August 28, 2009
Caring for an aging parent
Early on the morning of May 30 this year, my mother had a stroke. She was alone at her home in France. I was in Vancouver with my family. My brothers were in New York and Hong Kong. By the time I heard about her stroke, she was in hospital, unable to move her left side and slurring her speech.
That Saturday passed in a surreal blur that felt much longer than 24 hours. I was supposed to be going to Calgary the following day with our two-year-old son, Benjamin, but by Sunday morning, I had cancelled our flight and booked a trip to Nice instead.
Benjamin and I arrived at my mother's home on Monday evening. My brother had already arrived from Hong Kong. We visited our mother in hospital for a week, after which my brother returned home. My mother's sister also visited for several days, but she also left on the Sunday. Benjamin and I then spent six weeks in France, visiting Mum at the rehabilitation clinic and doing our best to make a home away from home. My husband arrived in mid-July.
Mum started making progress as soon as she moved to the clinic. The exercise sessions had a wonderful effect on both her mobility and her morale. The food was good but, of course, I still brought my own care packages. She had to have homemade meatballs, right? She had to have fresh fruit and home-made baked goods! I knew I was fussing, but I couldn't help myself. Had it not been 30 degrees outside, I'd have brought her chicken soup as well.
Our situation was complicated and I felt guilty. I was distracted and preoccupied with Benjamin. I felt like a negligent – or, at best, over-stretched mother, dragging him to and fro on visits and errands, on the phone to insurance agents, car dealerships, electricians and appliance service centres, instead of reading books, painting pictures, cooking with him or playing with his cars. At home, I craved downtime to write, paint or try to call home. I felt as though I was doing a horrible job.
And yes, I felt like a big cliché: the Jewish daughter trying to care for a parent and raise a child, wracked with guilt, blah, blah, blah. But, it turned out that I wasn't alone in my guilt. In the fourth week, Mum said she felt bad because she was supposed to be looking after me. She had planned to come and see us, had wanted to give me a break, had meant to take care of Benjamin and let me catch up on some writing. Instead, our roles were reversed dramatically and suddenly. She felt that she had let me down. In short, she felt guilty too.
How was I to work through my feelings? How can a child ever reciprocate the love and attention a mother like mine has given me – especially while raising children of our own as well? How could I ever do as much for my mother as she did for us, taking an active interest in every part of our education, social lives and athletic pursuits?
But, of course, I am not responsible for my mother's education or social life. Adult children bear a different kind of responsibility towards their aging or ill parents, but it's a heavy one and it sits awkwardly with all of us. We feel we can't do enough and, at the same time, our parents worry that they are depriving us of our home lives, routines and friends. It is hard for parents to let us take care of them for a change without feeling that something is profoundly wrong. So what is the answer?
So far, I think that adult children cannot reciprocate exactly. Our parents gave us what they could and we, in turn, offer whatever we can. In this case, it means moral support and encouragement during times of illness and hardship, showing them that we have the same confidence and trust in them that they had in us, when we were small; the understanding that whatever a person may lose – physical ability, good health – they are always entitled to self-respect. This was my mother's guiding philosophy as a parent, and it is – I believe – the greatest thing I can give her now. If there is anything I can do to promote her sense of independence, anything I can do to help her maintain her dignity, I'm going to do it. Just as she worked tirelessly to help me develop my sense of self, I will try my utmost to return her to herself. I don't know if this capacity is within me but I certainly hope to find it.
And perhaps – just perhaps – if she will let me try, we will both feel a little less guilty.
Shula Klinger is an author-illustrator in Richmond, B.C. Her young adult novel, The Kingdom of Strange, was published in 2008 by Marshall Cavendish.