Priorities

I have been, effectively, silent for the month of October due to a family emergency. My mother, in her mid-sixties, was hit by a car while she was crossing the street. She survived with relatively minor injuries, though was left with such severe bruising and pain she could not get in or out of bed or even a chair without help during the immediate aftermath. Without paying clients at the time of the accident I packed a bag and made way for her rural town. It is what you do when your parents need help.

In the end I stayed for two weeks of 24-hour caregiving. During that time Mom learned how to get in and out of a chair, as well as her bed, without help. She received visits from concerned friends and neighbors. She drank a lot of chamomile tea and took prescribed opiates in an attempt to manage the pain. She even got to go out for coffee at her favorite coffee shop on several occasions. Though she rested a lot she did not sleep much due to the pain.

I could only sleep as long as Mom’s pain medications allowed her to sleep, though usually I went to bed several hours after I helped Mom get into bed. During that time I cleaned the kitchen one last time for the day; tidied up any newspapers, receipts, mail and gifts that arrived during the day; made sure any laundry that had been started during the day was finished and folded; prepared tea that would be luke warm by the time Mom was ready to drink it with her medication at night (she was so bruised the steam made her gag); and prepped the area around her chair where drank her coffee in the morning so she could skim magazines, work through the previous night’s sodoku, and write in her pain journal. After that I did my best to work through my messages that had come in during the day, until it was time to help Mom get up so she could use the toilet, take more drugs and, with any luck, go back to sleep.

Occasionally Mom would ask, “Did you get done what you needed to do today?” Each time I answered, “My job today was to make sure you got in and out of the shower safely, help you get dressed and make sure you had clean clothes to wear, make sure you had ample good food when you were hungry, make sure you were able to take your pain medications, pick up your mail, and make sure you got to go out to the coffee shop. Did we get through all those things today? Then I think we got everything done.”

I was so exhausted that when Mom finally did begin sleeping longer than an hour and a half at a stretch I slept through her calls for help one night. Once in a while Mom would remind me that the caregiver needs to take care of herself. Since I knew it would be a short-term arrangement each time I thought to myself, “later.”

Later is here. For more than a week after I returned I was completely useless from the exhaustion. It took still another week to try to sort through the mess that grew in my office and in my home. I am still trying to get caught up on past due commitments for the two organizations I steward and other volunteer projects so that I can turn my attention to generating business and continuing and completing writing projects. I gladly accept the lingering disorganization and recovery as simply part of the job. The minor inconvenience to me pales in comparison to the disruption my mother experienced.

One of the things I do to take care of myself is write. During those weeks with my mother I had no time to write. Sometimes I sat in bed at night jotting notes and thoughts while I waited for Mom to wake up in pain. Though not as satisfying as a long stretch of quiet time to complete thoughts and solve problems, it was good enough.

I made a lot of notes about my aunt and her husband in my late night jotting. I learned from them that when parents need help the children need to be available to take care of them. That is just what families do for one another.

When my grandparents needed help as they aged, my aunt and uncle supported them as best they were able. My uncle, who was in his seventies at that time, was retired. He took it upon himself to visit them every day. He made sure my grandparents were safe in their home, took them to doctor appointments when he could help them understand they needed a doctor’s care, took care of their grocery shopping, helped them pay their bills, brought them dinner, washed their dishes, helped Grandma with the laundry, mowed the lawn, took care of minor maintenance issues around the house, and arranged for a crew to take care of the larger maintenance issues that had to be addressed. He must have been exhausted.

With such intensive caregiving there were a number of chores and deferred maintenance issues that one man could not take care of on his own. In many cases, my grandparents insisted the project or chore did not need to get done, or that they would take care of it themselves despite their abilities, or that whatever needed replacing really did not need to be replaced.

The most important thing my uncle did for my grandparents was just sit with them every day and drink coffee. He listened, they all told stories, and they had a good time. My uncle became my grandparents’ best friend.

Other family members came to provide occasional respite and help with bigger work projects that required a crew during the four years that my uncle championed the day-to-day needs of my grandparents and helped them live as they wanted to live. During periods of respite he and my aunt were able to take occasional vacations, and attend to their own needs. By and large my aunt and uncle lived their lives in a way that allowed them to prioritize my grandparents’ needs.

So following the model set by my aunt and uncle, during the weeks with my mother I made gallons of tea, cooked a neighborhood worth of meals and baked goods, ensured Mom was safely bathed and dressed until she could do it on her own, and interrupted every task (even sleep at night) to replace ice packs and heating pads, and to administer drugs. In demonstrating his love, respect, and loyalty to my grandparents, my uncle showed me what it means to prioritize family.

Now, these weeks later, I have time to prioritize my own care. I am rested and ready to write.

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