Extreme Caregiving 8: Learning to Be Satisfied

The man is in the grassy parking strip again, under the trees in front of the Buddhist monastery, when Elliot and I walk outside to wave a wrenching goodbye to Mommy. The man flows through the slow, rhythmic movements of tai chi as Elliot watches, gulping air as he calms himself from the betrayal of being left, his livid face morphing to sad then curious then delighted in a flash.

He squirms to be put down. We are both still in our pajamas and barefoot, but I lower him to the sidewalk and unlatch the gate. I do a half sun salutation. Elliot puts his hands on the ground in downward facing dog then stands up and toddles down the sidewalk toward the man. He stops, closer, and does another down dog while I watch from the gate.

The man turns his head and smiles at Elliot, then waves. Elliot puts his palms on the sidewalk again in a perfect pose then stands up laughing and claps. The man does his own down dog in the grass—not something I have observed him doing in his usual practice, and with less grace and agility—then stands up and chuckles, his eyes twinkling at Elliot. Elliot claps his hands. The man puts his hands in anjali mudra—prayer position—and bows slightly. Namaste: the light within me honors the light within you.

We interrupted his morning meditation. I thought about discouraging Elliot, but decided not to interfere with their interaction. The man seemed unperturbed, even delighted, as he allowed himself to be satisfied with the direction his morning routine had turned. This is the moment we have, this is what happened in it. We began our day with “Yes.”

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My sister blogger, Karen Maezen Miller—a Zen Buddhist priest, who inspires me and whose posts I have often quoted here—wrote in a recent post, excerpted from her book Momma Zen:Inexhaustible, insatiable desires are the silent subtext to our whole lives, including life as a parent. I want, I want, I want. We spend nearly every minute wanting things to be a little bit different, a little bit better. …Buddha’s teaching: Want little, and know how to be satisfied.”

Mama craves sweets. It is a common characteristic of the old-old, perhaps something to do with fewer and less sensitive taste buds. Mama and I have gone to bakeries and to the Olympia Farmers’ Market where she stands at the case like a child at the candy counter and buys six pastries, unable to choose just one. She makes cookies with her caregiver regularly, constantly minutely adjusting the recipe. She is never satisfied. The bread and the cookies are always too sweet or too something else or not enough something. I have literally never heard her say, “This is delicious.” She pawns the pastries off on me or throws them away, the routine to be repeated another day.

Knowing that what is on the other side of the glass case always looks better to Mama than than it will be in reality is why we stopped taking seriously her “threats” to move to assisted living, knowing the myriad ways it would be a disappointing—even disastrous—option to staying put. It gets my ire up. My sisters and I are trying so hard to make good decisions for her, and sacrificing a good bit of our own lives to do so, but she seems to believe we are thwarting her wishes to move. I know now that her threats, which are becoming less frequent, will pass with whatever the crisis du jour—just as a child bombarded with toys and candy in the checkout line will forget about them as soon as they are out of the store.

Karen Maezen Miller again, on her young child’s desire: “What I saw was that her desires were spontaneous, impermanent, and never-ending. Just because she wanted something now only meant that she wanted something now. Desires change. Satisfaction eludes.”

Each morning when I greet Mama with a cheery “Good morning!” she tells me all that is wrong with the day already. It’s 9:00. I suggest again and again that she consider beginning her day with “yes!” I ask her to tell me one good thing. Sometimes I have to guide her to it:

“Did you get out of bed unassisted?”
“Yes, but I should have gotten up earlier. I thought I would just lie back down and ‘take my exercises,’ but I went back to sleep.”
“I’m glad you were able to get up by yourself. And that you can still exercise!”
Silence.

It’s exhausting. Do I do it for her well-being, or in an attempt to keep myself from being dragged into her chronic dissatisfaction? Maybe it doesn’t matter. I think it’s why she enjoyed the visiting nurses so much: they met her where she was. It’s why I believe family caregiving is not the best idea. Strangers can commiserate in complaints without being pulled in. And then they go home. It seems I have to deflect in order to save myself. But I want to change her outlook from no to yes, to satisfaction with what is. I care, and so I keep trying. I think it’s why family caregiving is the best idea.

it’s been three years this week since I finished packing up my little house in Raleigh in preparation for this sojourn with my mother. I am learning to let go of all that is no more. To stop wanting, wanting, wanting something different than what I have. To be satisfied with this smiling toddler who interrupted morning meditation on this grass under these trees, and so quickly forgot his trauma. To be satisfied with knowing I am the reason Mama can still get out of bed in the morning. To tell myself that when she tells friends, “My children won’t let me move,” that maybe it’s just her own inside out version of “yes,” of gratitude.

Satisfaction is not the equivalent of perfection. Elliot’s most perfect word is “no,” his brow furled, his sweet lips forming a soft “o.” “Yes,” I say gently, “yes.”

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7 thoughts on “Extreme Caregiving 8: Learning to Be Satisfied

  1. Hi Gretchen. It’s been a while since I visited your blog. It seems surreal that those very words of Karen Maezen Miller’s tugged at me,too, but for different reasons…want, want, want…and trying to make things just so. I guess Karen’s wisdom permeates our lives wherever we are.
    Your words- ‘they met her where she was’ will be my guiding light today.
    A lot more ‘yeses’ will birth if I can do this…meet her, him, me, them…where they are- without trying to ‘make anything any different.’
    Thank you for that beautiful description of little Elliot’s morning yoga:)

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  2. Oh yes! You’ve touched my heart again with your words. I love the effort and heart you put into your care giving to both the young and old-old in your life.

    And I love this reminder of the unending tugging between no and yes, especially as I anticipate my adult daughter’s arrival in the next week to come live with me while she looks for work, now that she’s graduated. If we have “yes” as our primary awareness, I think it’s got to be easier to be oriented that way and not get lost as much in “no.” I’ll try to keep focused, so my daughter and I will have lots of opportunities to say yes – together.

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    • I think both the no and the yes are easier when we are in like company. I can focus on yes here, but it’s oh so hard to stay there. It’s much easier in Elliot’s home. I will look forward to hearing how your journey with your daughter goes. I’m rooting for yes!

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