The Helpers

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping” (Fred Rogers). The quote is out of context, but since I first saw it on Facebook following the Boston Marathon explosions, it has stuck with me. I don’t think I have ever been as aware of the helpers in my life as I have since I moved back home almost three years ago to accompany my mother as she journeys toward life’s end.

Following the end of my most significant and long term relationships, I fell into a “do it myself” mode. A personality trait that, according to Mama, began early in my life with the declaration, “I do it myself, Mommy!” (She still finds me stubborn; the apple doesn’t fall far.) But somewhere along the way I lost the drive, or allowed it to be stolen from me by stronger, more confident partners. On my own again after 30 years, I found my mojo again. I had a circle of beautiful friends, but I lived alone. By myself I earned a living, made home improvements, restored a garden, shouldered grief.

After eight years of mojo rehabilitation, I drove across the country, by myself, to begin the hardest and loneliest gig of my life.

I have done a lot of car travel since I moved—there are so many places to go in this beautiful corner of the country, including my grandson’s home two hours away—and I’m currently listening to my 64th recorded book. It’s a memoir about a newly divorced mother raising three boys on a Michigan farm (Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass, Mardi Jo Link). And it’s a tough go. I keep talking to her from my quarterbacking chair behind the steering wheel. “Ask for help, you idiot! What is the matter with you!” Then I remember all the times I didn’t ask for help. And that started me thinking of the helpers in my life now.

David, the geriatric social worker who persuaded my mother she needed to hire regular help, that I would burn out, that I needed to be here as her daughter and companion, not as her chief bottle washer. He has met with me several times to help me make sense of the bumpy path I’m on.

Jill, the first regular caregiver, who had cared for her father until his death and really got what this gig was like for me when I felt like a lazy loser for needing her. She was here for Mama’s well-being, but she was my own first support staff. Unfortunately, Mama wasn’t pleased with her, because she wasn’t Michelle.

Michelle, who rearranged her clientele so she could be with Mama regularly. She got Mama, and was patient and gentle, and understanding of all Mama’s ridiculousness. She knew the routines, she knew which cupboard the cinnamon went in. She conspired with me to keep Mama happy. Then Mama got tired of her.

Catholic Community Services who kept trying to find the right replacement when it felt hopeless.

Sam, the current caregiver who has hung on for a few weeks now, doing her best to learn all the “rules.” The jury is still out, but she has lasted longer than the three interims.

Henry, the high school student from Mama’s church who reads to her on Tuesdays and has an amazing voice.

Mama’s primary care provider who listens patiently to the same issues over and over, mostly constipation. Home Health and Hospice who have just begun coming: professionals paid to listen to Mama’s complaints. They will tell her the same thing I do, but hopefully Mama will believe they know what they’re talking about.

Dan and Chris, who clean the floors, take care of the yard, change light bulbs and smoke alarm batteries, and generally satisfy Mama’s need for the male species to “get stuff done” that women “can’t” (or won’t) do.

The neighbors: Sandy and Bob who have been the neighbors forever; Audrey who continues to visit Mama regularly even though I’m here, and Brad who takes the garbage to the dump and was in his orchard to call 911 when Mama fell in the garden and we spent the night in the E.R.

Carol, my high school classmate, who shoved her way into my life when I was trying to be a self-pitying hermit, and has become my best local friend. And Harriet in Seattle who is a lovely new friend.

Dianne, Joanna, and Janis who share writing with me, both in person and through the cloud.

Julia in England who lives with her mother, and Elizabeth in Virginia who cares for her parents—recently saying goodbye to her father—who share their stories with me and listen to mine.

Kristi at the Yoga Loft for the weekly infusion of lightness when the world feels unbearably heavy.

All the readers of this blog, especially those who let me know they read it and love me anyway, and those who share their own stories of caregiving. Those who link my blog to theirs, especially Karen Maezen Miller, bringing new traffic and inspiring me with their own writing.

Writers of memoirs about caregiving. I am not alone on the island.

Daughter Emma, and Wynne and Elliot who welcome me into their tiny home for a weekly infusion of city, young people energy, and baby love.

And, most of all my sisters who appreciate me: Rebecca who accompanied Mama for years before I came, and makes it possible for me to get away frequently for a day or two; and Jo Ann who flies across the country so I can take longer vacations.

I still don’t ask for help as much as I should. It’s less these days to prove something to myself—I’m satisfied that I am capable of much more than I ever thought I was—but I’m still trying to prove it to Mama who thinks only men are capable of doing anything outside of the kitchen and laundry room, even though she did when push came to shove. I’m enlarging the garden I built last year. When Dan came last week, Mama generously sent him up the driveway to see if I needed help. Acceptance was on the tip of my tongue. Then he told me she said, “I don’t think she can do it by herself.” He assured her I could, but he was checking anyway. “Hell, no, I don’t need help” I said.

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13 thoughts on “The Helpers

  1. Gretchen, I do enjoy reading and laughing with you. I am aching to help you in you garden. I miss mine so much.. Wish we had more personal time together. .I have done my share with my own elderly people. I was talking to my nurse yesterday and was telling her that I was beginning to feel guilty about the help I was getting from my neighbors. One gets my mail and another gets the Bookmobile. They seem pleased to do anything for me, but since I have always taken care of everyone else; I now cannot feel comfortable with it. She said that people want to help. It makes them feel good.. I agreed with her to accept help any time it is offered. I am sending you and your Mom pink healing light.

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  2. You really don’t know me, but I read you regularly. My mother was cared for by my oldest brother the last four years of her life…bless his heart. I’ve let him know I appreciated all he did when he really had more than he could handle. You are quite the special person…that is for sure.

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  3. You are an amazing, inspiring, caring friend, my dear Gretchen. I love having you in my life and only wish we lived closer. As someone who’s been through an experience where I was just hanging on by my fingernails at the end — call me, anytime. I understand and I honor that you are, indeed, quite capable, but from my experience, I can tell you, the whole island thing is overrated.

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