I’ve been in Victoria, B.C. for only two days, after flying from New York, where I live. I’m here, the only child, with a shared power of attorney with a friend of my mother’s, to put my mom — one of the most ferociously private and independent women I’ve ever met — into a nursing home. She is only 76.
To describe this week as painful and sad and wrenching is to understate the maelstrom of emotions threatening to engulf us both. Yet there is no time to zone out emotionally or intellectually, no matter how tempting.
Despite my own fears, sadness, jet lag, fatigue and general sense of overhelmedness, like everyone trying to be a caregiver, I must be on, present, attentive, meticulous in my attention to every detail — from the screwdriver I need to borrow (a Philips head? not sure) to detach the antique medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom to sell at auction to the 24-paragraph contract I signed today with the nursing home, the one with so many contingencies it made my head spin.
The most challenging piece of all this? Taking care of myself.
So, which is not at all typical of how I handle my life, I am telling almost everyone I meet here, from the clerk at the grocery store to the woman selling me a mid-afternoon cappuccino, why I’m here, and savoring, gratefully, the kindness I encounter. Victoria is the Florida of Canada, the one city where so many Canadian seniors choose to retire — and often end up moving into a nursing home here. So everyone, from the attorney to the auctioneer, knows the territory and how it feels for the caregiver rushed into a welter of decisions.
What to sell? What to keep?
How do I break the news, as I had to this afternoon, sitting on the bed beside her in the hospital (where she has been for 3.5 months) that my mother’s new home — one small room — simply does not have room for two chests of drawers. Just one. Which would she prefer?
It is a hideous and heartbreaking question to ask. I wish she could have stayed in the other room we found — twice its size and easily holding many more of her beloved things. But the owner of that nursing home was a really nasty piece of work and also refused to accommodate my mother’s newly-discovered celiac disease.
There is no way to make life in one small room, eating meals with 52 strangers beneath extremely bright overhead lights, especially alluring.
And then I gave her, too soon perhaps, probably the worst possible news she could have heard, beyond a terminal diagnosis. She is a woman who traveled South America alone in her 40s, lived alone in Lima and Bath and Roswell, NM after married life in London and Vancouver and Toronto….it was, that because of her damaged lungs, she will likely never be allowed to fly in an airplane again.
Her shoulders sagged and I wished more than anything I could have snatched those words back again. But I could not. I cannot.
And she lives a six-hour flight away from me, an impossible distance for her to travel by car or train or bus. Neither can either of us, for several reasons, move closer to one another.
So I despair of my inability to comfort her and turn back the clock. I feel powerless and angry and sad.
So I call my sweetie and he hugs me over the phone. I sleep a deep, restorative 9 to 10 hours every night. I have a beer or a glass of wine. I sort through my mother’s linens and books and dishes and glasses and wonder when or where someone will do this for me. I vow to return home and clear to the bare walls our garage and storage lockers full of…stuff.
Here’s a fantastic, detailed story by author Gail Sheehy about coping with her husband’s cancer from the March issue of Woman’s Day on caregiving. The issue also contains a story about how to prepare for this role, with lots of practical advice.