The other side of the coin
Fierce independence was a trait deeply ingrained in my mother. It had to be, or she would not have survived her dangerous, challenging life. So no one was more surprised than I was when, after yet another illness at 94, she declared it was time to move in with us…that she shouldn’t be alone.
In two weeks, when her health returned, all of her glowing thoughts about being with us disappeared, and she began a daily ritual of calling her list of friends to engage in loud conversations about how horrible her situation was to have to be with us.
In the daily care of my mom, the spiritual discipline of holding my tongue became my most necessary work. Remaining positive in a situation where your character is impugned every day and where your every motive is questioned, was an arduous inner battle.
My younger brother Bob called one day and during our debrief, he didn’t give advice. He did the best thing a person could ever do…he asked what I needed.
I just need to be able to call every day and say the things I can’t say out loud .
True to his word, my brother made himself available every single day…sometimes more. He gave me space to be angry, to be sad, to be wherever I was in the process of caring for an elderly parent slipping into dementia. He never judged, he didn’t try and and problem solve, and he didn’t try and talk me out of the work.
But he also knew when to speak, which came into play one day when mom called to disparage her situation yet once again. I could hear her in the other room when suddenly she became very quiet for a very long time.
I found out later that my brother had assisted her in having a “come to Jesus” moment and had spoken at length about legacy, about how she wanted to be remembered and about a little thing called gratitude.
Whether it was the call or the slow slide into dementia, a switch got flipped, and she began to slowly change.
This stoic, emotionally unavailable woman began to greet me every morning with her hands on my hips and a straightforward, soft eye contact. She embraced me with a happy smile and chatted like an old friend over all the mundane details of our nights and days. Every night, she tolerated my good night hugs, and the one time I forgot, she asked my husband if I was mad at her because she hadn’t received one that night.
And then one day, when we were sitting on the back porch in the summer sun, she spontaneously announced, “Why would I ever want to leave here? It is so beautiful.”
She lived her last five months in our home. She spent her last night across the hall from me. And her last words to me, before the EMTs discovered she was having a massive heart attack were,
I am dying. Don’t be sad.
But I was. And I called my brother that morning to process her passing. And I called him the next day and the next and the next after that.
It is now seven years since she passed. My brother and I are still having almost daily phone conversations. In essence, we are the keepers of the family memories- the good, the bad and the ugly. We reflect on them and exchange perspectives of our shared childhood experiences.
But mostly, I think, we strengthen a bond forged in the wild, inexplicable and often unsafe life we shared being raised by a German immigrant, war-survivor mother and a World War II veteran father, and living with torturous older brothers.
In a way, we were both in the trenches in our youth, fighting side by side for acceptance and understanding. We stood by each other when explosions happened all around us.
And when I entered this final battlefield, he was,as always, right beside me,
So often the one who cares for an aging parent gets all the attention and accolades. It is an arduous work for sure, and not for the faint of heart.
But behind the scenes, it was my brother, supporting and encouraging me and saying the hard things to mom at a critical point in her care that made it possible for us to complete the mission. I may have been on the front lines, but he was the supply chain and the medic.
And he was the unsung hero in mom’s final journey, of whom my husband Tim often says,
He saved our lives.