I’m a fixer. I take care of people, places, and things. Just give me a list of what needs to be done, and it’s DONE. Ask me to organize a woman’s tea reception, coordinate and facilitate a training program for a crowd, serve as room mother, bake dozens of cookies for the bake sale, and I’m your girl.
After all, I grew up steeped in the beginnings of the feminist movement. The lyrics to Helen Reddy’s song I Am Woman became my mantra:
I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan,
And never let you forget you’re a man,
Cause I’m a woman, W-O-M-A-N!
An only child, I knew I was the center of my parents’ universe. I was their “little angel,” who recited a Christmas poem in church wearing a pink taffeta dress with crinoline slips, lacy white anklets with pink hearts embroidered on them, and shiny black patent leather shoes. When I was a freshman in college, I met my husband and soon became a wife. Three people thought I was perfect. Three people needed me in various ways. I thrived on exceeding their expectations and praise. They made me believe I could do anything, so I tried to do everything.
This I-can-do-anything attitude carried over into my marriage, motherhood, and career. When something broke, I fixed it. I was the calm in our family storms and the balm when times were hard. Isn’t that what a wife/mother is supposed to be? A Fixer?
Now, I wasn’t playing God. I knew He created the universe—but I firmly believed He needed me to govern my little corner of the world. I was sure He believed in me as much as I believed in myself. After all, I was that little girl wearing the red cape who grew into the woman wearing the red high heels and occupying the corner office.
But time passed. When I was a little girl, I used to amuse my mother by occasionally announcing, “When I’m the mother, and you’re the little girl…”’ Little did we know that we would see our roles reverse. As my parents aged, disease ravaged their minds and bodies. I went into overdrive as the get-it-done daughter. And then, my husband was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme Stage IV brain cancer. We struggled—and I do mean we struggled—with this dreaded disease for seven years before cancer claimed Roy. The three most important people in my life needed increasingly more help–simultaneously.
Caregiving became my sole mission in life.
My TO-DO LIST became:
- Keeping accurate medical records.
- Scheduling prescriptions and treatments.
- Making sure fresh air and exercise were part of their daily routines.
- Cooking nutritious meals (along with the occasional sweet treats Momma loved).
- Creating a safe, comfortable place where they could live.
- Finding laughter around every corner. (Daddy loved watching the neighborhood cat drink from the birdbath, for instance.)
As Alzheimer’s disease claimed more and more of my father, his world became smaller and smaller. Music was the one trigger that could bring him back to us. Momma would sit at the piano, tickle those ivories, and make that piano sing! Hearing her play the piano, Daddy’s posture straightened, his beautiful blue eyes twinkled, and the three of us sang, smiling and beaming. Amazing Grace was one of his favorite songs.
What I wouldn’t do to have one of those moments again!
My parents made caring for them easier than most parents in that situation. As Mom and Dad accepted my help and directions, I often thought about the times I had said to her, “Momma, when I’m the Momma, you’ll be the little girl.” Those words had come true. I tried my best to smooth their paths, brighten their days, and anticipate their needs while my husband mightily struggled against his scary diagnosis. I used the same To-Do list for him. I worked hard to smooth his path, brighten his remaining days, and anticipate his needs.
I never regarded caregiving as a burden. I was just returning the gifts of love and time they had lavished on me in bygone years. But I’m not exaggerating when I confess that I found life very challenging as I juggled the demands of a growing family, a working farm, church, and career responsibilities on top of those commitments.
For decades, I found no time for myself—a fact I didn’t realize until much later.
I mourned as I watched my oh-so-dear family members fade away as they fought very different battles. Whatever I could do for them just wasn’t enough. When I lost my cheerleaders and champions, I had to ask myself a question I had never asked before: What do I do now?
The silence in my home was deafening. The loneliness was unbearable. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the face that stared back at me. The little girl who thought she could fix everything had discovered that she couldn’t fix the most important things–-and people—in her life. After my lifelong efforts as the doer extraordinaire, I was left exhausted, limp, empty, a woman wandering and wondering how to live my life with, and for, myself alone.
Memories are precious, but memories focus on the past. Although friends and family members stepped in to help, I needed to discover how to face the future alone. I remembered the TO-DO LIST I created for my husband and parents. This time I had to put it into practice for me:
- Maintain my good health by eating nutritious meals. (Momma would approve of a little dark chocolate occasionally!)
- Monitor MY health by scheduling physical exams and follow-up treatments.
- Exercise and stretch daily. (I learned to play pickleball!)
- Create a safe and comfortable place where I can blossom.
- Find humor throughout the day (even if it means grimacing at the wrinkles—and referring to them as “laugh lines”).
- Journal my thoughts and feelings.
Yes, I am a caregiver and cheerleader by nature, but at long last, I finally realized that caregivers also need care—and they’re not being selfish when they prioritize themselves for a change.
I grieved—and still grieve, but one day I realized that the sun still shines and spring air indeed feels fresh and hopeful. Once again, I feel grateful when I awake each day. Although I have more years behind me than in front of me, I again look forward to what lies ahead. Small moments bring great joy: when I lie on the soft grass with a grandchild as we contemplate the clouds overhead or stare out my kitchen window at new-fallen snow. I’ve learned to give myself the grace and compassion I once reserved for others, not myself.
And so, my friend, be good to yourself. Eat right, sleep well, smile often, and enjoy a sense of gratitude—and I look forward to becoming better acquainted with you!