Well wow, it’s been so long! Sorry I haven’t been writing, folks. As you will momentarily be reading, I have been at my grandmother’s since late December caring for her while she recovers from colon cancer. It has been a real roller-coaster ride, and seems finally to be at an end. With some great timing, I learned that my application for a Work and Holiday visa was approved yesterday, so I will in fact be heading back to Oz sometime soon! Anyway, this is something I’ve been working on for a while as a reflection on my time as a care giver. Finished it last night. Enjoy and share, please.
While I was on the phone with my mom the other day, I came up with a perfect analogy for time spent with my Grandma. It’s like a game of mine-sweeper. You never know when you’re going to hit a bomb, but then again, sometimes you get lucky.
The last week with Grandma has been mostly uneventful, but I am acutely aware that it has been exactly a week since her last major outburst, making us due for one at any moment. It’s difficult living this way, not knowing when her gentle sweetness will suddenly turn to irrational wrath. It grows anxiety inside of me as a knot in my stomach or a fluttering heart, and I know it isn’t healthy.
In my best moments I find ways around this anxiety by turning my attention elsewhere, exercising, or using conscious breathing to calm my nerves. But unfortunately these are false cures because, as we all know, it’s only a matter of time before she erupts again. And when she does, my cycle of shock, anger, resentment, resigned duty, and suspicious optimism will begin anew.
Caring for an aging grandparent with a history of erratically abusive behavior presents so many challenges and paradoxes. The first is the question why? Why give my love, time, and patience to someone who has acted so cruelly through the years?
I was fortunate with this one. I had the opportunity recently to spend quite a bit of time with my grandmother, during which I was able to see her in a new light. The tough, caustic exterior that I’d known all my life made fewer appearances than usual, and several times during brief, middle-of-the-night conversations, I saw a vulnerable, forlorn, and troubled self-awareness that I’d never known to exist in her. My compassion and empathy for what I see as a life-long inner struggle was awakened, and I felt bonded with her enough to want to reach out and care for her when she needed someone.
The second paradox is how to give care to someone even as they are pummeling you with verbal abuse, and even as you are aware of their level of dependence on you. Clearly infirmity or age is no justification for cruelty, and the only real response is to remove yourself from the line of fire as quickly and un-dramatically as possible. But when the petulance descends at 5:00, and it’s your responsibility to provide dinner at 6:00, what do you do? The little angel and devil sit on my shoulders. One urges me to show equal compassion to myself by leaving. The other injects me with guilt and fear over neglecting my duties.
And although the culture around care-giving is now sophisticated enough to recognize the potential for damaging ferocity in the frailest of little old ladies, even so, one asks oneself: “Shouldn’t I be able to rise above this?” Paradox three, similar to number two but distinct: How is it that someone with so few faculties at her disposal can so efficiently inflict emotional harm?
Again, I was lucky on this count. I did not grow up with this woman harping and haranguing me, pulling my hair, screaming, blaming, shaming me. When she screams at me that I am a terrible care-giver, that I’m lazy and irresponsible, I know it’s not true and it does not strike a painful chord within me.
What gets to me is knowing how SELF-destructive her behavior is, that by pushing me away, she is quashing her own blessings and opportunities. This time, an angel sits on each shoulder. One sadly points out that appeasing her will only encourage her virulence, tells me to give tough love, to leave if I need to. The other one takes pity on her, tells me to walk away if I have to, but to come back when I can and try to forgive. I try to keep a balance of both, and I cautiously report that so far her mood swings seem to be lessening.
The last, and in some ways the most challenging contradiction is the depth of love and admiration I have developed for someone who can so easily turn from a determined and adoring elder into a temperamental and vicious tyrant. On a daily basis, I am awed at the iron grip she keeps on a lifetime of duties and standards, be it spending a full 30 seconds to bend over to pick up the tiny scrap of paper marring an otherwise clean floor, or the holiday letter she sends out annually to over 100 people that she’s befriended over the years.
I watch her slowly go through the process of bathing, dressing, and drying her hair without a thought to asking for help so long as she is physically capable of doing it herself. Daily tasks that for most of us takes less than five minutes is a project for her. She may yell at you for helping her with her jacket incorrectly, or grouse about her extremely poor memory, but she never, ever whines.
How easy it is to grow frustrated at the pace of the elders in our care, to chastise them for the vices that hamper their health or recovery. The truth is, they’re as human as we are, and have faults just like we do. I try to admire my grandmother’s strengths, and understand her weaknesses, knowing that when I’m her age, it’ll be just as hard for me to tear myself away from my computer.
There is a bitter-sweetness to these feelings because my grandmother also happens to be a punishingly demanding and critical person. It’s hard to feel compassion and respect for someone who is so selfish and cruel. In the end, I guess it’s my own selfish desire for a good feeling inside that allows me to overlook her unforgivably harsh behavior. This has been a life-changing experience for me, one that has taught me so much, and one that I will always value and remember. I want to hold on to that.