In the middle of the night when I’m wide awake and fretting over things I can’t change, I watch really bad infomercials on TV. The one that bothers me the most is the sales pitch for reverse mortgages, aimed directly at the elderly. If you haven’t heard about it, a reverse mortgage (or lifetime mortgage) is a loan available to seniors, and it’s used to release the home equity in the property as one lump sum or multiple payments. The loan is repaid when the owner sells the property … or the homeowner dies. And this means the homeowner’s child (usually) will inherit a world of worries.
I’m sure I insulted my parents more times than they could count when I was an obnoxious teenager. But I never saw more hurt on my mother’s face than when she found my copy of the book, How to Care for Aging Parents. She was suffering from lung cancer that had spread to her breast and brain, and a team of doctors reported that she had two months to live. My father was in a late stage of Alzheimer’s disease and no longer recognized anyone in the room. I was overwhelmed with responsibilities, and at 24 years of age, I didn’t have enough life experience to know how to approach taxes, estates, retirement plans, and the loopholes of medical coverage. The book I bought was a caregiver’s bible, and I read each page word for word.
“This is a tremendous burden,” my mother said through a steady stream of tears. “You don’t deserve it.”
Whether I deserved it or not, I was in a situation by design and somewhere in the agony of watching my parents die at the same time was a valuable lesson.
My mother passed away within a matter of weeks, but my dad’s condition lasted a decade. In this time, I prepared all of his meals and handed out piles of medication. I washed his clothes and changed his bed…frequently. I told him when he needed to bathe and stood in the bathroom to make sure he followed directions. I delivered him to doctor appointments, filed his tax returns, and gave him things to do to occupy what was left of his mind. I corrected BAD behaviors, which upset me to no end. He had become the child and I had become the parent.
And after a five-year break (if having two children inside of three years is considered a “break”), I’m returning to the job of caring for an ailing relative. My aunt, widowed and 81, having no children of her own, can no longer live alone. I am her only niece. She is my mother’s only sister. She needs protection, and I’m going to provide it.
Until this month, my aunt lived in Greenbrier County. She weighs about 90 pounds soaking wet, and she eats like a bird — if she eats at all. She was born prematurely in 1929 — so early that the doctor placed her in a bed to die. No one bathed her. Yet, she kept on breathing. She kept fighting. Since that time, she survived miscarriage after miscarriage, three bouts of cancer, and the loss of a kidney. She has lost every family member who ever meant anything to her. Yet, she wants to be close to me in these last years. And I admit, long-distance caregiving has taken its toll on me. Relying on other people to visit and arranging home health providers to check on her wasn’t easy, particularly when those “helpers” delivered groceries as a means of getting in the house to rob her. Particularly when a “helper” threw her to the floor when she caught on to what was happening and ordered the intruder to leave.
Like a toddler resisting daycare drop-off, my aunt put up another fight when I suggested assisted living. “I’m not giving up my home AND my animals,” she said. Ah, yes. Her pets. Two dogs and two cats kept her company when I couldn’t. “And don’t you dare stick me in a nursing home. We’re not there yet,” she said.
Indeed, she is a tough old bird. But she loves me, and when I held my own babies for the first time, she was there representing my mother. She is the last connection to my mother.
If God wants us to do something — the impossible, even — I believe matters will be eased up to make the job manageable. This belief was confirmed when the house next to mine went on the market, and the owner gave me first right of refusal before it was handed over to a realtor. If my aunt lived that close, I could take care of her AND my own family. To our surprise, the price was well below what we were expecting to have to pay, and her house in Lewisburg sold within two hours. Two hours. Obviously, this is meant to be.
After I buried my dad, I told my husband that I hoped my dues had been paid in full. I prayed that I’d never have to go through anything like that again, but clearly, I have another lesson to learn. God’s not finished with either one of us. Perhaps I’m figuring out that my calling, so to speak, is to be a mother. But it extends beyond those small people ages 8 and 5. As for learning something new? Surrendering control, I suppose. Learning how to give in a little, but not to give up entirely. Most importantly, I’m learning how to give back.