The wise, old, spiritual teacher Ram Dass says, "We're all just walking each other home." That's how I feel about my role as a caregiver. I'm just walking my mother home.
Mom is about eight years into her Alzheimer's journey now and along the way we have discovered many gifts and blessings:
The Blessing of Selective Memory. Remarkably, Alzheimer's erased all my mother's unhappy memories, resentments, and long-held grudges. When I ask, "Remember your sister Eloise?" she nods and answers, "Oh yes, she's as sharp as a tack." She's completely forgotten that she and her sister didn't speak for decades - both women nursing grudges held since childhood.
When I ask about Dad: "How about my dad, Ken Gallagher? Remember him?" "Oh yes," she smiles. "We traveled all over the world. We met the queen!" Gone are the bitter memories of their divorce 40 years ago, with the ugly, protracted legal and financial battle they waged. I heard her complain about that divorce for at least three decades - but now, not a hint of resentment.
Today Mom has nary a bad word to say about anyone - her ex, her siblings, her parents, or neighbors and friends who hurt her feelings. What a blessing to have all those unhappy memories, old resentments, and negative feelings completely wiped away - leaving only warm, happy, joyful memories in their place.
The Gift of Laughter. I don't recall my mother being particularly funny before she got sick - but she's sure funny now. One day last week, I arrived to feed her lunch and asked, "Hi Ma, how do you feel?" "With my hands," she said.
A couple weeks ago, I picked up her glass of juice and put the drinking straw in her mouth. But instead of sucking on the straw, she blew into it, making the juice bubble over all over the place. I shrieked "Ack!" in surprise ... and she laughed so hard she had tears rolling down her cheeks. My mother, the prankster.
Sometimes she'll get really quiet, leading me to think she's drifted off into her own world. Then suddenly she'll say, "Boo!" If she succeeds in starling me she flashes a big grin - quite pleased with herself for shaking things up.
My mother, it seems, has become quite a character!
The Blessing of Giving Back. Mom's illness gave me the opportunity to reciprocate the love and generous support she's given me. She's always been my biggest fan, my best cheerleader, and the source of financial help on more than one occasion. I wouldn't be a writer today if it weren't for my mother's help. I wouldn't own a house today if not for her. Up until now, I have had no way to pay her back for all the help she gave me.
But I can be there for her today. I can be her companion, her witness, her comforter and soother. At long last, I have a way to reciprocate her generosity, support, and unconditional love.
The Gift of Time. When a loved one dies suddenly and unexpectedly, there is no time to say good-bye, no time to create a few final memories. But with the glacial pace at which Alzheimer's moves, I've had several years to create more wonderful memories of Mom.
Just yesterday, the hospice nurse Miriam came to check on Mom at lunch time. "How come you smiled at Miriam when she came today but you didn't smile at me?" I asked. "I smile at you all the time," she replied. That will be a sweet memory when she's gone.
And last week while we were sitting quietly at the table after lunch, she looked at me and puckered her lips to blow me an air kiss. "My love," she said softly. My heart feels like it will burst open overflowing with love when she does things like that.
The Gift of Enrichment. Being my mother's caregiver is making me a better person. Her disease has given me the opportunity to be of service, setting aside my own selfish desires. I can practice being fully present - listening attentively, discerning her wants and needs from moment to moment, and tending to those needs. I hold her hands, rub her back, feed her lunch, keep her company until she gets tired, then sit by her bed until she falls asleep. Every day I leave my world to meet her in hers.
The Gift of Grace. My mother seems to be living in a state of grace. All the baggage from her past, all the minutiae of normal day to day life, all the layers of her identity have fallen away ... and what's left is love. When I'm with her I feel I'm in the presence of nothing but pure love.
I feel blessed to have this opportunity care for Mom. Alzheimer's has been difficult and challenging at times, for sure, but it has also given me many gifts and blessings. I am enriched by the experience.
Ram Dass is right. I'm just walking my mother home.