The caregiver’s mantra: doing the best I can

If one more person tells me to be sure to take care of myself, I’m going to bury my face in a pillow and scream.

“Go for a walk, take a vacation,” they advise. I know they’re trying to help, but really? Giving me one more thing to do? Oh well, they’re just doing the best they can.

I moved my folks across the country, from Florida to Washington State, and into an apartment near me so that I could care for them in what seemed to be their final months. My brother, who’d been looking after them, was leaving to get married, and we didn’t think they were safe on their own.

They’d always been fiercely independent, but at almost eighty, with minimal financial or supportive resources, they were struggling with declining health. My father had suddenly lost most of his eyesight and suffered from serious cardiac conditions; my mother was bedridden due to deteriorating joints and alcohol abuse.

Having just retired, I thought that a few months of managing their medical and household needs was better than flying from Washington to Florida for every crisis.

That was ten years ago.

After the move, they rebounded, relieved of the stress of negotiating the twists and turns of aging by themselves. They feel independent, and I can be there in two minutes flat for any emergency. We add and subtract care as needed, with nurses, physical therapists, home-care aides, Meals on Wheels and housekeepers ebbing and flowing in sync with medical crises. None of us ever imagined any of this, but day by day we keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that we’re each doing the best we can.

As my parents approach ninety, I know that my caregiving days are numbered and that the number is a secret only to be revealed in a last breath. I’m not going to miss a minute, or let the number be determined by my lack of attention. I’m willingly on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My phone goes everywhere but in the shower; then it sits within earshot, on the bathroom counter. I barely travel outside of my zip code. I check wounds, change lightbulbs, evaluate skin color for circulation and organize pills. Doing the best I can.

My parents smile whenever they see me, but their smiles are tentative, weighed down by their dread of burdening me. There’s always a to-do list — pills, bills, groceries, appointments — and I’m the main tool in the toolbox. There are nurses, bath helpers and every kind of aid to preserve their independence, but I’m the foreman. I can never let them know that I sometimes feel I’m crumbling under the weight of this; it would crush them.

I’m buoyed by their spirit and gratitude. Who knew that, at age sixty, I would flat-out love them? At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to get away and spread my rebellious wings. At thirty, I established a minimal equation of visits plus phone calls that seemed to equal a reasonable relationship across our 3,000-mile geographic divide and the emotional barriers of our opposing politics and my mother’s alcoholism. I’m so glad that when duty called I answered, just as I’d seen my parents do when anyone else was in need.

We’ve each put our best selves into the ring (which includes my mother’s not drinking at all) and battled the ravages of aging together. Now, I genuinely enjoy their company and am grateful for ten years of seeing them through my adult eyes.

Still — why does my mother wait until midnight to call and tell me that Dad’s leg is bleeding, when it started bleeding at 3:00 p.m. after he bumped into the end table? Now he and I have to go to the ER, instead of to the doctor.

My voice stays in the calm fake-nurse mode as I say, “I’ll be right there.”

I know they’d hoped that they wouldn’t have to involve me, I tell myself. They’re doing the best they can. And everything is scarier at midnight.

“I’m sorry,” the ER nurse says. “I’m afraid you’ll have a long wait.”

I’d like to protest, but she’s doing the best she can. We sit in the only available chairs, next to a young mother and a wailing baby.

She’s too young to know how to care for a baby, I think, poised to be critical. But she coos and rocks him with such tenderness; she’s doing the best she can.

The tired-looking older man sitting next to her puts his arm around her shoulders and takes the baby’s hand.

Probably her father, I think. He’s a master of doing the best he can. There’s a good chance that he’s also taking care of his parents; no wonder they call us the sandwich generation.

“It’s nice and warm in here,” my father says. There’s not much good to be said, but he finds something. I wrap more gauze around his leg to soak up the blood.

After a doctor creates a labyrinth of stitches and bandages to lace together Dad’s gossamer skin, we return to a kitchen fragrant with warm gingersnaps, my father’s favorite. Mom has relied on her chief coping mechanism, baking, to calm her nerves and pass the time. She does it for herself, for Dad and for me. She’s teaching me by example how to navigate through stressful times — always being the parent, always doing the best she can.

Dad gives her a glowing report of the hospital, concluding, “We’re lucky to have such good medical facilities nearby.”

I’m not feeling particularly lucky, but I remind myself to value this time with them–to save it in my heart to use later, when I need comfort. I know that I’m lucky to still have both my parents at their ripe age.

Really, the good luck is that this Greatest Generation faced war, economic collapse, drought and disease with fortitude and faith. They’re my generation’s role models for doing the best we can.

As I care for my parents, I understand more deeply the magnitude of the obstacles they’ve faced through the decades, and I respect how they hurdle each new challenge. I realize that I’m resilient because they pasted on smiles and were grateful for postwar factory jobs and a VA shoebox home. They met the future with courage and accepted their fate with grace. Even when that fate is dire, they still do — living and dying as best they can.

Caring for them is my reward for doing the best I can.

Patricia Williams is the author of While They’re Still Here: A Memoir.This piece was originally published in Pulse — voices from the heart of medicine

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