own and to accept her "as is" and go forward. Truth is "old dogs do have difficulty learning new tricks"! I had much to learn about taking on the care of my mother and she had much to learn about surrendering herself to being watched over and eventually "cared for" versus " her being "the care giver" she had always been.

Caring for my mother made me realize The Superwoman within me!
Limits were set before permanently moving Mom to Vermont.  I could "take on" Mom's care but not the care of my sister and her child in the middle of it all.  They were both very unstable and boundaries needed to be established.  These boundaries were tested, as mom struggled to "let go" of helping my younger sister. Mom would call our small town banker to send large amounts of money to my sister to fix problems that couldn't be fixed with money alone, while I struggled to physically and mentally juggle my mother's needs along with working, and caring for my own family.

Like Jo Maeder, taking care of my mother was not done for financial gain and there were many a day that we wondered if it would bring our financial collapse. I struggled to maintain my work, marriage and raising our kids while "taking on" spending any time I had left, with my mother. My husband and I were shouldering many extra stresses in caring for my mother. What kept us going was the strong resolve that my mom needed help and that we were the ones that needed to do it. Making it all happen was a daily journey for our whole family. Adjustments weren't always easy and indeed, I often questioned my sanity, as did others around me.
My sanity was questioned? How odd as my family was always a bit insane!!

Like the author of this book, I have not regretted taking care of my mother. It was more than the right thing to do, it was a privilege despite the sacrifices.  It was an honor to get to know and love my mother in this way. It was a journey of love and faith and a blessing that I will never forget, and the growth wasn't all mine. Our entire family grew during this undertaking as everyone's help was needed.

Caring for mom  (light jacket), meant getting to know her well: child & adult.
Do read When I Married My Mother by Jo Maeder.  It is a heartwarming and very funny book. She learned just as I did, that dementia has many different sides and must be broached with humor, and love. You will laugh and cry with her, and get a first-hand look at what it means to take on the care of an aging loved one.

I recently wrote to a friend who is concerned about becoming a burden to his children, to tell him that he needs to consider the growth of his children. "Not allowing them to have the experience of caring for him in his old age would deprive them of one of the greatest lesson's of their life," I wrote. It was a unique opportunity to become more loving and mature as I faced my mother's mortality along with our own.

Caring is done in different ways and we learned that not all care is necessarily done in your own home, but caring is being there to share in our loved one's journey to death and advocate for them as they once did for us. Although a piece of us dies when they die, it also releases us to love in ways that we never imagined!

Care-taking is doing what we would like someone to do for us when we reach that stage of life. None of us wants to be a burden to our children, but rest assured whatever our needs, burden is not the word that I would use.  Life from beginning to end is sacred and learning to love the end phase of life is just as important as learning to become parents to our infant children! Don't miss reading this book to see what such a journey entails.

The gift of supporting aging parents and/or friends is there for the giving, and how sad that we often fear this choice so much that we avoid it instead of embracing it. Learning to love is at the heart of it all and no subject is more fitting for Valentine's Day. Loyalty, dedication, and sacrifice is at the root of real love!  I am not receiving any financial kick-back by recommending this book--it is just a beautiful love story that I believe should be "required reading" for what should likely be a "mandated" course in learning to love!

Happy Valentine's Day to all my readers!!