Right before my mother had her stroke on August 17th, I made reservations to take a solo trip to California to visit my friends and recharge my batteries. I scheduled the trip for mid-September. Max was going to hold down the fort so I could go to California without worrying about my mother. I ended up cancelling the trip at the last minute because I could not see myself leaving my mother at that time. She was out of the hospital and in the rehab facility, but it just seemed too soon to leave. We were both confused and unsure of what was happening. I was too raw and my brain was too flooded with emotion to consider stepping away for a week.
We started forgoing vacations even before my mother’s stroke because it was difficult to leave her on her own for more than a couple of days. Even though she was living reasonably independently in her mobile home, she had no safety network in Florida and she often needed help with routine issues that come up in daily life. For instance, she would sometimes have difficulties getting the air conditioning or heating to turn on and stay on to the temperature that felt good to her. When I was home, it wasn’t a big deal to run over to her house and help her when there was a challenge. I could try to anticipate and take care of as much as possible before leaving, but she still often experienced unexpected problems when I was on a trip. It became more anxiety-fraught than it was worth to leave on a vacation.
When my mother started on the hospice program and I was losing myself in her illness, Max thought it would be good for both of us to have a vacation on the horizon. Being the maniacal planners that we are, we have always believed that anticipating a vacation is almost as big a pleasure as actually going on one. Even though I felt a bit stressed and pressured at the idea of planning to leave my mom, it did help to fantasize about a vacation. When Max pushed to actually schedule a trip to California, I felt a bit panicky because I was concerned that we would commit the money for the plane tickets and then have to cancel at the last minute again because of my mom’s condition. On the other hand, we were scheduling the trip four months ahead of time. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone, including my mom, thought she would still be alive by the time our airplane went wheels up.
As time passed, my mother stabilized. She adapted a little more to her condition. She settled into the nursing home and seemed comfortable there. Although one of my favorite hobbies is anticipating vacations, I could not wrap my head around thinking ahead to the trip. I worried about leaving her. I didn’t want her to feel abandoned or sad. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t love her or that I wasn’t going to come back to her. I worried that she would stop eating altogether if I wasn’t there to make her ice cream sodas and bring her McDonald’s milkshakes. I tried hiring a neighbor to visit her and bring milkshakes while I was gone, but it turned out she had a trip planned at the same time as ours. I wanted to go and I had a sneaky suspicion that I was getting to the point where a vacation was becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity, if I wanted to keep getting out of bed each morning. Still, I was hesitant.
I wasn’t worried about the care the nursing facility was giving my mom. The staff has been wonderful with her. They make her laugh, which is officially my favorite thing in the world right now. They treat her respectfully and affectionately. They provide what she needs. The sweet hospice nurses volunteered to bring daily milkshakes so my mother would not get out of the habit of consuming some form of nutrition. I don’t think I was even really worried that she would die while I was gone. She seemed pretty stable and, honestly, I think my mother would almost prefer it if she were to die without me being there. It is kind of a mom thing. I think, at this point, she would rather die gracefully alone and protect me from the grief of watching her die.
Still, there was some huge something that was preventing me from anticipating the trip with pleasure. In short, I think it was some deeply buried belief on my part that my presence is some sort of talisman against my mother’s physical and emotional pain. Something in me thinks that, as long as I am there, I am some sort of shield against her hurting physically or emotionally. It feels like, if I can control the amount of time I spend with her, I must be able to control how much she hurts. That is clearly not true, given what she has been going through the past several months- even with my regular presence. The truth is hard to take. No matter what I do and no matter how much time I spend with her, I cannot change what I want to change- the reality that her condition is life limiting in every sense.
After much mental percolation and urging by everyone in my life, I decided to take the vacation. My mother gave me a wonderful and unexpected gift in the last week or so before we left. She was able to tell me that she was glad I was getting to go. Max and I ended up having a great time. Max and I had fun and enjoyed just being with each other, surrounded by the activities of our old life. I realized that the sneaky suspicion I had that the vacation was becoming necessary was more than a suspicion. I came back lighter and more refreshed. I was more able to perform my daughter-caretaker role. You always hear that you have to take care of yourself so you can care for others better. I understand that, but, like most caretakers, I tend to really believe that, with enough effort and will, I should be able to provide the best care even without taking time out.
My mother did great. She also seemed better than she was before I left. We have enjoyed clearer conversations and more laughter. I sent pictures from my phone to the hospice nurse while I was gone, so my mom already had some idea of what I had been doing in California and was well-prepared to hear about my adventures. In fact, it was kind of nice to have something new to discuss. Going to the nursing facility nearly every day, there isn’t much that comes up between visits to be fodder for new conversations.
I’m very glad I loosened my grip on my mother’s care enough to take my week away. I had to loosen my grip on her care to grasp my own.
What have you done to take care of yourself when you were in a caretaking role? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.