Usually after a day with people, I’m looking for solitude and will avoid any space that is occupied—especially by just one person from whom I may not be able to escape. But that June day in 2011, at the end of the first day of the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop in Roanoke, Virginia, I wandered to the center of the Hollins College campus with a glass of wine and my reading assignment. The white rocking chairs on the veranda of the antebellum administration building beckoned. I answered the call in spite of the fact that someone else was sitting there. It was Elizabeth.
Since that week, I have seen Elizabeth only once: in Raleigh, where she is from but no longer lives. She travels across state lines to provide bi-monthly weekend caregiver respite for her aging parents. Little did I know on that day in 2011 she would become my sister on the journey of caring for elderly parents.
Following my move across the country, we have talked on the phone only once: when her parents’ house burned. But we email and text frequently. I know she is always there with a sympathetic ear. My blog, she says, inspired her to start a blog of her own. After Mama’s fall two weeks ago, she wrote in a post:
There are some days (by which I mean every day) that the universe reminds me that I’m not in control of anything and that the best I can do is dive into each wave as it comes and hope I don’t get water up my nose. Friday and Saturday were a double-header with heavy surf.
Friday started with a distressing morning text from my dear friend Gretchen—my comrade in arms in the seemingly endless task of maintaining quality of life for a frail, elderly parent. While all my lovely friends are supportive and sympathetic to my challenges in caring for my parents, Gretchen feels my pain like no other because she has changed her whole life to care for her 98-year-old mother in Washington State. We can trade texts and emails about the circuitous conversations, the needless speed bumps of day-to-day life in an already slow lane, and the steadfast stubbornness of parent-child dynamics across decades and understand each others variations on these themes as if we’d been by each others side the whole time…
What I most love about Elizabeth is she doesn’t sugarcoat the arduousness of this life we have more or less chosen. Well, I more or less chose it; she didn’t other than by default of being a good daughter, and a good sister to her sibling with whom she alternates weekends.
Maybe other parents for whom children care really are lovely people who provide not a moment’s grief to their generous, happily self-sacrificing children. Maybe other daughters are not exhausted and lonely, and not afraid for the toll all they have given up and taken on will have on them in the long run. Call me cynical, but I doubt that is the case. Maybe they are afraid to be honest for any of a number of reasons.
And then there are those who are not walking this walk who tell me I am so lucky to have a parent still with me; and that someday I will be so glad I did this. These last are the same kind of amnesiacs who used to tell me, after days of a colicky baby crying—the baby who will be 35 on Friday—and times I stood in the grocery store aisle trying to decide if I should buy milk or bread with my last two bucks, that someday I will look back on these days as the best of my life. I was skeptical; time has proven them wrong.
And so there is Elizabeth, to whom I can grumble and complain and know I will be understood and not judged. We don’t try to fix a damn thing for each other; there is no fixing. All there is is to find a walking partner. I just wish it weren’t such a long walk.
After Mama’s fall, and the 24-7 care with little sleep, during which I left the house twice in a week to go to the grocery store, I lamented to another friend—also on the other side of the country—“Did I sign up for this?” His response: “Yeah, you kinda did. It was inevitable once you crossed the ‘I’m staying longer than a year’ threshold.” Right. I guess I did.
This week I am on retreat in a house with only a cat—who is much quieter and much less needy than my cat. There is no baby monitor by my bed to which I lie awake straining to hear breathing or a summons, or hear Mama up again going to bathroom and know she isn’t sleeping and there will be consequences in the morning. Last night’s meal, prepared in 15 minutes and eaten on the sofa while reading a book, included no overcooked vegetables, no canned fruit, no lonely non-conversation, no perceived indigestible food carefully removed from Mama’s mouth and piled on the rim of the plate, no complaints about the dinner, no telling Mama what was still on her plate, no requests for reheated water. When I got up this morning—not too early because my cat wasn’t walking on me begging for food and because I didn’t have to grab the quiet time in the house when I could get it—I didn’t get an earful about sleep quality, or constipation or midnight bowel movements. I have my blood sister to thank for this time away.
So, my dear Elizabeth, my sister on the battlefield, these are not the best years of your life. I’m pretty sure you won’t look back on them and be grateful for the opportunity. But as my brand new friend, Julia, who is caring for her mother and blogging on the other side of the sea said, “[I am] here to honour a life well-lived… and to let something go, heal a heart, discover peace, relinquish a fiercely held and contested love with some kind of grace. On the day of my mother’s funeral, whenever that comes, I want to walk free of the past.”
Just as we were good enough parents, we are good enough daughters. There is no perfection in this life. I will not look back with regret that I didn’t do it better; I will look back with pride that I did the best I was capable of at the time. And that is enough.